The heated discussions about Jamal Khashoggi’s life and death have exposed several deep differences between our region and the US. An important issue underlying some of the debates is how the two sides look at freedom of expression. While in the US it is sacrosanct — an absolute right for the people — there is no such consensus in the Middle East. Authorities routinely impose restrictions on free expression and apply severe penalties for transgressions. Political groups frequently advocate restrictions on their opponents’ free expression, while demanding state support for their own.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s official condemnation of Khashoggi’s murder, you will find in online discussions detractors who oppose his politics or what they think were his politics, implying that it was right to silence him. There is rarely a discussion of his right to express his views regardless of whether one agreed with them or not. The debate is rarely content neutral, but depends very much on what one thinks of those views.
By contrast, in the US freedom of speech is taken for granted and there is no debate on whether someone has the right to express their views or whether they can be silenced by force. This is a main feature of American culture that goes back to the early days of the republic, as I discovered when I went to the US to study in the 1970s.
On campus, opposing groups competed for the hearts and minds of students to win them over to their particular political, religious, cultural or social agendas.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
It would be an understatement to say that I experienced a tremendous culture shock. I was especially amazed by how Americans exercised freedom of expression. On campus, opposing groups competed for the hearts and minds of students to win them over to their particular political, religious, cultural or social agendas. There were no holds barred in those discussions and no topic was off limits.
I arrived in the US in January 1976, while America was still dealing with the aftermath of Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s resignation. It was the middle of the political campaign: The Republican President Gerry Ford was trying to win the election by distancing himself from the scandal, while Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter was capitalizing on popular disillusionment due to Watergate and the Vietnam War. However, it was not the Republican-Democratic competition that shocked me, but the more radical groups. There were Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyites and other socialist and communist derivatives. On the right, there were extremists of every variety. As my university campus was located only 30 miles away from a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, it made frequent forays into our college town to register its obnoxious views. Not far away from our campus, neo-Nazis were also allowed to spread their hate.
I was surprised that all those fringe groups were “allowed” to speak out. I was flabbergasted when I saw that the city provided them protection to enable them to do so. The police sometimes accompanied them and even closed the streets to traffic so that they could march and express their views.
In 1977, there was another shock for me. In nearby Illinois, a neo-Nazi group sought to march in the town of Skokie, near Chicago, where a majority of residents were Jewish, many of whom Holocaust survivors. The town enacted an ordinance to prevent the group from marching, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — the largest human rights group in the US — went to court defending their right to march, and they won the case. The head of the ACLU at the time was Aryeh Neier, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, who later wrote his masterpiece “Defending My Enemy” to explain the principles behind his decision to defend the odious group’s right to free expression.
As one of my professors guided me through my culture shock, I discovered the roots of this tradition, which is probably America’s most significant contribution to human rights. James Madison, a founding father who later became the fourth US president, is believed to be the principal author of the Bill of Rights who most articulated the principle of freedom of speech with the interventions he made during the formative debates of the US Constitution. Many of the early European settlers were themselves refugees fleeing persecution and Madison sought to enshrine in the constitution provisions to “keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries,” as he put it.
In one of his best-known interventions, which was later included in the Bill of Rights, Madison said: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”
It was clear, even in those early days, that the Americans sought to protect all speech, including hateful and disagreeable ideas. The protection was “content neutral,” regardless of what one thinks of those ideas.
By huge contrast, throughout the Middle East there is no such sanctity for speech per se. It all depends on the content: If you agree with it, then it is worth protecting. If you do not, then you have the right to restrict it. Some have argued that there is even an obligation to restrict and punish “bad” thought and expression.
To settle this issue, it appears as if we need to have a profound, soul-searching debate, similar to those that America has had in the 18th century and since about the merits of protecting speech. There is no telling what the outcome of such a debate would be.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1