Provocation or Freedom of Expression

10/03/2012 02:54 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2012

"You won't know the love (of God) until and unless the 'you' in you becomes the 'us' in us all." - Rumi

Like golden rules there are golden values, principles, and rights that civil societies cherish and hold in high esteem -- regardless of whether we root them in scriptures as the words of God or enshrine them in constitutions as the words of 'man' or attribute other cultural significance to them. Cultures differ in the ways they rank and prioritize their values, but they share many of the same values that include the freedoms of expression and of worship.

True respect for universal values can be achieved only when we can balance entitlement to the exercise of our freedoms with respect for the sanctified values of others. When we cross the bounds of our freedoms, it becomes anarchy; when we expect people of other cultures to prioritize their values based on our norms, we are patronizing them subconsciously.

With a balanced perspective, we can respect our religious values and still maintain a high standard for our freedoms so long as our freedoms do not adversely affect the freedoms and values of others. One doesn't have to lose the right to worship in a certain way in order to keep the right of free expression.

It's a given that in times of conflict we exaggerate differences to suggest our cultural supremacy, while in times of harmony we emphasize the many fraternal similarities. In the past we've victimized segments of our own society through racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism. While we now repudiate all that as taboo, we can only conclude that some of what we consider our First Amendment rights today will become taboo tomorrow.

The long-drawn conflict between church and state in the West has in some instances created the impression that holding a certain belief and having certain freedoms is a zero-sum game. In the minds of some the perceived contradictions in proclaiming these rights makes it a case of an either/or whereas in non-Western(ized) societies the prevalent notion is one of both/and.

Then there are self-centered xenophobes on both sides of the divide who build on these skewed notions. They are bent on provoking the other side because they don't understand or appreciate cultural values that are different from their own. A case in point is the recent video depicting the Prophet Mohammad in a rude and disrespectful way. When Muslim leaders requested Google withdraw the YouTube video to calm down protests and social unrest in the Muslim world, Google cited the First Amendment.

The point being missed in the rift of this cultural divide is that we automatically assume equivalency of values between different cultural sanctities just because we apply the same 'word' to them. Religious symbols and personalities in a secular Western society do not carry the same weight as religious personalities and symbols in a theocentric Muslim society. More modern societies may accord worshiping status to the royals, athletes, celebrities or fashion models.

In what appeared as a concerted effort in the West to not only ignore the concerns of the Muslim culture, but in fact, to infuriate them even further, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, playing off the controversial film, published cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad. Soon after that the American Freedom Defense Initiative placed ads in the New York City Subway stations insinuating Muslims as savages. The ads read: "In any war between civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."

Even though religious extremists of this ilk have recently been exposed by a Muslim Public Affairs Council publication titled, "Not Qualified: Exposing the Deception Behind America's Top 25 Pseudo Experts on Islam" even in this bad economy they manage to garner 42 million dollar to instigate hatred.

Western courtrooms heightened the tension of this cross-cultural drama further. While one French court fined Closer magazine and banned it from any further publication or resale of topless pictures of Prince William's wife Catherine, another treated the offensive cartoon case a matter of the freedom of expression even if (or especially as) it offended 1.5 billion Muslims who hold Prophet Mohammad in exceptionally high esteem. A New York federal court followed suit allowing the provocative Subway stations ad to continue.

In an impending sense of déjà vu, we recall the Islamophobic pastor Terry Jones public Qur'an burning on the occasion of the Afghan New Year, March 20, 2011, resulting in riots that killed nearly a dozen people including U.N. employees and injuring 90. In a virtual repeat of that incidence a link of the video, dubbed in Arabic, is sent to reporters in the U.S. and Egypt on September 6 along with an email message promoting a September 11 event by Terry Jones that includes a link to the trailer. Both incidences were the equivalent of "shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theater" as they were planned to incite people in events that draw large crowds.

By all indications there was the intent to harm life and property according to Anthony Lewis an authority on First Amendment "If the result is violence, and that violence was intended, then it [the video distribution] meets the standard (of imminent violence)." The case is further supported by witness testimony by Steve Klein, an Islamophobe who claims to have helped with the film, telling Al Jazeera television that it was "supposed to be provocative."

Fanaticism should not be defined through cultural stereotypes, but instead through their acts and deeds. The launching of the New York City Subway stations ad during the holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between faith communities in America. This is an anathema to the efforts of the interfaith organizations across America who are hard at work weaving the fabric of religious harmony from the strands of our cultural diversity.

It is one thing for a layperson to have no regard for the values of another; it is quite another when those at the helm of our legal and political system act with such disregard and indifference. Laws are made to serve people, not the other way around. Laws are certainly not made to serve those whose slant perspective can skew reality; instead they are made to allow those with clear vision to turn the dream of peace and harmony in the far horizon into a reality in the here and now.