America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Censorship in Context

The following is a post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Anina Tweed.  Anina is currently volunteering in Bangladesh during the summer of 2012. To find an amazing volunteer opportunity, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today.

Sometimes the biggest challenge of a tutoring session is to put my own beliefs and cultural perspectives aside in order to help a student develop and support an argument that I may not necessarily agree with. Recently, a flood of students have come into the writing center for help with a paper on censorship. The prompt presents a hypothetical situation in which a student published a piece claiming that Bangladesh should still be a part of Pakistan in the student newsletter. The prompt then asks the students whether the university should censor this student, why or why not?
My particular student was a Bengali girl who believed strongly that the student should be censored because her words could be so inflammatory that they would provoke violence, thus disrupting the learning environment. As I read through her paper, her evidence and examples began to equate the student voicing her political views to cases of hate speech and fighting words in the US. I began to feel uncomfortable. To most Americans, racist remarks and direct attacks are often unacceptable. But these instances of libel and defamation are considered to be an offense separate from voicing one’s political views. To us, every person has a right to voice their political view without censorship, it is not seen as a personal attack. Indeed, any person that would violently attack an individual because of their offbeat or unpopular political views is seen as in the wrong, not the other way around.

As I tried to play devil’s advocate and explain these differences to my student, we had an interesting debate. I tried to articulate my thoughts;”but can you see how hate speech might be different than voicing a political view? Hate speech attacks someone personally an account of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation whereas a person’s political views may not affect you or attack you directly.” Her response stunned me: “But ma’am, the independence of Bangladesh is personal. My family and people fought so hard for this country and gave so much up. We shed so much blood. To live under Pakistan would mean living under another political system and governance, it would mean having to speak their language and follow their laws. It would be personal. This is my identity.” I was stunned. She was right. To Bengals, whose intense and bloody fight for independence is still so fresh in their memories, the politics is personal. There is nothing more personal to them than their independence, country and national identity. And nothing that could be more offensive than attacking or denying that right that they have earned.

This realization in cultural differences in the way we define our identity and, therefore, in what we see as worthy of censorship or violence is particularly relevant in the context of the recent reactions to an anti-Islamic film posted on Youtube. This film, as I’m sure you’ve heard, depicted the Prophet Muhammad in an offensive way and has ignited violence and protest in Muslim countries around the world. Bangladesh has blocked Youtube in an effort to censor the volatile video and called upon the US government to apologize and remove the video. Many protests involving the burning of an effigy of Obama have occurred in Dhaka, the capitol city. My initial reaction to the protests was one of anger. Why would these protestors attack America and its diplomats and leaders when they weren’t even the ones to make the movie? While I still feel that violence is not a proper response and that the reaction to the film has been disproportionate and unproductive, I now realize that we as Americans have no real framework from which to really understand the protests.

In America, we compartmentalize our many identities. We can separate our religious, political, ethnic, national and gender identities and we can conceive of them in any imaginable combination. As a result, we don’t take any one of them quite as personally, or at least, we don’t believe that an attack against our religion as a whole is an attack against us personally. We, above all, do not react violently and do not believe it is our place to censor the opinions of others (for the most part…or at least in theory). We especially do not believe that the government has any right to step in when it comes to people’s personal views. Our freedom of speech is prized above all and we realize that this includes having to tolerate some pretty ugly/offensive opinions. However in many Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, religious identities are definitive. Just as this student described how seminal her national identity as a Bengali was, many people consider their religious identities to be inextricably tied to who they are as a person. They do not see an attack on their religion as separate from an attack on them. Religion is such an important part of their lives, it is who they are and it strikes at their core. Because of this, violent reactions to protect one’s faith and one’s identity are not seen as over the top or displaced forms of anger. It is absolutely the government’s responsibility to keep the peace by restricting speech that may offend these core beliefs. Free speech is not valued enough to allow for a plurality of opinions if such opinions will disrespect the majority’s religious beliefs and national identity. In the view of the many Muslim protestors, it is the responsibility of the state to censor such views, and therefore America is to blame for not pursuing efforts to block the video and punish the creators. Just as our belief in free speech prohibits us from understanding why the protestors’ actions target America, so too does their belief in the government’s responsibility to keep the peace and censor unpopular views prohibit them from understanding why America wouldn’t do so.

I’m not saying I now believe that the violence as a reaction to this video is justified or that limiting free speech is right. In the past couple of days, a rash of violence broke out in the southern Chittagong/Cox’s Bazaar district against the Buddhist population because an offensive picture of the Prophet posted on Facebook – linked to a young Buddhist man. Angry Muslim citizens burned down Buddhist owned businesses and Buddhist families’ houses in a violent effort to “protect” their religion and the image of the Prophet. This over-generalization, homogenization and “othering” of an entire population based on the actions of a few is never justified and never right. Protestors can not attack all Americans because a few decided to publish material offensive to their religion. The flip side of this, however, is that we as Americans must also remember not to attack, ridicule, hate or dismiss as inherently violent, all Muslims based on the actions of those who have decided to protest violently. I may still not agree with the reactions to the film, but I most certainly understand better where the protestors are coming from, and understand how their cultural frame of reference differs from mine. How we define ourselves and what we deem as worthy of censorship and when, is based on very different cultural understandings of citizenship, religion, free speech and nationality. We must allow these definitions to be different, and we must find ways to let them exist together without violence.

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This entry was posted on November 2, 2012 by in Mosaic Scholarship, Volunteer Related, Volunteer Voices.
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