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Muslim World's Tyranny Of Community Censorship
Somalia/United Arab Emirates - Even worse than the official censorship is censorship imposed by the community, which in turn becomes self-censorship. Friends, colleagues and even ordinary acquaintances all impose strict censorship rules on me under the guise of being concerned about my personal safety or honor. They demand that I tone down my strong views about sensitive issues.
Freedom of the press in the Muslim world cannot be separated from freedom of expression in general. Journalists, due to their conspicuous role, risk their lives everyday. They have been targeted and killed in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan and other countries. The Muslim world is not a friendly place for freedom of speech at all.
There, journalists share the same fate as all creative writers and artists. The writer in a Muslim society is in shackles. Every time I put pen to paper it is a struggle against the tyranny of community-imposed self-censorship. Nowhere is Rousseau's statement that "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains," truer than in the House of Islam.
Everything is a taboo. Whenever a Muslim writer takes up a pen he starts tiptoeing in a minefield. You have to follow the flag signs of religious, cultural and social taboos. You should tread carefully not only to avoid shame and social estrangement but also death.
The beheading of the Sudanese journalist Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed in early September was the latest example of community punishment of a journalist/writer.
Writers have to endure internet blockages and the splashing of black ink on art magazines and school textbooks. One of the most bizarre censorship actions I have ever seen was the blotting out of the sexual organs of a historical picture of donkey standing in an old Arabian market.
In the House of Islam, you cannot have a principle other than that of the community. Every thing you do is referred to Islam. The mantra is that's stupid BUT...But we cannot do this "because we are Muslims" is the expression that one hears ad nauseam. In the Islamic world you cease to be a human being. You become only a Muslim whatever that entails. You are not allowed to be a person with vices and virtues, you cannot follow your own reasoning, and you cannot be unpopular or defend an unpopular idea. You cannot go out of the circle. To express yourself freely means to risk death. And death indeed if you change your faith. Invention itself is considered as an act of blasphemy.
I am obliged to remind my readers however that Islam had its good days of freedom of speech in the middle ages when the Mutazilites and Asharites debated in public and in the royal courts about sensitive issues such as the creation of the Koran. This golden period has since been buried in the thick dust of history. With the rise of Islamic extremism in the present age, one can only hope for the return of such rationale.
On a personal level, I remember writing a poem in early 1980s, which was considered critical of Somalia's dictatorial regime of Siyad Barre. Later when I wanted to visit my ailing father I had to travel by land from Djibouti, taking a longer route, rather than risking an arrest at the airport of Hargeysa. It is also unfortunate that a lyric I wrote on raising awareness about HIV/AIDS and encouraging safe sex has to remain under wraps, as all musicians were afraid to set them to music due to what they consider its un-Islamic message. With Somalia now under the grip of extremist Islamists who have already banned all kinds of artistic works and dissenting voices, it is obvious freedom of press is their last priority.
Censorship in the Islamic world is instilled at childhood. Children are taught that there are two angels sitting on the shoulders of every person entrusted with the task of monitoring every good and bad deed the person does or says. This has prompted me to write in a piece of fiction about the character of a little boy who dived into a pond and vented out his demons under water where no angels or people could censor his words.
To survive in such unfriendly atmosphere like this, journalists in the Muslim world have become like parrots that only echo the official line. Torn between the call of professionalism and that of censorship, they have to always adhere to the call of the latter. If it takes a village to raise a child in Africa, it takes a community to kill a writer, artist and a journalist in the Muslim world.
Therefore, to talk about how to promote freedom of the press in the Muslim world may be a question that could trigger another clash of civilizations.
By Bashir Goth
Goth is a veteran journalist, freelance writer, the first Somali blogger and editor of a leading news website. He is also a regular contributor to major Middle Eastern and African newspapers and online journals.