The complexities of censorship

Following my recent post ‘To blog or not to blog?’ some additional complexities surrounding the question of censorship occurred to me. Namely the question of censorship in the contemporary Muslim world and, secondly, how freedom of speech plays against the Islamic emphasis on the preservation of knowledge (think of the science of isnad verification, for example). In accepting that Islamic Scholars are the guardians of our religion, we implicitly reject those who speak without authority in matters relating to the Qur’an and Sunnah. In reality, today such censorship hardly exists, hence the confusion we encounter. Nevertheless, I would like to explore these two issues more.

Eickelman and Anderson note in their article ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: Less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ that liberal theorist who rejoice at the development of pluralism in Muslim countries “must still be troubled by the seeming intolerance and absolutism of some expressions of religious and political beliefs and values.” [Eickelman, D.F. and Anderson, J.W. (1997) ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ in LOGOS (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.) 8/4 pp.192-198].

While it is true that Islam has a political element, it is not true to say that the political situations present in the contemporary Muslim world derive particularly from Islam. Secularism and Nationalism are well established in most Muslim countries, and ideologies such as Marxism and liberalism continue to compete with Islam in their effort to shape Muslim societies. Whilst studying in Scotland an Algerian student expressed his amazement to me when he discovered the large number of Muslim publications in the University’s prayer room, for such works were officially banned by his native government. Similarly, whilst researching the Muslim publishing industry five years ago, the Lebanese publisher Dar Al Kotob Al Ilmiyah explained that the production of a single Islamic book disapproved of by a government in a Muslim country has the potential to jeopardise all of a publisher’s sales in that country.

In many countries with Muslim majorities freedom of expression is severely limited, although, as Eickleman and Anderson note, the “globalization of media is blurring the boundaries between local, regional and international perspectives and between elite and popular cultures.” The result, they argue, is pluralism in political and religious views, despite the attempts of authorities to limit what is said in public. Initially the invention of desktop publishing (DTP) and the photocopier was seen to be contributing to growing pluralism, for individuals could easily work outside the sphere of government regulation. The same would be true to some degree in the proliferation of weblogs and websites today. Change is therefore evident in many countries. Where words and phrases with religious connotations were once eliminated from public discourse in Turkey, for example, they are now reappearing. On the other hand, censorship is far from a thing of the past. According to Eickelman and Anderson (writing in 1997), some Gulf States have three censorship organisations, through which any one has the power to ban an import or to alter a word. A friend has told me that even the works of Al-Ghazali is banned in Saudi Arabia; can this really be true?

According to the human rights organisation, Article 19, “The UN Declaration on Religious Intolerance (1981) recognizes that an important aspect of religious freedom is the ability to propagate the dogma, aims or beliefs of a religion.” [Article 19 (1991) Information, Freedom and Censorship World Report (London: Library Association Publishing)] If a government insists that the contents of teaching material must conform to the political or religious opinion it endorses, this has the potential to affect religious minorities, political dissenters and non-religious groups. Eickelman and Anderson view the emphasis on authoritative Islamic teachings as a kind of privatised censorship. They write:

“Traditionally educated religious scholars, like the beneficiaries of elite education, see a threat in popular books and pamphlets which encourage intolerance, while those from below resent elite efforts at “guidance,” which they see as unjustified censorship or control.”

It is hard to strike a balance between the two views brought up here. In terms of expressions of political dissent, holding leaders to account is encouraged in Islam. In early Islamic history, Muslims leaders enjoined the people to speak out if they considered them to be behaving inappropriately. Yet preservation of sound knowledge has always been key in the Islamic tradition and therefore a form of censorship must exist on the part of Muslim scholars; the alternative is a free reading of Islam that has the potential to lead to the extremism we see today (no traditional scholar has ever sanctioned terrorism). Of this dielma, Rosenthal wrote:

“It’s insistence upon “knowledge” has no doubt made medieval Muslim civilization one of great scholarly and scientific productivity, and through it, Muslim civilization made its most lasting contribution to mankind. “Knowledge” as its centre also hardened civilization and made it impervious to anything that did not fall within its view of what constituted acceptable knowledge.” [Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill)]

As we can see, the question of censorship within Muslim society is complex. In my previous posting, I argued that the Islamic worldview attaches responsibilities to freedom of expression. While I spoke of the restrictive responsibilities in that article, it could also be argued that we have a duty to express ourselves freely when it is for the common good. In a way, though, this was the gist of my previous article entitled ‘A very poor show.’

One thought on “The complexities of censorship

  1. Personally I see myself as neither writer nor blogger, but just a person that puts pen to paper, or be it words on screen.Difficultis are that yes censorship is an issue and we must not read or write any rubbish. Freedom of speech an expression is good, but yes, it must be within the prescribed boundaries. If is is not then what type of example to we set and promote to ourselves and others? It is this boundary which is omportant in what we read and write. There is nothing wrong with variety in reading, as we are told to “read”, and then there is that unsubstantiated “seek knowledge as far as china” line, as examples. The reality is that we in th western world can easily pursue this variety in expression without transgressing boundaries. Nevertheless, common sense must be used in what and where to express.


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