Our blessed Prophet said, “He who truly believes in God and the Last Day should speak good or keep silent.” For those of us who love to write, the implications of this are clear. To “Blog” brings with it responsibilities. Although I don’t consider myself a “Blogger” – simply a writer who finds the dynamic publishing mechanism of blogging software a really useful tool, a step on from FTP I used four years ago and DTP before that* – this question exercises me constantly. I have a back catalogue spanning nine years on my own site, yet it contains barely one hundred items; were I a real blogger I would have at least three thousand. The command to “speak good” must equally apply to all forms of communication.
I began thinking about this again last night when I read some of the comments under a post on a group blog known as Blogistan. Some visitors object to Blogistan’s editorial policy, which — not unlike traditional media — does not post all comments submitted. Spam, abuse, insults and general nonsense are not published; in particular the forum does not accept attacks on Islam. Some people believe that because a commenting tool exists, it must be free to be used however one chooses. As an individual trained to work within the boundaries of an editorial process I find this belief difficult to reconcile. As a Muslim, furthermore, I am conscious that in the Islamic worldview a word is an act, just as to walk, run or eat is an act. Gai Eaton made this point quite clearly in his book, Islam and the Destiny of Man:
“In whatever society we may live, our actions are constrained in the public interest and, in Europe and America during the present century, these constraints have multiplied so rapidly that our ancestors, even a hundred years ago, might have found life almost intolerable. The Muslim may reasonably ask how it is that we accept this vast and oppressive network of laws and regulations while, at the same time, removing all constraints from one of the most potent forms of action; the spoken or written word.” [Eaton, G. (1998) Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society)]
A book, he points out, can easily become the indirect cause of genocide, to take an extreme but not unreasonable example. Hence, “He who truly believes in God and the Last Day should speak good or keep silent.” Yet this viewpoint is not even exclusively Islamic – freedom was understood by Kant, for example, as the freedom to do good, rather than the freedom to do anything as it now stands. To go further, a distinction can be drawn between freedom and rights. Although Islam grants the individual the freedom to say anything, it does not grant him or her the right to slander, backbite or lie (in fact these are reprehensible sins). Those who believe that freedom of expression entails the freedom to express anything will naturally accuse Islam of promoting censorship. However there is nothing that prevents an individual from holding a personal opinion. Indeed the difference of opinion of scholars is well known and the majority of Muslims follow one of four schools of law, which differ on a number of points regarding practice.
I believe that as Muslims writing on a Muslim site there is no reason to apologise for nothing other than working within well-established boundaries. Those whose interpretation of freedom of speech is different from our own are by no means limited in the opportunity to contribute freely elsewhere. Nor shall we prevent them from doing so. The freedom of opinion and expression is revered in Western culture as a fundamental human right; a position arrived at as a result of number of circumstances in European history.
Robert Shackelton, writing in Censure and Censorship: Impediments to Free Publication in the Age of Enlightenment, uses the example of the Sorbonne at a time when it was “glorifying in its role as custodian of Catholic orthordoxy.” The ecclesiastic, Abbé de Prades, submitted a thesis for the degree of licentiate in theology, in which he proposed various controversial ideas including the notion that religion is no more than a further development of natural law. The examiners of the Faculty of Theology approved his thesis by mistake so that it was seen as approving “dangerous and apparently anti-Christian doctrines.” As a result, the Sorbonne issued a censure on the thesis, condemning it as “false, temerarious, injurious to Catholic theologians, scandalous, evilly sounding, offensive to pious ears, erroneous, blasphemous, heretical, favouring materialism, pernicious to society and public tranquillity.” Stripped of his degrees and diocesan, and facing arrest, the Abbé fled to Prussia. [Shackelton, R. (1975) Censure and Censorship: Impediments to Free Publication in the Age of Enlightenment (Austin: The University of Texas at Austin)]
It is, of course, understandable that censure and censorship are now unpopular notions. Censorship is commonly defined as “the examination of a text before publication, by someone in authority, with a view to ascertaining its fitness to appear,” and censure as “the examination of a text, after publication, with a view to deciding whether it had been fit to appear.” Both concepts are restrictive. Article nineteen of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information through any media regardless of frontiers.” [Article 19 (1991) Information, Freedom and Censorship World Report (London: Library Association Publishing)]
Nonetheless, in advocating freedom of opinion and expression, it is recognised in English and other international Law that certain limits may be placed on the freedom of expression in certain circumstances, though not on the freedom to hold opinions. The most common reason given for censorship is the need to protect the rights of others, as in defamation, protection of reputation and privacy. National security also constitutes a justification for censorship, along with sedition, public interest, public health, public morals, obscenity, public order, prevention of violence, racism, sexism and religious intolerance.
I firmly believe that the editor of Blogistan is right to put constraints on what may be published on his forum. As a would-be contributor myself I know that I am bound by the ground rules he set out at the start and I accept this just as I would were I to write for traditional media (read the submission notes provided by any major publisher if you doubt this). Old fashioned as I may be, I strongly believe that every author needs an editor.
* While I still have passion for creating the beautiful typeset page, it is time-consuming and expensive; to publish online is instantaneous and simple.