Last few paragraphs of my recent Gulf News column which addresses freedom of speech in the Arab world:
Public dialogues in the Arab world are vital during this time of change. Many important issues require discussion.
The upheaval seen in many Middle East countries can be linked to the feeling from some citizens that they couldn’t speak freely about important topics such as the relationship of the government to the governed, the role of women in society, or the deteriorating economy and crippling lack of jobs.
In order for societies to thrive, we must work to cherish public dialogue and help to encourage ideal speech conditions.
Governments should not take actions that could cause speakers to avoid engaging in public dialogue. Arresting people for the things they’ve said or written invariably has a dampening effect on public speech. Yes, some limits are required. But, restrictions should focus on speech that calls for violence — which, of course, has nothing to do with healthy dialogue.
Discussions must also remain civil. Many animated discussions are taking place on Twitter, an environment that appears to meet many of Habermas’ requirements for ideal speech. However, one complaint among the local Twitter community is that people who disagree with other viewpoints often accuse them of being “traitors.” Death threats have also been lobbed. These types of responses create an ‘external coercion’ that impedes healthy public dialogue.
Blasphemy laws also have an unintended effect of stifling public discussion. Take, for instance, the recent case of Hamza Kashgari, the Saudi journalist (currently under arrest and facing the death penalty) who tweeted words offensive to many Muslims. The Grand Mufti of Egypt recently commented on the case by saying: “We don’t kill our sons, we talk to them.” His words offer powerful support for the benefit of public dialogue — even in matters concerning religion.
Despite these impediments, technological advances appear to be helping create more healthy public dialogues. Vibrant discussions on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are raising issues in the public sphere that once would have gone unspoken beyond private settings. Engaging in dialogue can be a learning process and social media is providing a good platform for this education.
Hopefully, the Middle East will continue to move toward more acceptance of public dialogue. After all, today’s public discussion could alleviate tomorrow’s public unrest.
I delivered this column as part of a talk at last week’s BOLDtalks event in Dubai. Will post the video later.
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