Free speech in Mideast

THERE is a nice story about an Arab and an American talking about free speech. The American tells the Arab, ‘In America we have free speech. We can criticize the American government and the American president as much as we want’.

By Abdullah Al Rahim

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Published: Sat 17 Jun 2006, 10:34 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

The Arab quickly responds, ‘Yes, we too in the Arab world have free speech. We too can criticise the American government and the American president as much as we want!’

Traditionally, we Arabs have this over subservient view of authority. It cannot be wrong, it is infallible. Should it occasionally be proven wrong, the fact must either be discussed quietly or better still, swept under the carpet. The less said the better. In the meantime, business can go on pitifully as usual. Of course, this restraint is applicable only to ourselves. We have no hesitation in being very critical about others.

Lack of free speech, while reflecting the totalitarian mindset of many Arab governments, is not to be blamed entirely on these governments. After all, the mentality of Arab government officials is the product of Arab culture.

Criticism is, more often than not, taken as a personal affront. It is something that should be responded to, not by examining the problem, but by a rebuttal of the criticism itself. This turns the criticism into an issue, of and in itself. Meanwhile, the criticised problem will be forgotten in the midst of the ensuing war of words.

The Arab Press, brought up as a mouthpiece of the state, has historically reflected the attitude of those in power and had been a major participant in the war of words. The few dissident writers who were an exception to the rule were either quietly absorbed or quietly made to disappear. Fewer still quietly made it to the West where they became vocal critics of the status quo.

Of course, it is tempting to talk about how much real free speech is available in countries that promote themselves as its champions. But we must admit that however little free speech we may think those countries have in reality, certainly it is much more than what we Arabs enjoy.

But there is a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel.

In Qatar, Al Jazeera TV has made a tremendous contribution to encouraging free speech and providing a forum where Arabs everywhere can practise that freedom very openly. Never have contemporary Arabs experienced the debates, the language of self criticism and criticism of Arab governments and leaders that they now hear through the Al Jazeera programmes. Indeed, the fact that Al Jazeera is banned or occasionally shut down in more than one Arab country speaks volumes about both, Al Jazeera’s bravado and the tolerance level of Arab governments.

In Yemen, the print media [TV is still government controlled and restricted to airing government propaganda] is becoming more vocal in its criticism of the government and leaders. The multiparty nascent democracy and elected parliament in Yemen has ushered in an atmosphere in which the government has accepted, albeit reluctantly and with some resistance, the battle of ideas to replace the battle of guns. Despite its occasional success in temporarily shutting down critical newspapers, the Yemeni government is being forced to come to terms with the realities of free speech.

Admittedly, this transformation is the result of great sacrifices and a bloody civil war, but with the current popular determination to uphold free speech, the clock cannot be turned back to the days of absolute dictatorship.

In Kuwait, parliamentary democracy and free speech has forced the powers that be not only to include women in the democratic process, but also, for the first time in contemporary Arab history, forced an unwilling head of state to step down through a constitutional process. This was unimaginable in the Arab world where government leaders have historically been removed only through bloodshed.

In a precedent that can very well be emulated elsewhere in Arabian, Kuwait has shown the role that democracy and free speech can play in peacefully resolving constitutional crises. Indeed, the debate and consequent politically matured way in which Kuwait resolved its leadership crises set it apart from the rest of the Arab world.

Lebanon is perhaps the most advanced of all Arab countries when it comes to free speech. A quick glance at the Lebanese newspapers and TV stations will show the extent of free speech in that very small but very dynamic Arab country. There too, a government was removed, not by the tradition of bloodshed, but through ‘peoples power’, expressed in the streets.

Arabia is gradually but definitely changing. To survive, Arab leaders will slowly have to accommodate rather than continue to confront change. The satellite dish will continue to play its role and Arabs, those among them unwilling to accommodate the battle of ideas, will find themselves isolated and ultimately relegated to the periphery. The old hold on Arabia, that which claims that those in authority can do no wrong, the leader is infallible, is slowly being challenged and will soon be discarded. As free speech becomes more widespread, accountability and the rule of institutions will replace the rule of individuals. While that prospect may be daunting for the powers that be, and therefore the wheel of change will be made to face many potholes, Arabs everywhere seem determined that change is inevitable.

Abdullah Al Rahim is a Yemeni political writer. He can be contacted at

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