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Shifting boundaries
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 10 - 2004

Speech that offends is speech that needs to be protected, argues Ismail Serageldin*
Freedom of expression is today recognised as a universal good. It was not always so. Even in the golden age of ancient Greece Socrates was put to death, and Plato's republic is an Orwellian nightmare. The last few millennia have been a long struggle towards accepting human rights and expanding the scope for freedom, of both choice and action. None of this would have been possible without the freedom of expression, accrued slowly and at great cost, and defended again and again, at all times, in all places.
We value freedom of expression above all other freedoms because it is the foundation of self- fulfillment. Without free speech no search for truth is possible, no discovery of truth is useful. Without freedom of inquiry, and of expression, there can be no scientific advance. Freedom, as much as imagination and boldness, is at the heart of the search for truth and the attainment of knowledge. The history of science is replete with official repression, from Hypatia to Galileo. Even today there are those who would restrict the teaching of evolution, or dismiss the findings of genetics.
Freedom of speech is necessary to any viable system of self-government. If people are to make decisions and elect their governments, if they are to check its excesses and root out corruption they must be well-informed and have access to different ideas and points of view. Mass ignorance is a breeding ground for intolerance and bigotry, which in turn leads to oppression and tyranny. Enlightened judgment is possible, as John Stewart Mill contended, only if one considers all facts and ideas, from whatever source, and tests one's own conclusions against opposing views.
There is no telling when a minority view -- once considered "bad" or socially harmful -- becomes the majority view. Much of what we take for granted -- independence for the colonies, abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, basic human rights, women's rights, children's rights -- was once considered dangerously seditious. Only ideas defeat ideas. Invading armies can be defeated but you cannot, as Victor Hugo noted, defeat an idea the time for which has come. Society benefits by having a market-place of ideas.
Nor should expression be limited to language in its spoken or written form. It includes the language of art and of science, which is why Law No 1 for 2001 listed in its first article that "[the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) should be concerned with] all products of the human mind, in all languages, from all cultures, ancient and recent." It recognises the language of music, painting and sculpture as much as words. The BA is dedicated to all forms of expression.
The Library was born in interesting times. Much has been done to liberalise the climate of debate and discussion in Egypt, and much remains to be done. Compare the situation now with the 1980s. In 1982 there were 27 licensed newspapers; now there are 504, not counting 1,100 journals, of which 585 are scholarly. In 1982 there were 106 radio channels. There are now 529. There were two public TV channels, as opposed to 32 today, plus six privately owned channels. And, of course, TV channels from all over the world are available on cable and dish.
But the real revolution is happening on the World Wide Web. From 1996/97 to today the number of websites located in Egypt has gone from 591 to 24,226, while the number of ISPs has risen from 40 to over 200, servicing 3.3 million subscribers.
There is a wide margin of freedom of expression, and legal censorship is light by any standards. But vigorous forms of political and intellectual censorship by self-appointed groups are effectively curtailing the full use of available freedoms. Different groups are struggling to set the boundaries of the permissible and the acceptable. It is a struggle that must be joined, on the side of liberty and freedom of thought and expression, by all caring individuals.
If societies have increasingly come to accept that freedom of expression is beneficial and worthy of protection, they have also sought to limit it in various ways. This is true, in varying degrees, of all societies. It holds for the United States and France as much as for Egypt and other Arab countries
Leaving aside extreme cases, it makes sense to consider what form of boundaries, if any, should be placed on free speech. Most societies legislate to strike a balance between the interests of the community and the rights of the individual. That boundary is never absolute. Recall the words of American Justice Holmes: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." Few cases, though, are so clear cut.
Concerning books and art, several key cases have received attention in the Egyptian press in recent years, some of which have concerned the presence of books in libraries as opposed to their distribution, and some the right of the artist to have the state subsidise their work with taxpayers' money. The storm over Haidar Haidar's Banquet for Seaweed, the withdrawal of Maxime Rodinson's book on Mohamed by the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the withdrawing of three novels published by the Ministry of Culture are among these cases.
Every society is engaged in an ongoing debate over the parameters of the socially acceptable, especially over what is taught in schools and the kind of activities that should be publicly subsidised. Less than 10 years ago the US, considered by many to be the paragon of free speech, saw a vociferous minority effectively block the teaching of Darwin in the state of Kansas. For two years evolution was not taught in Kansas and the decision was rescinded only after a direct campaign by American scientists. School districts in Texas and Florida have raised questions about the suitability of J D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye while the image of blacks in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn has led to questions about it being taught in the classroom. Efforts to remove these books from school curricula and from the shelves of public libraries continue to this day.
Whatever the merits of these cases they highlight the fact that society distinguishes between the right of Twain and Salinger to write what they write, and between what is appropriate for inclusion on the school curriculum. The question of Rodinson's biography of Mohamed falls into the same category. Whether the AUC, as a private institution, should be forced to abide by a majority view, or take into account the views of irate parents or even of the minister of higher education, is another matter.
The objections of the majority, or vocal minorities, to what they deem offensive is as old as art itself. Michelangelo was forced by complaining clergy to cover the genitalia of many of the nudes in the Sistine Chapel and if their complaints are today viewed with derision, they nonetheless reflect the timeless conflict between conservative views and art. The boundaries of the acceptable are defined by different communities differently at different times and in different places. This is a societal function: minority views have a right to exist, but this does not mean the majority has to condone or support them. And all societies try to protect children and the weak from being exposed to inappropriate material.
So should the state, with taxpayers' money, subsidise the production of works that are offensive to a majority of taxpayers?
The question was brought into vivid relief in the US by the controversy surrounding the exhibition of photographs by Robert Maplethorpe, and of sculpture by Andres Serrano. In the late 1980s the Corcoran gallery cancelled an exhibition of Maplethorpe's homoerotic photographs following intense pressure, while Serrano's sculpture, comprising a crucifix in a bottle of urine, led to a debate in Congress on the appropriateness of using public funds to support activities deemed offensive.
Striking a balance between the wishes of the majority and the rights of the minority is complicated -- more so in societies where the government controls most forums of expression. Difficult questions are thrown up, and each society has to define its own boundaries.
Yet this is not a case of moral relativism, for no society should be allowed to define boundaries in ways that infringe upon the fundamental rights of minorities. Any local perception of boundaries must, as a minimum, respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration embodies a core set of rights that individuals possess by virtue of being human, regardless of the society to which they belong.
But back to issues of censorship. In the US the questioning of the use of public funds to finance artistic products that the majority of taxpayers find offensive is no different than the questioning of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture about its publication and distribution of three books many Egyptians found offensive. The pressures exercised on the Corcoran gallery to cancel the Maplethorpe exhibit are the same as the pressure exercised by segments of society in Egypt to withdraw from circulation the Haidar book. Pressure on Kansas schools to forbid the teaching of evolution, the assault on public school reading lists and public library shelves by conservative forces in American society, are similar to assaults on the AUC curriculum and on the public distribution of books in Egypt. In the case of the US the sources of conservative pressure tend to be Christian while in Egypt they tend to be Muslim, but that is to be expected given the religious affiliations of the majority of the population in the two countries.
These fights over boundaries are between the conservative and liberal wings of any society, and they tend to be fought over time and again.
One more quandary must be mentioned. The new media, from TV to the Internet, are ubiquitous. They intrude into our living rooms, and the chance of exposure of the very young to materials we as parents may not consider them ready to see, or to have them preyed on by paedophiles, is real. If you do not like a book you don't have to buy it. If you do not like a movie do not go to see it. But this does not apply to the new media, where freedom of expression is as important as anywhere else. Here parental guidance maybe more important than direct government intervention. Definitely some wise balances will have to be found.
The public discourse in any country is dominated by the views of the majority which, in times of stress, can be whipped up by an active minority until it becomes intolerant. This happened in the US after 9/11 with the passing of the Patriot Act that granted sweeping powers to the government and raised alarms over the civil and political rights cherished by Americans and enshrined in the American Constitution.
In Egypt feelings of anger and frustration at a world that appears to many Arabs and Muslims as hostile to their aspirations have led many to seek a lost purity and sense of security in a golden mythical past. This has produced a discourse where deviations from appearances of religiosity and adherence to the political views of the majority is severely sanctioned, both socially and in vehement political attacks -- even, occasionally, in physical threats, abuse and even assassination. It takes courage to stand up for alternative views: all too frequently people give in to the tide of obscurantism and xenophobia and exercise self- censorship as draconian as anything imposed by the state.
It is here that principle must triumph over pragmatism. It is here that ideas of tolerance, rationality and pluralism must be advanced and defended. And the BA stands as a rallying point for those who support such values.
Libraries have a major role to play, and the BA an especially relevant one. I was recently asked by a member of the public whether a particular title, deemed offensive, could be found in the library and if so, why was it there. My answer was that there is a difference between the availability of material sitting passively in a library and the active distribution of material to the public. There is a difference between scholarly gatherings and mass events. Besides, if that person wanted to write a rebuttal to the book he found so questionable where would he go to find a copy, if not to a library?
The real issues of censorship, from Taha Hussein to Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, are concerned less with government actions and the legislative climate, though that can certainly be improved, than with the intolerance that permeates society, with the unwillingness to recognise that the only legitimate way to defeat an idea is with another idea. The BA is committed to help create this space of freedom for dialogue between individuals, cultures and civilisations.
The world's banned books are a strange mixture of great classics and marginal and obscure works. Yet they succeeded, at some level, to challenge the conventions of their times and to force people to think, even if only to reject the offending material. Such books are an important resource for scholars from all over the world, and the affirmation of the importance of their presence somewhere is an affirmation of the importance we attach to freedom of expression. For it is, in the end, speech that offends that needs protection, not speech that is acceptable. Societies that remember this are well-served. "I may differ with your views," wrote Voltaire, "but I am willing to lay down my life to protect your right to express those views."
Banned books and works of art have been part of the long struggle for emancipation, and libraries play a special role in the matrix of issues with which each society struggles. At the BA we are conscious that we need to open up the windows for, in the words of Gandhi, engraved under his bust in the Library: "I do not want my windows to be stuffed. I want all the cultures of the world to blow about my house freely, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any."
We are at the dawn of a new age. The digital future beckons, and calls us to unknown lands. Copyright and legal issues will be different and great dreams will be possible, the greatest being the availability of limitless material at all times, and in all places. The Internet will make this possible, and the BA is proud to be the only existing back-up centre for the Internet Archive outside of California. The new revolution in ICT makes practices of the past moot, and confounds legal definitions of what is published publicly and what is private. Whether this new world will be a libertarian jungle, with no rules other than the market, remains to be seen. The market is a good servant but a bad master.
* The writer is director-general of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.


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