Freedom of Expression – cultural principles and practice


A photo of a Muslim woman taking a photo of her young son holding a placard, “Behead all those who insult the prophet”, appeared in Australian papers during September demonstrations in Sydney. Many people in New Zealand were shocked at these types of responses and the violence that erupted in countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and Libya.  These demonstrations were responses to a video which was placed on YouTube, produced privately by expatriate Egyptians living in the United States, which featured non complimentary depictions of Islam’s founder, Mohammed. Demonstrations were directed at America and other Western governments.


What’s underlying these demonstrations?


Freedom of expression is formally recognised by most nations but this right to communicate one’s ideas and opinions is in practice not absolute in any country. Each country has its own limitations.  In the September protests we watched freedom of expression and its varying practice across different nations and cultures play out in real life.


In countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia there is a law regarding ‘Blasphemy against Islam’. This can result in imprisonment or death for those found to defame Mohammed by speaking ill of or attacking his good reputation. This limitation on freedom of expression is valued by most Muslims and motivates their demonstrations. They also commonly come from collective cultures with highly controlling governments. These nations do not separate an individual from his or her nation and take very seriously the government’s responsibility to preserve public order, religion and national security. Such a video would never be “allowed” to appear under such regimes. This is why protests are directed at governments, which they believe cannot be separated from the action of the individual.


What are the practical implications of “Freedom of Expression” for Christians?


Jesus expects us to practice freedom of speech. He seeks other people’s opinions – “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15). He is clearly capable of responding to insult and challenge with gracious and powerful words, and sees no need to attack others (e.g. John 8). In fact when his disciples wanted to “call down fire” on the Samaritans for not welcoming Jesus, He rebuked them for their reaction, and kept walking to another village (Luke 9:55). And finally, when faced with his own imminent torture and death, he commanded his followers to “Put your sword back in its place” (Matthew 26:52). Jesus taught very personally that Christian freedom of expression comes with the freedom to be rejected and insulted.


He also taught that this freedom came with responsibility to love and respect others, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), a truly radical ethic. We practice this freedom within the laws and limitations of the countries in which God calls us to live whether that is New Zealand or the Middle East. In Muslim countries Christians are very aware of blasphemy laws and will be sensitive not to defame Mohammed. This focusing on the truths and positives of Jesus and his teaching rather than putting down another religion proves to be a much better approach wherever we find ourselves in the world. However, affirming the Lordship and saving power of Jesus is in effect a statement about Mohammed. It will often result in persecution and imprisonment for new believers and expulsion from a country for Christian workers when people start to express their Christian faith.


Wherever you find yourself be bold in expressing your beliefs while respecting the rights and reputation of others. Acts 4:29

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