Zakir Naik and freedom of speech

Last week was filled with headlines about Dr Zakir Naik, the charismatic foreign preacher who has come to Malaysia on a tour of the country. His time here has been eventful, to say the least.

By far the biggest news about Zakir Naik over the past week is the banning of his talk entitled ‘The Similarities Between Hinduism and Islam’, scheduled to take place in Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (UTeM).

The police prohibited the talk from taking place and cited security concerns for the decision. Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, the Inspector General of Police, was quoted as saying that even the title could be ‘manipulated’ to ‘create inter-religious controversy’. 

Zakir Naik is certainly no stranger to controversy; unlike a lot of other world renowned preachers, Zakir Naik does not confine his speeches to just Islam.

It is understandable that those of other faiths, especially Hindus, would be uncomfortable and even object to the talk taking place.

Would Muslims allow a priest or a pastor talk about the similarities between Islam and his own religion, without even inviting a Muslim representative on stage?

Imagine the firestorm that would have ensued if that took place.

Yet at the same time, Zakir Naik should have been allowed to continue. He should not have been banned from speaking on the topic.

Views which are bigoted, racist, prejudiced, deplorable, abhorrent and offensive, should be allowed.

These expressions are part and parcel of freedom of speech.

Of course, there is a limit to freedom of speech. Even human rights jurisprudence recognise that freedom of speech and expression is not absolute.

Allowing expressions which offend other people is for the reason that freedom of speech is absolute and without limit.

But the limit should not be ‘causing offence’. We cannot deny another’s freedom of speech just because we do not agree or do not like what the person is saying.

The threshold to restrict freedom of speech should be much higher. It should be set at threatening physical harm to persons, or damage to property or incitement of such threats.

So let Zakir Naik speak. Let him exercise his human rights to free speech, even if some of us find his views highly objectionable.

It is ironic that some of those who want him silenced are those who in other times, would talk about upholding freedom of speech and expression.

It is also ironic that those who now talk of Zakir Naik’s freedom of speech would not before this hesitate to lodge police reports against other people’s speeches and expressions and urging the police to take action.

The same people who talk of Zakir Naik’s freedom of speech also vehemently opposed the plan to abolish the Sedition Act.

When laws such as the Sedition Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Penal Code, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, the University and University Colleges Act were used on dissidents, these same people either have nothing to say or even supported the action.

If Zakir Naik has had his freedom of speech restricted without just cause, so too Dr Ulil, the Indonesian who was denied entry into Malaysia as his views were said to be ‘too liberal’.

So too Sisters in Islam or Irshad Manji when their books were banned. Or the prohibition on the Marxism course organised by Parti Sosialis Malaysia.

Sadly, it seems that for many of us, freedom of speech is only to be upheld for views which we are comfortable with.
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