It is astounding how much the desperate mainstream media, along with certain portions of the general public, has revealed their unfortunate misunderstanding of the terms “censorship,” “freedom of speech,” and “freedom of expression” in recent weeks. Yesterday, 50-year old Egyptian writer Fatima Naoot went on trial in Cairo for a Facebook comment she posted on her account that criticizes Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, the annual Muslim festival where countless sheep, cows, goats, and camels are slaughtered to commemorate Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael on his God’s command.
“Millions of innocent creatures will be driven to the most horrible massacre committed by men over the past ten centuries and followed by men each year with a smile. A massacre which is repeated every year because of the nightmare of a righteous man about his good son,” Naoot's (now deleted) Facebook post read.
I couldn’t agree more with her statement but it is her bravery and intelligence for communicating such an unwelcome opinion in her own culture that is most significant here. She denies her charges of contempt of Islam, spreading sectarian strife and disturbing public peace. A conviction could mean up to three years in jail for her simple Facebook post, a few sentences that the Egyptian government found to be criminal while ignoring human rights groups in the country who have also faced government crackdowns by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (Ironically, Naoot has publicly stated her support for the Sisi administration in past interviews.)
Defined in legal terms, freedom of speech is the right to express beliefs and ideas without unwarranted government restriction, a right guaranteed in the U.S. by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Naoot’s example is a clear "freedom of speech” and “censorship” case in her own nation: she posted her personal Facebook comments in Egypt, and the Egyptian authorities went after her in order to prevent the Egyptian public from hearing more of her ideas.
Her freedoms can only be limited by the government which already oppresses her rights. In the global realm, she expressed politically-inclined ideas within a loosely limited technological context: a contemporary opinion about an ancient practice based upon archaic beliefs. If the Egyptian government is indeed so threatened by one individual’s empathetic capabilities outside of their religious and cultural traditions, they will eventually have to attack many, many internet properties in order to prevent further unapproved commentary into the public sphere.
Of course, to go after Facebook, Twitter, the internet in general, etc. (these entities’ own financial interests and motives notwithstanding) is not only obviously futile, but also shows a severe level of uneducated entitlement to control by characters who somehow believe they have the exclusive right to do so. To think this way, you must have a severe misunderstanding of how the internet and freedom of expression function together.
A negative reaction to someone’s rightful opinion is simply the other side’s right to their own beliefs and ideas. Being trained that we are #1, #1, #1 in all aspects of existence, from history to pop culture (think about how many cultures educate their publics this way?), we Americans often have a difficult time understanding the extent of our own cultural biases (which now lead to incredibly hypocritical statements and actions that are permanently on view on the internet, by the way). A foreign entity is not encroaching on our freedoms if they disagree with our ideas—they are exercising their own freedoms of expression.
What should truly worry us is when our own government attempts to restrict our ideas, like Naoot’s case demonstrates. Somehow in the recent media frenzy of the unprepared mainstream not knowing how to deal with ordinary internet threats, a false sense of patriotism (usually an ugly version of nationalism) has fueled some people into defining censorship, free speech and expression in emotional, instead of legally rational, terms. This only hurts the true censorship threats that loom in much more desperate circumstances.
Mistaking privileged cultural bias for an infringement on our “freedoms" is an especially dangerous path considering how governments in general, no matter where in they are in the world, share an innate instinct to censor their publics to certain extents in order to maintain a semblance of control. Before the internet era, governments had much more authority and domination over public discourse and action. So did the mainstream media. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and when the errors of the private sector get sloppily muddled with issues of false governmental censorship, it is the general public that ultimately loses. Just wait until it’s your turn to be attacked—the internet era has made everyone a possible target, including those in the former traditional ivory towers of immunity who thought they’d never be at risk.
The internet era has exposed, and continues to reveal, the true balancing and shifting of cultures in our world today. We’re seeing that a lot of what is exposed is quite ugly and old-fashioned. Going forward, let’s be sensitive to just how much of what is considered conventional, traditional, or conservative usually stem from less evolved eras in human development. Considering individual cases like Fatima Naoot’s charges in Cairo to broader, entrenched beliefs and economic motives by governments and large corporations, we are fortunate that our current systemic biases are no longer protected by our former systemic biases.