Sunday, 14 February 2010


 Censorship and auto-censorship is a deep conditioning in the Arab world. We get used to it, we live by it, we abide by it, we move on with our lives without thinking about how much is censored and how far can censorship affect us.
Then in Paris, France, the Minister of Culture, Frederique Mitterrand, pulls a stunt and makes a stand against censorship.
The famous "Ecole des Beaux Arts" was established in the 17th century and has kept up with the highest standards of education in all forms of arts and very demanding classwork. This week, they had sponsored an exhibition by their alumni students and Ko Siu Lin put banners on the outside walls of the institution. She did not use sex, drugs or illegal substance for her works. It was just four words : travailler - moins - gagner - plus (work - less - earn - more).
She used the French president's slogan (work more, earn more) used during his election campaign. She deviated the words and the meaning. 
Her work was censured and removed. 
Then the Minister of Culture decides it is not the way to be, and summons the banners to be put up again.
Now why would he do that?
Why not accept, like all of us in this part of the world,  that if someone is offended and he's in power or gaining influence, we should just apologize and remove our dirty filthy thoughts from our brains. 
It takes courage to make a stand on freedom of expression. 
It takes audacity and bravery to make a stand on freedom of expression.
And we have none of that in the Arab world.


Unknown said...


adly said...

Great commentary except for one bit at the end where you say "It takes audacity and bravery to make a stand on freedom of expression.
And we have none of that in the Arab world."

I beg to differ. I know of countless bloggers in Cairo,Bahrain and Saudi who have been jailed (and remain in jail) because of them rejecting the censorship that bans freedom of expression. Politics,arts,fiction,religious studies etc - all are topics that have many risks attached to discussing them from an opposing viewpoint,and these brave bloggers and journalists do so knowing where they might end up.

Unknown said...

It is a question of priorities, how far are we willing to go for what we stand for. Some like Nelson Mandela and Ghandi go all the way, others go half way and some dont go at all.
There is a fundamental issue in the Arab world, and it goes beyond courage and audacity and that is you can in the name of the Divine get killed. So freedom of expression will be limited and there will be certain lines that you cannot cross, especially those lines that hit the collective fears, or individual power. Without freedom of expression we will be slaves, slaves to our ignorance.
So where does it start from the chicken or the egg?

sarah said...

It seems it is a sensitive subject:
Thank you William for your YEP
Adly: I have to say that bloggers are in their closet trying their best. Journalists are jailed and yes it is unacceptable. Do we have courage to make an issue out of it? Do we try and liberate those who are in jail for the crime of expression?
Well, I am afraid and do not know if I can do anything about it!
Do you have any ideas?

Makram said...

As discussed with a friend and I quote:

“It's not just the Arab world where freedom of expression is curtailed, although it is more institutionalized where freedom of thought is regarded as morally wrong or even heretical.

All those who lean towards conservatism in religion apply pressure to conform and enforce it by restrictive religious laws, backed by secular laws.

That then passes into politics and, eventually, ordinary life where a failure to criticize becomes the norm.

But it is not only in relation to religion, and it is not only in relation to conservatism that censorship is prevalent. The tyranny of those who call themselves liberal and yet curtail the freedoms of the many is commonplace.

Laws against "hate crime" are used to restrict ordinary insults that fall far short of hate, tagging conduct as x-ophobic means that ordinary conduct becomes subject to laws designed to protect against extraordinary harms.

Where the Arab world differs is that many of its countries are, largely, totalitarian, and all totalitarian countries stamp out dissent.

But even democracy does not guarantee freedom of thought or freedom of speech.

The incident involving free speech for an (apparently Korean extraction) student in France is the opposite side of the coin in relation to the Burkha. Some freedoms are respected, others are regarded as threatening and therefore denied.

But those who criticize France (and Switzerland) for denying character-changing actions have to think through their arguments.

In many Arab countries, women are urged to respect local customs, to cover arms and legs. They would be arrested as indecent if they wore a bikini in pretty much any downtown district in the Middle East.

The freedoms cut both ways; censorship is a highly localized response to perceived harms.

The primary concern, for me, is its globalization - and that's arisen from the "liberals" not from the Arabs and their like, although an increasing Arab influence in Muslim countries is leading to its spread.”


walid said...

From what I read, it seemed to me that it was the school of Beaux Arts that censored the slogan "work less earn more", not the government. The slogan has an anarchist/nihilist "inclination" that does not fit well with the ideals of educational establishments.

It's true however that every society has certain fundamental values where it becomes taboo to attack. Sometimes survival is at stakes, and free expression should be controlled.

Bu I agree that the Arab world can afford more freedom of speech, and the pretext of social order and stability have been abused by those in power. Nevertheless, we should avoid comparing Arab world to the West, because the same level of free speech is not feasible; they are 2 totally different contexts.

AliK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AliK said...

Karl Popper wrote on the paradox of tolerance: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

This is clearly the fear of Europe. Tolerance of the intolerant (the Burka), will justify oppression, and freedom of expression may not extend to self-annihilation.

In my view, individuals in the region have been audacious and courageous. The liberal democrats remain a minority; and the freedom of expression is perceived by a growing fundamentalist (or conservative) majority to threaten the foundation of its Islamic value system. The oppression is no longer systemic and institutionalized and conducted by governments, but a popular movement that will annihilate any attempt to liberate the society from its religious and social taboos that prevents its development.

Unfortunately, those who are audaciously and courageously promoting liberal ideas are almost suicidal, threatened by the audacious and courageous fundamentalists who are suicidal in attempting to exterminate any opposing ideas.

The Region does no lack courage; it has expressed its desire beyond reason, beyond life, beyond God’s permissible tools that it seeks to mass indoctrinate its children to think collectively, to limit knowledge, to curtail creativity, and to constraint the society within a restricted space that the limited mind of the few can comprehend and control.

What these societies in the Region need is not courage in fighting oppression because it is self inflicted, but the courage and audacity to rethink and redefine the true mandate of its citizens in life; and to understand the danger in allowing the Nation to overtake individualism and the doctrine to overtake the mind.

sarah said...


sarah said...

Makram: thanks for your comment.
I do agree that democracies do not necessarily guarantees freedom of many sorts.
But my understanding of democracy is a process in the making. It is about working around issues, discussing them, putting them in the out and dealing with them in the best possible given ways.
The burqas in France has stirred up a whole debate over the national identity and why and how should one accept the other when he (or she) is so different, so far away from the core basis of shared values.
When we talk about art and censorship, the point is more about creativity and another way of expression that involves the artist and the viewer, not really a missionary ready to convert.
It is about questioning and allowing thought process through different means.
Artists often feel they have an active role in society and a say in many major issues.
Art cannot be only about beauty and aesthetics. It can also talk about miseries, wars, pain and suffering.
Art can be universal.
and globalization is an overrated plague for the past decade or two.
Historically, the world, within its limits, was an open land for exchange of ideas, tools, discoveries.
Liberals who curtail the freedom of others still offer the possibilities of reply and defending their point of view.
And that's where criticism comes hand in hand with a legal system that defends rights and promotes responsibilities.
The Burqua is still a debate in France where as polygamy is not accepted in France and will probably never be a debate's subject.
France is giving the Burqua fans the possibility to defend their stake.
Quite a fair game altogether.
Where we, as Arabs, can barely afford to express anything differently.

sarah said...

Walid: in your valuable comment, what I find even more astonishing is that you auto-censor your self to a degree where you are willing to accept that the understanding of a universal concept of freedom has two different interpretations in our world or their world.
When we compare, we learn.
When we look at the other side, we get a closer look of our own.
The Arab world has surely a different context from the West or the East. But to avoid comparison is to sink in a bathtub full of our own dirt.

walid said...


I agree with what Popper said. Unlimited tolerance is nihilism, and it leads to an impasse since you accept anything and anyone.You would accept the world as it comes and give up the idea of changing your world.
In a nutshchell, no system, no matter how tolerant it is will give the freedom to others to shake it - or screw it- , especially when those that criticise it have no other working alternative/paradigm.

walid said...


You said the magic words. I agree when you look at others you learn. When people see that there are other working models than theirs, they become more inquisitive and less absolutist in their thinking.

I am simply against the naivete in comparison, or the "me too" approach ( Why can't I have a Ferrari like my neighbour)...

No, a universal concept of freedom does not exist in my opinion, because an abstract definition will always be constrained by the socio-political reality where you want to apply it. Therefore every system has a limit to tolerance (its survival) and every democracy will function within specific limits after which there is breakdown.
Even enlightened minds like Aristotle and Plato failed to see injustice in Slavery probably bevcause they could no imagine the world functionng without them. Thus no matter how universal we want to be in our definition/conception, we are consciously/unconsciouly conditioned by pragmatic considerations.

walid said...


If I understand well, you are seeing that freedom of speech is also being curtailed in traditionally liberal environments, and that you perceive it as a growing global trend.
Is this not the result of globalisation? As cultures get into closer contact, we will now start testing the working limits of liberal democracies.
How far the spirit of tolerance can withstand the contrast brought by such fundamentally different views of the world?

Thomas Modeen said...

I do feel there are some universal, if not morals (as these are usually afiliated with a particular subjective doctrine or format of faith), then 'ethics'. There are some generic commonalities in all cultures that tie us together - the need to nourishment, the need to companionship, the need/ craving for learning, etc. - its how these 'needs' are formulated and expressed (the way they are defined & controlled) that varies. An ethical approach should allow for all such variations to co-exist, regardless of clashing sensitivities, as long as they aren't directly responsible of causing direct harm to others. Thus, one should be able to express opinions, even to some controversial ones, as long as they don't directly incite violence. Varying opinions need to be encouraged rather than stifled as this is the only way of resolving shortcomings. If problems aren't acknowledged (& consequently defined) they can never be resolved... Discussing and debating the ins & outs, pros & cons of a topic, regardless of the difficulty of the topic (politics, sexuality, religion, etc.), needs to be allowed, both within and outside academia, but particularly within academia as it's imperative that such questions are asked/ derived from a context/ setting from where the incentives for a solution can/ should be found...

Alas, I had my own dealing with the subject matter a short while back (see ) which either makes me the best (someone who has direct experience in dealing with the subject matter) or the worst (to close to the subject matter to provide an objective opinion)individual to deal with the topic...

César Ramos said...


I'm your follower, but this is the first time I decided to write something as a comment.

I love your Blog very much, as the other writen in french, and I like your country very much!

I knew personally the Prince Sheik Fahed; later, he was killed during the War, by Irakian troops.
He was the President of K.F.A. (Kwait Football Association).

I had a lot of friends between the players, and coaches; although I dislike football, I worked with a football manager, and your Teams came to Portugal for training the King´s Cup (I suppose) etc. etc. I remember it... with my heart!

Very good people!

I agree with you in ur post! You´re right! Internet change us! Changed me!

I'm feeling better using internet learning and making new very good friends, with the better ideas(...)

Congratulations Sarah, because I know you are against not justified oppressions, and you like (or do the best) the freedom of expression...

Many thanks...
Please, receive my best regards!

César Ramos

sarah said...

Thank you Cesar for your kind words and support. It is very rewarding to hear from followers on their experience with my blog.
And to hear someone from Portugal interested in art and arabs, that is really the new world getting connected and sharing ideas and thoughts.
Yes: "to blog or not to blog" is not a question anymore... if you have anything to say, blog until you last breath...
Your valuable comment and support will help me keep on searching for interesting issues.
All the best for your blog too. I will surely read it from now on (with the help of google translator of course, et viva la technolgia)