Last month, Egyptian author Ahmed Naji was arrested and jailed for publishing explicit sexual content in his book, “The Guide to Using Life.” In a country such as the U.S., where the infamous “50 Shades of Grey” flooded theaters, it may be difficult to imagine a world in which representations of sexuality (tasteful or not) are grounds for imprisonment. But while it is tempting to blindly criticize the Egyptian government for what we may view as a violation of human rights, the situation is not so simple. In order to understand the forces behind Naji’s arrest, we must take a look at the concept of freedom of speech itself.
While Naji’s arrest may seem detached from our personal lives, Minnesota natives might be surprised should they turn their attention to their own state. Just last semester, the University of Saint Mary’s in Winona underwent its own confrontation with freedom of speech when faculty member Dave Hillman was fired for allowing phallic imagery in his class’s performance of “Medea: A Virgin’s Voice.” While the Saint Mary’s succeeded in maintaining Hillman’s termination, the American Association of University Professors stepped in on Feb. 3, asking the Saint Mary’s to justify the discharge.
Clearly, while Naji’s persecution would not fly in the U.S. public sector, the private sector is another story. Such a contrast should open American eyes to the blurred line that separates freedom of speech and censorship. Despite popular belief, the difference between the two is nothing if not ambiguous.
Take France, for example. The country has long touted a pro-freedom of speech disposition, popularizing controversial critic magazines of the likes of Charlie Hebdo, even after the publication sparked terrorist attacks with satirical Muslim caricatures. But within the same country, freedom of speech has been stifled, as the French government continues to ban the use of the hijab and other headscarves in public spaces. The ban has often been referred to as a “war on Muslims.” Kippas (traditional Jewish headwear) and cross necklaces are also banned, but law enforcement is disproportionately intolerant of the hijab. Aside from targeting the Muslim community, the ban has also been a point of controversy as it is considered an oppression of women’s sexuality, forcing women to dress to a degree of modesty with which they are not comfortable. In a country where satirical magazines are given free reign, this contradiction begs the same question as Hillman’s termination: What constitutes freedom of speech?
Such a contrast should open Americans’ eyes to the blurred line that separates freedom of speech and censorship; despite popular belief, the difference between the two is nothing if not ambiguous.
Most people think of freedom of speech as a spectrum; China sits on one end, with a new ban on criticism of public policies, and France sits on the other, with a laissez-faire approach to political criticism. But as we have seen with France’s hijab ban, this spectrum is not so simple. As a government relaxes its stronghold on criticism of its national policies, preferred religion, and its beliefs in general, it intrinsically incorporates laws that unconsciously prohibit freedom of expression in an attempt to maintain a “secular” environment ripe for social criticism.
In reality, this spectrum cannot sit flat on a page. As policies change to allow criticism, the very diversity they claim to strive to protect becomes stifled, in itself a violation of freedom of speech. The spectrum bends and contorts into what should be considered more of a circle. As France’s stance on freedom of speech attempts to distance itself from restriction of an interventionist government, it ends by approaching the very structure it sought to escape, sliding into the censorship section of the spectrum.
So what does this circular spectrum have to do with Naji? It means that foreign onlookers such as ourselves cannot simply turn a blind eye and chalk up the arrest to an inherently faulty form of government. We have to analyze the forces that drive the Egyptian government to stifle expression; instead of suggesting that the government radicalize in what we think to be the “right” direction, we must think about what changes could nudge the judicial system to find a better balance of freedom of speech.