Freedom to speak, yes, but not to hate
Public declarations of hatred and social incitement in media outlets are still common, but they take different forms. Before, hostile rhetoric against different ideologies was based on religious principles taken out of context. Today, some justify hate speech by claiming freedom of expression. But collective incitement is a crime: It is not the same as freedom of expression and discussion that can be tolerated even if it includes apparently racist ideas.
In the 1990s, hate speech emerged in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf along with regional and political disturbances and the development of technology. It also coincided with the imported ideas of the Awakening movement, which exploited religion, copied the culture of the Muslim Brotherhood and brought foreign political agendas into the Kingdom.
Each country’s standards of freedom differ according to their cultural experience. The concept of the Arab nation state is still relatively new, and requires a lot of time to mature. This can happen through the fusion of society into a harmonized civilized system — but it is no easy task.
This is evident today in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Wars erupted in those countries to promote notions such as nationalism, to demand reform and to reject the dictatorships of Bashar Assad, Muammar Qaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, they ended up being narrow-interest partisan projects.
Hate speech may seem spontaneous to some, often a simple expression of inherited identity, but in reality it is the most basic threat to the cohesion of the state. Allowing groups to call for antagonizing other groups in the same society endangers the whole country and paves the way for tribal and regional discrimination.
Examples in two different places at the same time indicate that the disease can take hold anywhere.
There is a crucial difference between the expression of controversial ideas in the context of a debate, and incitement to hatred that divides society and threatens the very cohesion of the state.
The first incident was in this part of the world, where racist bigots incited hatred of those mourning the death of the great Kuwaiti actor Abdulhussain Abdulredha. The second was in the US, where violent white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, to proclaim their superiority over other races. Incidentally, anyone who supports these people’s freedom of speech should note that no responsible US media supported or defended the racists: Their hate speech was rejected even though freedom of expression is protected by the US constitution.
In the US as well as here, social media is a challenge for the state because it is out of control and used by racists to promote their ideas and mobilize public opinion. Surely, if racist rhetoric became a phenomenon that threatened the stability of society, US legislators would intervene to set limits and sanctions on using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. But matters have not reached that stage yet.
Racism might seem prevalent in the US and people are allowed to express it, but in reality they are banned from practicing it. The law prohibits discrimination, such as refusing to hire someone or educating someone for racist reasons.
We know that sectarian bigots who criticize tributes to Abdulredha are not targeting him personally or insulting and rejecting him, but rather exploiting the occasion to impose their opinions in order to create conflict.
Like war, racism is a disease present in all societies and will always exist. Civilized countries aim to fight it with the law, and with education.
Expressing hatred of another citizen can undermine a whole country. So, when we reject hate promoters, it is not only out of respect for the late Abdulredha, or to defend him, but also to protect the cohesion of the nation.
Racism is an expression of hatred aimed at anyone who is not of the same region, town, sect, color, race or opinion. Such behavior leads to division and conflict in society.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view