Does Lebanon Need The First Amendment?

By Mazen Kerbaj

Picture By Mazen Kerbaj

Jean Assy, a free patriotic movement activist, was arrested a couple of days ago for tweeting against the president. Should hate speech be protected or not by the freedom of speech? People can debate for hours and hours, and like Elie sums it up pretty well in his post,  Jean Assy has people to watch his back, Many other Lebanese – like you – do not.

Is It Freedom?

What is exactly the difference between the United States and Lebanon? Well, you got that right: Everything. But on the top of that everything, there’s the freedom of speech. With freedom of speech, comes the freedom to criticize, and with the freedom to criticize, comes democracy. And with democracy, comes everything else, be it good or bad.

Lebanon – compared to the United States – has no freedom of speech. And it’s not about the biased media, or the conspiracies, or the wasta, or whatever we tend to convince ourselves with. We do not have freedom of speech, because we do not have a constitution that guarantees us freedom of speech. Our constitution, unlike the American one, gives the parliament the right to issue laws that can regulate the freedom of speech. In the United States, the Congress shall make no law regulating the freedom of speech (First Amendment to the Constitution):

Congress Shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances

Meanwhile in Lebanon:

The freedom to express one’s opinion orally or in writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association shall be guaranteed within the limits established by law.

You can clearly see the difference between the first amendment and article 13 of the Lebanese constitution: The fact that there’s a law regulating freedom of speech, and that there’s a boundary, really says it all. And according to the law that’s inspired by the constitution, the religious leaders and president are immune to the freedom of speech. I do not understand how we dare to speak of the freedom of press, while something called the Publication Court (محكمة المطبوعات) still regulates the press and censors it. Even social media will be under censorship if the Lebanese Internet Regulation Act (LIRA) passes in the parliament.

The world was shocked in June when Muhammad Al-Qatta, a 15 year old child, got executed by Syrian rebels for blasphemy. KFC Tripoli was burned in September because of an anti-Islam movie that wasn’t even produced in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah made a (very) rare live appearance in a demonstration against that same movie. Draw a caricature mocking a Maronite Patriarch in a Saudi Newspaper, and you become bad. Speak against – Or insult, depending on your political allegiance – the other Patriarch, and you become worse. A human decides to burn the Coran 11000 Km away from Lebanon, and Lebanon’s peaceful – beware, that’s sarcasm – coexistence is suddenly under an imminent threat.

The Two types of Drivers

Two types of drivers in Lebanon exist. And no, they are not classified by gender, but by the way they react to the insults they get while driving. There’s the driver that starts insulting the other driver, stops the car in the middle of the highway, gets out of the car, beats the other driver, threatens him, possibly shoots him, before finally spending the night together at the police station. And then there’s the other type of driver: The one that hears the insult, smiles back while knowing that his mom is not a whore and he is not an animal – specifically a dog – , continues driving and reaches home where he later celebrates father’s day.

La Morale

When Jean Assi insulted the President, did the president become what Jean Assi said about him? No. It only made Jean Assi’s argument weaker. When that  American said that the Coran contains satanic verses, did it make the Coran contain satanic verses? No. It only made him look like a bigot. When the Patriach was made similar to the Devil in the caricature, did that make him the devil? I guess that’s a no too.

My Two Cents

You do not censor what you don’t like. That is not and will never be freedom. If you don’t like it, or don’t agree with it – even if it’s hate speech – you move on and/or respond to it. When you censor it, you’re acting like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand. To sum it up: You don’t fight an extremist bigot full of hate speech by putting him in jail because of his words. You fight him by letting him say what he wants, properly responding to him, and make him look like a fool.  Otherwise, the hate speech will spread faster, and there would not be any proper control over it. With the absolute Freedom of speech, you can at least know the impact of the thoughts and fight them. For Jon Stewart, a regime (Egypt) that is afraid of a Joke is not a regime. Can a regime afraid of an insult be considered one?

But Before wondering if the Lebanese need the first amendment and an absolute freedom of speech, we should start by wondering if they want an absolute freedom of speech. A right that includes with it the right to “blasphemy”, to write against the 18 sects, to draw comics about the prophet, -who knows- to side with the enemy publicly, to tweet against the president, to issue governmental and security leaks, while being simultaneously protected by the government.

Do the Lebanese really want freedom of speech?

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2 comments

  1. “what would a Lebanese want?” would be a good starting point. one interesting observation made on Mesopotamian christians after the so many alternations between the Byzantine and Persian rules they did not care who would be their ruler. Are the Lebanese really interested in living in an autonomous state and governing it by themselves? Or is it some few megalomaniac individuals seek the grandiose idea of governing a country even without the consent of the governed? Lord Dufferin choice in 1861 of having a non Lebanese Ottoman Christian as a governor of Lebanon did not come from void or a whimsical choice. Running a state takes more than education and more than patriotism and more than hard work. Only when the Lebanese will provide the missing ingredient they will have some chance, if any, to have their state. meanwhile, “what do the Lebanese want?” is the cornerstone question, Asking about freedom of speech is a luxury that they can neither afford nor even understand. In simple words a hungry man is not qualified to attend philosophy lectures. Jamal Pasha crackdown on journalists during world war one is related to the freedom of expression, yet I doubt that the Pasha motivation was acting with what Alexander Pope wrote:

    A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.

    Even when you teach a monkey to read and write, even when he is able to earn a bachelor and a Masters degree end even a PhD … to your disappointment this will just make him a monkey with a Phd. Likewise, if you have a monkey as a member of parliament or cabinet, let him be a speaker of house or a prime minister and even a president, this will not make him a man …

    Those shows we see in media echo what we have … the essence of our sad fortune. It is written in the books of wisdom “as a man’s faith is, so is he”, any deviation from truth, is it in form of outright lies or in the form of smart flattery or in the form of social politeness, leads to disasters and is what keeps the monkey short of becoming human.

    the deviation from truth is Pandoras box, surprised be not!

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