Freedom of Expression and Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) in Syria

By: Shawkat Gharzeddin

The World Press Freedom Day (May 3rd) is a chance to shed light on the state of freedom of expression in Syria and to know if it is ascending or descending. Therefore, we can raise two questions, the answers of which feed into the curve of freedom of expression and help us know how that curve has been ascending and encouraging, and how it has been descending and discouraging. This also reveals the emergence of “fiqh obstacle” in the face of freedom of speech, and shows us how to overcome it.

The first question: what is the state of freedom of expression in Syria now? The second: what is the state of freedom of expression in the process of the Syrian revolution?

The answer shows two distinct and conflicting states of freedom of expression, on one hand, and highlights an old/new or renewed obstacle in the face of freedom of expression, on the other hand; it is the obstacle of the Islamic, Arab, cultural jurisprudential system, and the complements thereof of failure to make epistemological break with this system by the majority of Syrian public. Such obstacle can be added to other ones that suppress and abolish the freedom of expression such as the war, terrorism, despotism and disorder that Syria lives nowadays. However, overcoming such obstacle differs from overcoming other ones, because the cultural jurisprudential system is knowledge and only epistemologically can it be overcome and broken; an epistemological obstacle requires epistemological break off the epistemological system that has produced it.

On reality, throughout their tragic history, people have achieved the freedom of expression as an ideal that the different cultures aspire to, and the many international charters of human rights urge, because of effective role played by freedom of expression in the human progress of people. Some of those cultures have relatively realised this ideal, formulating it in legalized charters, while some other cultures have not realised it yet. On contrary, they seek to prove that it has roots in their past and that it is a continuation of some similar element of their heritage, like a branch being traced back to a principle. They, therefore, don’t seek to comprehend the new introductions of this ideal and don’t bet on its effectiveness. This way, these cultures give up their duty of domesticating the ideal of freedom of expression in their present and naturalizing it in the consciousness of the public.

The status quo of the Islamic, Arab, cultural, jurisprudential system is that it has failed to realise this ideal (freedom of expression) and tried to phagocytize and absorb it in the intestines of the past despite the deep try to realise and practice it in the context of the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution as a public welfare and new tributary to Arab culture.

In general, the freedom of expression has triggered the Arab Spring; from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, the freedom of expression, which was suppressed by the tyrannical regimes, expressed the Arabs’ ambitions, hopes and will of freedom, dignity and national democratic change. The effects of freedom of expression were possible to reach other countries. Within the same context, and in particular, freedom of expression has triggered the Syrian revolution, revolution of freedom and dignity. Freedom of expression has escalated and grown in the process of revolution through mutual feeding of freedom of expression and meanings of freedom and dignity introduced by the revolution. Via the freedom of expression of children of Darra, who expressed their will freely, writing it on the walls, and thanks to the free expression of the majority of Syrians of their hopes, ambitions and will, in the demonstrations, sit-ins and protests, the freedom of expression broke the long state of silence in Syria.

After being the “kingdom of silence” Syria has become the land of freedom of expression in all types and by all means. Before the revolution, walls had ears; fearful ears spying on the opponent speech, which meant that the tyrannical government knew everything happening in society and generalized the culture of silence and fear to all Syrians. But the “children of Darra” and Syrian activists changed those walls to a means for public and open freedom of expression with, during and after the revolution. It is this change from silence to expression that pushed for the eruption of the revolution; it also grew and escalated within it.

However, the state of this moment of freedom of expression can be characterized by the decline, retreat and contraction of freedom of expression after the aggravation of war, terrorism and disorder in Syria. This contraction has been accompanied with the emergence of the Islamic jurisprudential perspective which rations, phagocytizes and penalizes the freedom of expression. Thus, Syrians became before a rise in the freedom of expression and the possibility to realise it, on one hand, and before its decline and digestion into the fiqh inheritance, on the other.

In the process of interpreting the ideal of freedom of expression into lived reality in the Arab culture, there emerges the Fiqh obstacle to delay and hinder its realisation, working, thus, in synergy with the war, terrorism, despotism and disorder.

Thus, we see the Fiqh discourse canonizing the freedom of expression, which justifies the reality and ascribes a kind of mental and religious legitimacy to it, while, at the same time, it bans and suppresses the freedom of expression, which criticizes and opposes it, or epistemologically overcomes and breaks up with it.

Challenging the freedom of expression by the Fiqh faces the Syrian revolutionists, in the first place, with a counterchallenge: to break up epistemologically with it, overcome its limitations of freedom of expression, and confront its efforts to push the freedom of expression back to a past time in a way deactivating it; the Fiqh seeks to prove that freedom of expression has roots in the Arab/Islamic inheritance and is a continuation thereof, while it is a new and distinct state that is completely different from the Arabs’ past.

Though the Fiqh does not answer or respond to tangible existential problems, and to abstract epistemological problems raised by the revolution of freedom and dignity in Syria, it is still prevailing as a mainstream that has no answers other than those provided by the traditional Islamic jurisprudence about problems that have nothing to do with the current moment.

It is worth mentioning here that our Syrian society is no longer a perfect natural society, like that of bees and ants; rather, it is an imperfect epistemological one that seeks to perfection but does not achieve it; this means that the Syrian society is a historical, intentional, rational, realistic and current, and not a mere existence like the existence of rocks, or like an existence in the jurisprudential past. Yes, rocks exist and people exist, but the existence of people is much more than the existence of rocks, and needs so many definitions and new perspectives rather than the jurisprudential one. The Syrian society has become a world, reality, history and will… it has become knowledge and not jurisprudence.

We may notice that the mechanism of Fiqh is largely similar to the “bed of Procrustes,” a mythological robber who abducted strangers and forced them to fit into his bed by either cutting off or stretching their limbs. The Fiqh does the same; it takes a case, like freedom of expression, lays it on the “bed of Fiqh” (its measure); if the case is longer, it cuts it off, and if it is shorter, it stretches it to fit its measure. Thus, the case lays dead or as a shapeless substance on the bed of Fiqh.

What we need in Syria is to have freedom of expression open for our mental judgments as a compass to lead our route. We also need the Islamic jurisprudence to restrict itself to its domain. What happens now is that Fiqh legislates for freedom of expression, judgments and mental reasoning, getting beyond its domain. This way, the Fiqh practices itself searching for a principle for what it supposes to be a branch, for an old origin for any new thing. It does that by measuring against the old and the principle, depending on the ancient texts which it believes to contain everything. Freedom of expression is in no way part of the Fiqh’s area of activity and the Fiqh is not its reference framework.

The failure to achieve an epistemological discontinuity with the Fiqh, therefore, enhances the Fiqh obstacle in the face of freedom of expression, and confirms the circulation in a vicious circle ending with further decline of freedom of expression. This is due to its emphasis on continuity and abolition of discontinuity, emphasis on the old and rejection of the new in a try to demolish its brightness. Democracy is not the shura, and the conflict of opinions at the beginning of Islam is not a freedom of expression.

Restricting freedom of expression in general international charters and in each country’s own charters and restricting freedom of expression by local cultures raises a big paradox, which is the failure to restrict the “recipient’s interpretation” of the varied expressions. Just as the death of the author means the birth of the reader, the death of expresser must mean the birth of “recipient’s interpretation.” The paradox here is that only side of the relation is restricted while the other is left unrestricted in terms of his/her interpretation and understanding of the various expressions, which means that a recipient is free to casually judge the expressions s/he receives. This paradox requires the removal of the restrictions imposed on freedom of expression, rather than imposing similar restrictions on the recipient.

There is no doubt that culture limits freedom of expression similarly as war, disorder, terrorism, despotism and power do. It is the same suppression but in different faces. Also, the failure to achieve epistemological discontinuity makes the public in conformity with the Fiqh so that the public does not see the Fiqh’s obstacle in the face of freedom of expression in history. The epistemological Fiqh’s obstacle requires epistemological break with it. The epistemological break with Fiqh is done by refraining from the discussion of freedom of expression on the basis of Fiqh, whether it is to justify or defend it, or to hold its consequences accountable.

This article is published as part of the campaign launched on World Press Freedom Day, in cooperation with Syria Untold.
The main photo: a painting by artist Juan Zero. Source: the artist’s page on facebook, on 16/02/2013. It is used according to the fair use. All rights are reserved to the artist.
 Shawkat Gharzeddin: a Syrian author; he was born in Aleppo, 1971, and lives in Syria. He has an MS in philosophy, epistemology discipline. He is interested in the Syrian reality and problems of the Syrian revolution.