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memri
March 15, 2018 No.
7384

Kuwaiti Journalist: Freedom Of Expression Is An Important Value, Especially In Religious Matters

In an article published on November 3, 2017 in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily, Ibtihal Al-Khatib, a Kuwaiti journalist and professor of English Language and Literature at Kuwait University, compared freedom of expression in Western societies, where it is sacred and rooted, with freedom of expression in Arab societies in the Middle East, where it is not implemented, because those societies are trapped in benighted religious ideologies, she said.

To illustrate her point, Al-Khatib, who champions liberal values in Arab society, mentioned former U.S. President Barack Obama's appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night talk show, in which he read out offensive tweets directed at him and made fun of himself, thus demonstrating that he champions freedom of speech even when it is at his own expense. She explained that the existence of freedom of expression prevents a build-up of anger among the public and allows regimes to survive.

She stressed the importance of freedom of expression on political issues but especially on religious issues, without which, she said, faith is false. Al-Khatib also called upon Arabs to take stock of the state of human rights and freedom of expression in their countries and to stop sweeping the subject under the carpet, which is "lumpy and bulging" with all that dirt.


Obama reads out offensive tweets about himself on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (Source: abc7.com, March 12, 2015.)

The following are translated excerpts from her article:

"Jimmy Kimmel, host of American [television] shows, broadcaster, writer, and producer, currently hosts one of the most important late-night programs of comic-satiric interviews on the American ABC channel… Kimmel varies his comic sketches, starting with street interviews, moving to interviews in the studio, and concluding with comic situations that he creates. One of the most famous [segments on his show], apparently, is the segment in which guests read out tweets. Kimmel invites one or several celebrities and asks them to read out the most horrible tweets posted about them on Twitter, usually funny and offensive tweets. His guests have included top Hollywood actors, the best soccer players, the most popular singers and musicians, major politicians, and other famous Americans.


Ibtihal Al-Khatib

"What astonished me most of all and amazed me as a viewer who comes from the Middle East – a region where freedom of opinion is a disgrace and freedom of expression is certain disaster – is that former U.S. President Barack Obama [himself] appeared [on the show] during his period in office and read out the most sarcastic and critical tweets about himself, after which there was a short monologue by Jimmy Kimmel in which he mocked the president's attire, specifically his jeans, which Americans always joked about and made fun of. And since a leader represents his people, it was important to Obama, who says that he believes completely in freedom of opinion and expression, to appear [on the show] as one who implements the values of freedom and as one who, by means of his appearance and his words, fully demonstrates the beauty [of these values] and stresses their sanctity. His words [about freedom of expression] were accompanied by deeds, and so he emphasized to his people that they were not mere clichés, but permanent and actual [principles of] conduct that he applies first and foremost to himself.

"I have no intention of debating American internal policy at this time; I am only providing an example of the importance [of the principle of] 'practice what you preach,' especially if you are a ruler who determines the rhythm to which the rest of your people march.

 "Based on the same principle, we are currently witnessing increasing racism and the revival of the term 'white supremacy,' for example, as the current [U.S.] President, Donald Trump, dictates a shameful and disgraceful rhythm, and many of his people are joining in. It is the nature of human societies that they don't hesitate to dance to the tunes of their rulers and leaders.

"With respect to the concept of freedom, what good does it do that Obama holds it so dear that he is even prepared to appear [on television] and make fun of himself and read out offensive reactions about his performance just to reinforce it? It is hard for people from nations such as ours to internalize this value, because they are immersed in political corruption and political fog in the guise of religious ideologies… shackled by the chains of the past, while their people are bound by long and tangled chains of tradition and customs that make any forward movement exhausting and burdensome.

"Affirmation of the concept of freedom by the ruler himself, who is likely to be the first victim of its consequences, reflects an understanding that emerged in the depths of ancient human history, an understanding which stems from long and bitter experience that led the society and its ruler to promote this most noble and sacred human perception – human liberty.

"But in our societies talk about freedom has become a [mere] cliché – we repeat the same discourse and [at the same time] use the same excuses [to oppose it]. Perhaps we [cannot] accept this perception and perhaps our regimes will accept it only if we speak in terms of their personal benefit [for the leader], like the discourse that prevailed in Western society more than a thousand years ago. Perhaps we need to stress that freedom of expression is a means to let off steam and that a people which expresses itself freely almost never rebels, but rather holds onto its freedom-supporting leaders for a long time. Freedom of expression relieves anger, and at the same time reveals what is hidden, for in times of anger, fury and shouting, in the heat of the moment, a person says more than he says [when he is calm] and exposes what is hidden… and then what is revealed is what was, and perhaps what will be.

"Freedom granted to the people benefits the regime more than anything else, for it makes the people's [sentiments] transparent to their leaders, [allows them to] relieve their anger, and leaves them calm, even when they protest. And what benefits a religious ideology more than anything else is opening the door to free criticism, criticism that preserves mutual trust, genuine faith without pretense that conceals fear, and religious ideas that are renewed when exposed to constant criticism and thinking and development.

"There is no limit to freedom, and also to criticism, when it comes to political opinion, and especially religious opinion ... Otherwise, faith will continue to be false, piety will continue to be playacting and religious ritual will be but a show through which man proves his affiliation and preserves his life.

"We may be nations that prefer to sweep the dirt under the carpet, but our dirt has accumulated, our carpet is lumpy and bulging, and time is bearing down on us to clean and air [the carpet] out. "