When British gymnast Louis Smith was seen mocking Islam in a video, he was sent death threats by those who took offence at his behaviour. When he made amends for his error by visiting two London mosques, certain others criticised him taking this step. "We should all defend the untrammelled right to poke fun at religion and anything else we might consider nonsense," one Independent columnist recently wrote. This attitude, one of rampant individualism, is perceived by some as being the hallmark of a free and open society, and the meaning of the liberating concept of 'Freedom of Speech' which we all support.
What is true essence of freedom of speech, however? Does it entail the right to offend, ridicule or slander whomsoever we please, or do we have a responsibility to curb our freedoms for the good of the society at large? Many national media outlets, both at home and abroad, have taken the former perspective, and through the divisive rhetoric which we are so frequently fed, cultures of intolerance have taken root.
In condoning hate speech against Muslims and condemning attempts to build bridges of harmony and understanding, and in accusing Islam of being an inherently violent religion without having studied it, we create the exact climate which allows mentalities like those of Trump to thrive. We cannot complain about the ideology of Trump taking hold when we ourselves prefer to build walls of division in our minds rather than seek to respect and love those who are different from us.
Ironically, Islam's true perspective on freedom of speech is one which the whole world, Muslims and non-Muslims, would do well to take heed of. If offended, Muslims are commanded not to retaliate with threats or violence, but simply to physically move away from the source of offence. The Qur'an advocates its followers to 'speak nicely to people,' and forbids them from hurling abuse at any other religion or group. If the world followed these two principles alone - treating others with kindness and responding to abuse with peace - the social cohesion and mutual understanding would be unparalleled.
We wrongly perceive Islam to be an intolerant, misogynistic and barbaric religion, and yet during our years of anti-Muslim thoughts, we have created a man, the potential next leader of the free world, who acts and behaves in exactly that way. Through our votes and our support, we have allowed the leaders of our societies to become the epitome of those exact principles which we despise. Trumpism is a natural consequence of the years of anti-immigrant rhetoric which we have accepted and allowed to take shape in our minds. If we point the finger of blame at Trump supporters in isolation then we miss the point entirely, that we are not separate or distinct from them, nor are we entirely devoid from responsibility.
Our collective inaction and apathy when faced with injustices both at home and abroad has come back to haunt us. We have failed to stop the powerful from destroying entire countries in the Eastern world. We have failed to stop the ruling classes from enacting extreme mass surveillance laws. We have failed to stop the cultural divisions in our societies from growing, to the point that we now view one another with suspicion rather than compassion. It is not all our fault, of course. We live in a world in which economic inequality is at shocking levels. For many, the struggles to simply survive and create opportunities for their children is daunting enough, let alone attempting to change the deteriorating trajectory of the world. Robert Kennedy addressed this issue beautifully in a 1966 speech:
"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
Today, 50 years on, the walls of oppression are as great as they have ever been, and it is only by standing up as individuals and following the unifying words of Kennedy rather than the current divisive rhetoric of Trump, that can lead to the shattering of the metaphorical walls of hatred. We must use the freedoms that we have to improve the lives of others rather than to impinge upon the freedoms of others through condoning hatred and oppression, either explicitly or silently.
Is there still time now to save ourselves? Perhaps. But rescuing ourselves from the pit of fire once we have already started falling in is much harder than avoiding the pit in the first place. We should have realised far earlier that abusing the beliefs of others and conveying a legitimate criticism or difference of opinion are two separate things. The latter leads to constructive debate, discussion, and social progress, and the former to hatred and division. The key to reverse the situation we now face, is, like Louis Smith realised, to understand the viewpoints and lifestyles of those whom our hearts currently demonise. After all, we share the same blood, the same hopes and dreams, the same planet which is being threatened before our very eyes by greed, self-interest and economic inequality. It is only by working together for the common good, individually and collectively, rather than turning on one another, can we truly create the world of peace and justice which we all desire.