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Whenever a Muslim writer takes up a pen he tiptoes in a minefield

By Bashir Goth - posted Friday, 3 November 2006

Even worse than official censorship is censorship imposed by the community, which then becomes self-censorship. Friends, colleagues and even ordinary acquaintances all try to impose strict censorship rules on me under the guise of being concerned about my personal safety or honour. They demand I tone down my strong views about sensitive issues.

Freedom of the press in the Muslim world cannot be separated from freedom of expression in general. Journalists, due to their conspicuous public role, risk their lives everyday. They have been targeted and killed in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan and other countries. The Muslim world is not a friendly place for freedom of speech at all.

Journalists, creative writers and artists all share the same fate. The writer in a Muslim society is in shackles. Every time I put pen to paper it is a struggle against the tyranny of community-imposed self-censorship. Nowhere is Rousseau's statement that "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains," truer than in the House of Islam.


Everything is a taboo. Whenever a Muslim writer takes up a pen he starts tiptoeing in a minefield. You have to follow the flag signs of religious, cultural and social taboos. You should tread carefully to avoid shame, social estrangement or even death.

The beheading of the Sudanese journalist Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed in early September was the latest example of community punishment of a journalist-writer.

Writers have to endure internet blockages and black ink splashed on their art magazines and school textbooks. One of the most bizarre censorship actions I have ever seen was the blotting out of the sexual organs of a historical picture of donkey standing in an old Arabian market.

In the House of Islam, you cannot have a principle other than that of the community. Everything you do is referred to Islam. The mantra is "that's stupid BUT ... we cannot do this because we are Muslims." One hears this expression ad nauseam. In the Islamic world you cease to be a human being. You become only a Muslim, whatever that entails.

You are not allowed to be a person with vices and virtues, you cannot follow your own reasoning and you cannot be unpopular or defend an unpopular idea. You cannot go out of the circle. To express yourself freely means to risk death. And death indeed if you change your faith. Invention itself is considered as an act of blasphemy.

I am obliged to remind my readers however that Islam had its good days of freedom of speech in the middle ages when the Mutazilites and Asharites debated in public and in the royal courts about sensitive issues such as the creation of the Koran. This golden period has since been buried in the thick dust of history. With the rise of Islamic extremism in the present age, one can only hope for the return of such rationale.


On a personal level, I remember writing a poem in early 1980s, which was considered critical of Somalia's dictatorial regime of Siyad Barre. Later when I wanted to visit my ailing father I had to travel by land from Djibouti, taking a longer route, rather than risking an arrest at the airport of Hargeisa.

In another unfortunate instance, a lyric I wrote on raising awareness about HIV/-AIDS and encouraging safe sex had to remain under wraps because musicians were all afraid to set it to music. They considered its message un-Islamic.

With Somalia now under the grip of extremist Islamists who have already banned all kinds of artistic works and dissenting voices, freedom of press is their last priority.

Censorship in the Islamic world is instilled at childhood. Children are taught that there are two angels sitting on the shoulders of every person entrusted with the task of monitoring every good and bad deed the person does or says. This has prompted me to write in a piece of fiction about the character of a little boy who dived into a pond and vented out his demons under water where no angels or people could censor his words.

To survive in such an unfriendly atmosphere like this, journalists in the Muslim world have become like parrots that only echo the official line. Torn between the call of professionalism and that of censorship, they have to always adhere to the call of the latter. If it takes a village to raise a child in Africa, it takes a community to kill a writer, artist and a journalist in the Muslim world.

Therefore, to talk about how to promote freedom of the press in the Muslim world may be a question that could trigger another clash of civilisations.

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First published in the Washington Post on September 26, 2006.

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About the Author

Bashir Goth is a Somali poet, journalist, professional translator, freelance writer and the first Somali blogger. Bashir is the author of numerous cultural, religious and political articles and advocate of community-development projects, particularly in the fields of education and culture. He is also a social activist and staunch supporter of women’s rights. He is currently working as an editor in a reputable corporation in the UAE. You can find his blog here.

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