This is not yet another massacre by Islamic fundamentalists. This time the victims are people who have made a career out of giving offence in a country where giving offence is legal and is called free speech.9/11 pushed the world into a tragic war were the only winners were arms dealers, Charlie Hebdo may well push us into hardening untenable stands on free speech, which may further worsen the clash of civilisations.The courageous outpouring of solidarity with the victims all over the world is the correct immediate response to this tragedy but we need to rethink the framework of free speech.It is clear as the light of day that making fun of Islam is setting yourself up as a high-profile target with rich dividends for terrorists.But does that mean that one should not do it?
It is a natural tendency to take the maximum liberty that the law allows, and to that extent the people at Charlie Hebdo are certainly not at fault.With complete unconditional sympathy and heartfelt sorrow for the victims, the Charlie Hebdo massacre is a result of not evaluating the consequences of our actions, by which I mean the actions of the French government.Let me illustrate my point with a hypothetical but highly plausible scenario-suppose small children were killed in the crossfire between the terrorists and security forces, and consider for a moment that the parents of those children always hated the stuff that Charlie Hebdo published.Would the family of those children be holding “Je suis Charlie” placards? These are the questions that we must ask, rather than stay trapped in the same rhetoric.
Right to freedom of speech and self-expression is an important human value and must be exercised within the framework of humanity.Making it criminal to slap somebody but perfectly legal to maliciously mock his most profound beliefs seems ridiculous.If we assert that the pen is mightier than the sword than surely the wounds that it inflicts must hurt just as bad or worse! As a creative person there is nothing I value more than free speech backed by the protection of my government. As an agnostic I have a lot of bones to pick with religion. I tweeted that “Religion is a blanket with a God shaped hole in its centre, which can be used to comfort, muzzle or hang oneself”,only after evaluating that it was a reasonable statement to make, with full cognisance that religion is dear to more than six billion people for good reasons.
The companion of “religious fundamentalism” is “free speech fundamentalism”.While the first asserts that a holy book is above human interpretation, the second hijacks free speech completely even at the cost of collateral damage to the process of pragmatic dialogue in society. I hanker for the right to criticise religion but also feel that the space for that activity should be a civilised one, and not built on the foundation of a blank cheque of free speech which becomes a licence for religious bigotry.Asserting that by not defending the right of publications like Charlie Hebdo to deliberately offend, we may be giving the terrorists a veto on our thoughts is taking as hard a position as the fundamentalists themselves.
As far as the French are concerned their stand that religion is a purely private matter leading to banishment of religious symbols(head scarves, crucifixes et al) from public spaces appears at loggerheads with an unfettered right to mock religion.”You may not practice your religion in public as it may offend others but you may criticise those same practices publicly with complete right to give offence” seems to be the flawed position. Hundreds of millions of peaceful muslims all over the world will be justified in viewing the west with suspicion when it supports inflammatory lampooning of what is most precious to them. Mahatma Gandhi when asked what he thought of Western Civilisation replied “It would be a good idea.”His mischievous retort aside we must recognise that we live in a divided world which cannot heal if we rub the salt of the Prophets cartoons on festering wounds.
India does not give this kind of free speech blank cheque to its citizens and that has surely prevented a lot of loss of life.Quite frankly we wont be able to handle the French brand of free speech and an extension of this harsh reality is that the world as a whole is not ready to handle it either.The repercussions of the stupid American policy of gun ownership is confined to their borders but unconditional free speech has created tragedy the world over.Along with a global village, the world has also become a global battlefield where the repercussions of a cartoon appearing in a Danish publication can lead to murder and mayhem in far off India. While with our history of constructive pluralism spanning millenniums, we have been wise enough to temper free speech with caveats, and those very safeguards have been widely misused in India to persecute artists and intellectuals, MF Hussain being the most pertinent case in point, apart from numerous senseless book banning, all completely unacceptable actions.
Lampooning the Prophet is a misuse of free speech that ill serves the current global order.It is imperative that in such a world we call a spade a spade without hurting the feelings of the spade, because an angry spade can hurt us real bad.Ultimately we need to give our children a world filled with less hate.
Lets protect God for now, since he cannot sue for libel.