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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Limits of Free Speech

Published in The Pioneer

Freedom of speech does not mean, and should not mean, the liberty to express your views until you’re politically correct, writes Anshul Kumar Pandey


The Charlie Hebdo massacres have justifiably ignited a debate on the limits of freedom of speech and expression. The magazine has been labeled as racist, sexist, anti-Islamic, homophobic etc. Intolerant Muslims, in particular, have been incensed to see the temerity with which the staff of the magazine has regularly and unapologetically published the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. For any casual follower of current affairs, this is not something new. Past victims of Islamic fury include the Dutch newspaper Jyllands-Posten, writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the video sharing website YouTube to name a few.

The intolerant fringe of sentimentally hurt Muslims have found an unlikely ally in the form of mainstream Leftists, some of whose members are bending backwards to adhere to the doctrine of liberal Islamic apologia. These apologists point out that you cannot express yourself so brazenly and ignore the sentiments of the followers of a particular religion — implying that you deserve the fate of Theo van Gogh and Charlie Hebdo if you do so. This pseudo-liberal narrative is at odds with the years of vicious chest thumping of liberal free speech advocates who have been insisting that when it comes to free speech, nothing is sacred.

To be fair, the anti-Charlie Hebdo camp would have made sense if the debate was about freedom of speech and expression in India. As a sovereign and multi-religious country, we have our own laws regarding free speech where we are allowed to speak until the Panditji or the Maulana saheb takes offence at what we are saying. After that, we are to write articles like this one and debate the limits of freedom of speech and expression. We are not complaining.

Except that the debate was not about freedom of speech and expression in India. It was about freedom of speech and expression in France whose Government does not care two hoots about what the Panditji or the Maulanasaheb or the Priest or the neighbourhood aunty thinks. They too are free to express their views. If they resort to violence, they are not offered quotas and Government jobs.

Instead, the full might of the law is brought down to bear upon them. The six-and-a-half million strong Muslim population of France, most of them immigrants who had zero freedom of speech and expression in their native countries, find it bewildering. The French do not care about their feudal mindset and do so even less about their touchy-feely sentiments. No burqa for you from now on.

Let us be clear. The attack on Charlie Hebdo, is an attack on the values of liberty, equality and fraternity and the ideas of emancipation, progress and modernity that came out of the enlightenment era and the renaissance. Thediktat goes something like this: You can enjoy your freedom of speech and expression until you are politically correct and selectively quote the peace and tolerance verses of the Quran. The moment you say something about Prophet Mohammed or satirise him or rub us or our religion in the wrong way, we’ll deal with you according to the laws of the seventh century.

The problem with such a diktat is that even the Muslims who have assimilated the liberal values of tolerance and the right to have dissenting views seem helpless at such a ghastly distortion of their religious doctrine. And instead of a worldwide call for introspection and reform, all they are getting is even more appeasement with the pseudo-liberal Islamic apologists acting as a front for radical hate-spewing and fatwa issuing imams, muftis, sheikhs and maulanas. To imagine a society where the prevailing discourse is above the cosmetic political correctness of such hate appeasers would require a thousand Charlie Hebdos, a thousand Ayaan Hirsi Alis, a thousand Salman Rushdies and a thousand Jyllands-Postens.

Unless we move in that direction, we can content ourselves with an Orwellian world where book bans, censorship and assassinations in the name of hurt religious sentiments are normal. If that happens, many would get their ideal Islamic state but the message of peace itself would be lost.