Free speech and sensibilities

By Saad Hafiz

The ghastly terrorist assault in Paris at the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo is a direct attack on freedom of speech, thought and expression, the basis on which all open, democratic societies are created. The bedrock of such societies is the protection of life, pluralism, openness and freedom of religion, conscience and security. Whether we agree or not, the value of publications like Charlie Hebdo lies in what they represent: an aversion to giving in to illogical extremism of any kind and holding the right to offend people on sensitive matters like religion. Irrespective of what anyone thinks of their editorial policies, all who believe in freedom of expression and the democratic way of life must express solidarity with such magazines, and condemn any acts of violence against them.

Democratic societies must not allow themselves to be coerced into restricting publications that interrogate the political, personal and ritualistic logic of religion and the micro foundations of religion’s relationship to individuals and the state. As advocates of free speech, we see it as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. We view it as a basic and particularly important need, which should remain unrestrained. There can be no free speech without the ability to offend religious and cultural sensibilities. Moreover, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority.

See More: The selective coverage of news, distortion of facts, out of context portrayal of information and mockery aimed to hurt cultural and religious sentiments can’t be justified under the slogan of freedom of expression.

The Paris terrorists were apparently fueled by the zeal to punish blasphemy and avenge the perceived mockery and insult of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In this context, it is worth noting that before all the politically motivated expansion and toughening of sharia, the Quran told early Muslims, who routinely faced the mockery of their faith by pagans: “God has told you in the Book that when you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them.” Just “do not sit with them” — that is the response the Quran suggests for mockery. Not violence. Not even censorship. Wise Muslim religious leaders from the entire world would do Islam a great favour if they preached and reiterated such a nonviolent and non-oppressive stance in the face of insults against Islam. These efforts are essential as they could also help our more intolerant coreligionists understand that rage is a sign of nothing but immaturity.

The murders in Paris are not an isolated incident but part of a global trend of young Muslims disenchanted with the modern world, finding consolation in the theology and ideology of literalist sharia, killing, vengeance, punishment, domination and imposing their worldview as state law. Al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS), Somalia’s al Shabaab and others are only manifestations of this mindset. The public face of Islam has been hijacked by Islamist fundamentalists with a destructive agenda. Islam is increasingly associated with belligerent rhetoric and violent behaviour. The faith is being disfigured by the anger, hate and paranoia displayed by the extremists. Simply blaming Islamic extremism on colonialism and imperialism, practiced by the west in Islamic countries, masks the fact that a radical minority of Muslims has drifted from the faith, which is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy. A consequence is that westerners — while confronting terrorism — are associating all Muslims with a violent hatred of western society. It is no longer enough to say that Islam is just as tolerant as all other religions, which was uttered endlessly by commentators covering the Paris horror.

See more: In curtailing free speech, the state is telling its subjects that you are fools that cannot be trusted.

The power of any faith comes not from its coercion of critics and dissenters. It comes from the moral integrity and the intellectual strength of its believers. Like freedom, tolerance is not a western invention or innovation; it is an Islamic virtue. As the illustrious Muslim caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib once wrote: “Remember that people are of two kinds: they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.” Freedom of thought and expression were vital components of Islam’s golden age, and lifting Arab and Muslim countries out of their current plight will require a return to that era of free inquiry. We must encourage and support the practice of the original form of Islam and its principles. We ought to accept the principles of tolerance, of acceptance (of counter points), action against wrong and most of all wisdom. We should submit to Islam as a way of life, offering a path of self-discipline and discovery, not a dictat to meekly obey. Our sensibilities are hurt by savage violence in the name of religion, the murder of children, endemic poverty, ignorance and gender violence, vicious sectarianism, racism, bigotry and hyper-nationalism. They are not hurt by silly and tasteless cartoons that we can merely ignore.