[Editorial] Is freedom of expression an absolute right?

As the debate over the horrendous terrorist attack on the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo rages, two divisions, one much larger than the other, are becoming increasingly evident. Interestingly, a thin but firm line has been drawn between them.

A part of the western “liberal” media that has refused to bow down to overwhelming pressure from its readers to reproduce the offensive cartoons is being flayed because it refuses to do so.

Unfortunately, this was one attack that was waiting to happen. There were several threats and unsuccessful attempts on the lives of the cartoonists who had created the offensive cartoons of Islam’s most revered leader — Prophet Mohammed. But finally when the spine-chilling operation, planned with military precision, was executed, the entire world was horrified.

More horror followed two days later with hostages taken in two places, mainly a Kosher market where four Jewish men were killed.

The world, including the majority of Muslims, condemned this act of terror, even while the latter condemned the sacrilegious and immensely offensive depiction of their most loved religious leader.
Fear and defiance

As shock, outrage, disgust and hate, not only for the terrorists but also for Islam, exploded in the social media, it was frightening to watch the vengeance unleashed on those who condemned or disapproved of the offensive cartoons.

In an act of defiance and solidarity with its slain heroes, the French magazine decided to adorn its next cover with another provocative cartoon, where a weeping Prophet Mohamed holds a placard saying “Je suis Charlie” ( I am Charlie), with the tagline : “All is forgiven.”

The normal printrun of Charlie Hebdo is 60,000 copies but seeing the phenomenal response the killings evoked and to proclaim that it remains undaunted, the magazine decided to print a million copies of what it called the “survivors’ issue” in six languages including English, Arabic and Turkish. As support came from around the globe the planned printrun went up to three million and then five million and yet those queuing up at kiosks had to go disappointed as all the copies were sold out in no time. The proceeds will go to the slain journalists’ families.

Pressure to reproduce cartoons
A major fallout of this terror attack was a plethora of furious British and American voices condemning their media for not showing enough solidarity by reproducing the provocative cartoons — a growing demand on social media platforms too. This was seen as a placation of the Muslims. Writing in The Sunday Times, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, summed up the angry public mood when he said that “Britain’s fear of criticising Islam has led to a self-imposed ‘blasphemy law’ in the country.”

He was obviously responding to angry readers’ comments flaying British newspapers such as The Guardian which did not reproduce the cartoons. Urging the British media to publish controversial matter that might be offensive to Muslims, he said, “A de facto blasphemy law is operating in Britain today. The fact is that publishers and newspapers live in fear of criticising Islam.”

Interestingly, from medieval times Britain has had blasphemy laws but these were specific to blasphemy against Christianity. Only as recently as 2008 was an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 passed, abolishing blasphemous libel in England and Wales. But some technicality remains about the law being abolished and not repealed. In an interview to The Hindu last week, Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, who described the French magazine’s Prophet cartoons as not blasphemous but “bigoted”, said: “In many western countries, there are laws against blasphemy. But they are restricted to official Christian denominations. For example, Britain has laws criminalising blasphemy, as do several other European countries, but they do not apply to Islam.”
Prove you are moderate!

Ridiculously enough, now the onus is on Muslims… scholars, intellectuals and most laughable of all “moderate Muslims” (as though the majority of Muslims aren't that anyway) who are expected to wear that tag, akin to the Star of David forced on Jews in Nazi Germany, to come out and educate their brethren. That it is okay to insult Islam, and calm and peace should be maintained when this happens. Terror and violence have to be denounced, rejected, crushed.

But at the end of the day how can the absolute right of only one side to provoke, offend and insult be upheld? Salman Rushdie, who faced death fatwas for The Satanic Verses, has said freedom of expression is absolute. “The French satirical tradition has always been very pointed and very harsh, and still is.” Along with John F Kennedy and Nelson Mandela he firmly believes that freedom is indivisible. “You can’t slice it up otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hedbo… But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”

This then is the moot point. If the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have the right to draw cartoons of their choice, so do other media publications have the liberty NOT to reproduce these offensive cartoons. If they exercise this freedom, they are dubbed spineless and gutless. The third lot — the law-abiding, non-gun- or bomb-toting variety of Muslims — who are deeply offended by the insult to their Prophet, are viciously attacked for expressing their outrage. By the way, Pope Francis has put a rider on freedom of expression; it is fine but has limits when it comes to insulting or ridiculing someone’s faith.

Nearer home, it was astounding, if not amusing, to watch the saffron brigade, out in full force on the social media, to condemn the dastardly killings, screaming about freedom and liberty. And yet their buddies will tell us that girls can’t wear short skirts, women should not drink. And MF Hussain had to breathe his last in an alien land. Granted there was a difference. This brigade ransacked galleries that dared to exhibit Husain’s paintings, and exiled him to Qatar, but they did not pump bullets into him.

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