Updated: Oct. 31, 2020 9:09:22 AM
A middle school teacher in France, Samuel Paty, is beheaded for showing cartoons of the prophet as part of a free speech class. Three more people were subsequently killed. The murders have been condemned. But almost at the right time, this horrific incident is scripted to carry the weight of all historical grievances: illiberal states like Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan are loosely positioning themselves as defenders of Islam. Each argument on the failures of French multiculturalism or on its neocolonial past is presented as an explanation. Islam is judged. The French state is described as a provocation. All this in the service of avoiding certain clear truths.
No liberal should equivocate the right to freedom of expression. President Macron was absolutely right to firmly defend freedom of expression as a principle. The Liberals have been too sensitive to defend free speech. There is a mistaken belief in some circles that upholding strong standards of free speech, especially in Europe, amounts to allowing colonial impunity or expressions of cultural superiority. But every time you compromise free speech, you are reversing the struggle of millions of people, including Muslims, who are struggling to break free from the yoke of oppressive blasphemy laws around the world. To put it bluntly, the use of cartoons or writings about Muhammad as a paradigmatic case to limit free speech does untold damage to liberal freedom around the world. It does more to cement stereotypes of Muslims than the vile propaganda of Islamophobes. To take an example, section 295 of the Indian Penal Code, which is badly used, has its origins in the controversy over Rangeela Rasool; and the Satanic Verses affair irrevocably transformed the policy of free speech in India for the worse. Reform will not be possible if you do not buy into the idea that sometimes offensive speech will pass, including about the Prophet. Liberals have reason to be concerned about colonialism and orientalist cartoons. But these cannot be alibis for compromises on liberal freedoms. The idea that Muslims should be especially protected from offensive speech, paradoxically, is in itself an expression of a kind of anti-Muslim sentiment.
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Liberals often have a well-motivated desire to respect, or at least not to offend millions of believers. Strong support for the right to freedom of expression does not require valuing offensive language; those who offend should at best be tolerated and not encouraged. They can sometimes demand a conviction. The defense of legal tolerance cannot close the question of what forms of ethical practice are appropriate for society. It actually involves this difficult conversation. These are fine distinctions that all liberal states should understand.
But the Liberals also rolled back the policy of offense. Many people who want to offend religion gratuitously are childish; often the motivation is to show a kind of impunity, especially towards minorities. But restricting freedom of expression, or reacting violently to it, ideologically rewards such impunity. It makes him more powerful, not less politically. This unwittingly confirms the stereotypes that minority groups cannot manage freedom. The more acceptable it becomes to limit speech because it is offensive, the more people are offended. Offensive has become a competitive community sport in many contexts precisely because it can be militarized for political mobilization. Moreover, it is otiose to think that in a globalized context, where images and ideas circulate instantaneously and where speech is decontextualized and re-contextualized in a way that no one can control, freedom will be better served by promising to any religious community a sanitized public sphere which could never offend them. If even an educational project in a protected classroom can be recontextualized as an offensive attack on Islam, then it is a paradise for fools to promise a world where the sacred will never be seen as violated.
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It is a cardinal liberal principle that no one should be targeted for being a member of a particular community. But the liberal expression of this commitment is to fall back into taciturn silence on the link between religion and violence. There is the rush to get into the comfort zone of “root causes”, some secular experience or deprivation, discrimination, colonialism, poverty. These are important for understanding how particular forms of violence feed. But the answer that “religion has nothing to do with it” is historically incorrect. Fanatical and politically mobilized religion has often not been without danger to individual freedom, whether it be a form of Islam, Christian or Buddhist fundamentalism, or Hindu nationalism. The idea that true religion would never incite anyone to violence is neither here nor there – the point is that people kill and behead in the name of religion. It is an interesting question as to what cultural power allows certain incidents to be labeled as religiously motivated. The same month as the beheading in France, a Dalit lawyer was killed in Gujarat for posts allegedly prejudicial to the Brahmins. Which one will be built as a religious murder?
However, it is not for liberals to get into theological arguments and define people’s religion for them. When they do this, they seem to want to exert power over religion. All Liberals should be interested in ensuring that freedom is not compromised. What kind of religion is compatible with this freedom is for believers to decide. Entering this hornet’s nest, as Macron did, is excessive and confuses the principle involved.
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Liberal states are right to take action against perpetrators of violence and should be concerned about the atmosphere that breeds fear of freedom. But if they do it in the name of liberal principles, they will have to adhere to those principles as much as possible. They must ensure that power asymmetries do not discriminate against communities. They will have to ensure that public order and public discourse are aimed at protecting freedom and not at stereotyping or subordinating another culture or producing forced uniformity.
It is a time when the only thing that unites the political currents of the time is a mocking joy in exposing the fragility of liberalism. All kinds of forces will cloud the ideological waters around violence in France to serve their ends. But remember the believer who thinks they exist to protect their God, not the other way around; and those who think that human beings cannot manage individual freedom take away both of us our humanity. It is time to move away from complicated politics and defend the simple principle of freedom, against all its adversaries.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 31, 2020 under the title “In Defense of Liberty”. Mehta is editor-in-chief, The Indian Express.
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