Saturday, February 04, 2006

Unfettered freedom of speech?

As many commentators have pointed out in the current controversy over the Prophet's cartoons, Freedom of speech is one of the essential features of a democracy. Yet - we must also not forget that this is not an absolute freedom. There are checks on it in every society. You are not supposed to libel for example. Saying George Galloway took money from Saddam is one thing. But failure to provide any proof thereto is entirely different and can be really costly as some newspapers in Britain discovered.

Those who supported the action of the newspapers that published the cartoons have argued that there can be no limit on the right to caricature anybody, even Gods or Prophets. They wish to point out that for many years, the western society has caricatured the Christian figures with little to no protest.

This is not a strong argument. One can argue lack of strong protest probably shows that the Western Christianity is less attached to its religion than other societies are (Exhibit: Near empty church benches for Sunday masses across Western Europe).

It is also naive to claim that - look I don't react badly when my religion is lampooned, but why do you react extremely when your religion is lampooned? The reality is our reactions are clearly determined by our attachments to our beliefs. It so happens, Muslims are emotionally more attached to their faith. One could say the same about Hindus everywhere, Christians in Asia and Africa.

Listening to some of the debates, one was also able to hear some say these people came to Denmark etc for the freedom it offers, they should learn to live with the values of the host country. It is clear in this argument that the immigrants - who are now citizens - are being suggested to be belonging to a separate category of citizenship and must always be conscious about their places of origin. Something to which one can take offence by itself(One common argument on discussions in BBC went like - you dont have these freedoms in your own coutries etc). As citizens, these people have a right to put forth their opinion peacefully. Period.

On Hard Talk yesterday, the Culture Editor (Flummel Rose) of the newspaper (Jyllends Posten) that originally published those cartoons wondered why should I respect your taboos?. Interesting question. The taboo in this case - lest we forget - is painting of the Prophet at all. One may or may not observe it. But to paint him as a terrorist can clearly cause an offence (it is not a just a religious taboo). The one cartoon where Prophet is shown to stop potential suicide bombers - for example - by saying that the heaven has run out of virgins - conveys the message that Islam somehow sanctions killing of innocents. Many Islamic commentators have argued putting forth religious texts how Islam prohibits suicide and killing of innocents. It plays into a stereotype that the western mass media - more specifically some Hollywood movies and right wing outlets - have created. It was really immature on the part of the European newspapers to see this as exercising freedom of speech, rather than see it as more than a subtle incitement to hatred.

The Jews were persecuted in Europe with such common paradies as cruel money-lenders etc. Would it be acceptable in Europe today - for example - to caricature the Jewish faith or its God as saying 'No, no - I dont need anymore money; I have enough in my kitty' following say a severe economic depression in Europe - in the context where Jewish Multi-billionaires and oligarchs are perceived to control the world's purses? Wouldn't immediately it be termed anti-semitic? People are seeing double standards here. Let us also remember those cartoons were meant for a children's magazine.

It is also strange to hear from these European countries the argument that Freedom of Speech should be unfettered whereas it is fettered there over many issues: Holocaust (you cannot deny it), Homophobia, Racial incitement etc. The argument would be - the rider to the freedoms is our exercise of the freedom shouldn't threaten violence (in cases of Homophobia and Racial hatred - it will). That still leaves the holocaust.

The only argument plausibly one can think of for protection of holocaust memory could be Europe was host to it and hence this special provision in law in some countries. But then why would rest of the world care with such niceties and why do some get worked up when the Iranian President questions the Holocaust? And why should we be denied more closer scrutiny of the holocaust - like any other historical event that is put under scrutiny?! Holocaust was something that happened just about 60 years back. A tragic event - but likes of which has happened before and has happened after. What really to say of democracies that put historical events beyond question, but feels OK to insult to religions of all hues, admittedly?!

Freedom of speech is important, very important. But one cannot be purely dogmatic about it. We have to take into account the reasonable sensibilities of others. I stress reasonableness - because every emotional outburst cannot be catered to in a civil society. In this whole cartoon debate, had it been just the benign images of the Prophet, it would have been less controversial. It would have been too much of the Muslims to demand that non-muslims too not draw even a benign picture of the Prophet. The offence in this incident is that the cartoons - conceding perhaps it was an ignorant attempt - were clearly offensive, provocative to a lot of people. It promotes hatred and prejudices.

Argument that Europe doesn't take its religion seriously and so shouldn't rest of the world wouldn't wash with many people. European secularism seems to veer more towards less or absence of God in their lives, whereas in other parts of the World, it is more towards observance, trying to respect the religious symbols and co-exist. The West should stop imposing its values on others, get down the pedestal and start treating rest of the world with a little more respect and understanding.


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