Free speech or licence to denigrate
When I went to America for the first time I was frustrated by restrictions on free movements everywhere, on the roads, at recreational places, at the sites of historical monuments and heritage buildings and I thought what kind of freedom and democracy is it that America is bragging about in the world when there are curbs on natural behaviour at every step.
I thought we were better off because our daily life was less cumbersome, we still enjoyed free mobility (that was before daily crackdowns, destroy operations, frisking and actual physical blockades and identity parades- denial of passports etc happened) Later when I thought over it I realised that such rules and regulations which put restrictions on public behaviour are necessary ¬ to maintain public order, decency and peace among people and prevent potential chaotic situations. I was reminded of Freud’s famous statement on how much civilization thrives on the repression and suppression of natural instincts, urges and drives.
This brings me to the current raging debate on free speech and the West’s deliberate offensive of reproducing the blasphemous’ caricatures’ as a coup de force against Muslims under the garb of reaction to the killings of the Charlie Hebdo team in a way as if such killings have taken place for the first time in human history! A civilization which prides itself on highly evolved civilization and regulates public behaviour at every step, how can it give unbridled freedom to insult and hurt and thereby disturb public decency, civility, peace and order? By upholding unbridled free speech which provokes and hurts the feelings of a billion population in the world, what greater good does it intend to serve? Is the debate really about free speech and its limits? Free speech to begin with is a liberal ideological stance and not a universal position. The starting point is not unbridled free speech which does not exist but basic human civility to respect others. The question is, should such depravity be allowed in human society which hurts, denigrates, mocks, insults and provokes half the population of this world by insulting what is most sacred and dear to them? What does this kind of free speech stand for or aim to achieve? Because Western worship of rationality demands there should be a reason for everything one does. To insult others is to treat them with crass insensitivity, arrogance of power, contemptuous rudeness, abomination and disdain. It is the deliberate impoverishment of human spirit to indulge in outrageous acts of hurting the sacred feelings of others and then to defend what is indefensible. What is the teleology of this calculated depravity? Free speech is an impossible dream, not implemented anywhere in the world historically, nor even today nor even in liberal democracies. There is no absolute freedom to insult. That is why there are defamation laws, sedition laws, professional ethics and standards, journalistic ethics, some set of norms of decent behaviour which curb the free flow of your vitriolic expressions and hate speech in all walks of life. Thus free speech is flawed in theory and politicised in practice. Even in western tradition free speech is upheld as a basic value for specific purposes- to allow expression of ideas that could lead to the betterment of humanity, free inquiry into truth and the cultivation of critical thinking about everything and not to dislodge and belittle others. Does any of these noble ends require freedom to insult or does insult defeat the very purpose of freedom? In the present context it is not about free speech but about how far power can go., how power using the notion of free speech can go to extend and enforce itself. Is it really conducive to society? Ultra liberals may disagree with all this as do so many pseudo intellectuals and members of haut monde on Indian TV Channels who argue endlessly in favour of free speech aping their western models to hurt and denigrate Muslims but rush to condemn those who speak of gross human rights violations, state persecution and repression in Kashmir or in North East or in tribal India using the same freedom of expression !
On closer scrutiny, it appears that it is not about free speech nor even about just insult. The reason this debate is taking place is because secular liberalism imposed itself on both the east and the west imperceptibly. It dominates not on the basis of its values but upon the strength of its militaries. Muslim world resisted this and continues to resist unlike Christianity and Judaism which crumbled under the force of Secularism. Islam did not.’Muslim lands were divided, dominated, colonised, conquered and exploited. The Islamic Caliphate was dismantled, but the Islamic mind remained, so the resistance remained. It is the quest to break this resistance in which these insults come, the quest to impose secular liberalism, to consolidate the victory eternally, to agitate, to provoke, to add insult to injury, to kick a man when he is down! Is there glory in that? ‘ Is there glory in asking people to accept that? ‘’The free world’’ seeks to dominate and impose, to extend its power,to exploit others and perpetuate its military, political and epistemic violence, perpetuating its Orientalist fantasies of Muslims being prone to violence, backward and unable to manage themselves in order to justify intervention’, from destructive interventionist posturing to popping up dictators in the Muslim countries, to destroying entire countries in war, like the invasion of Iraq and Afganistan, to unleashing drones in Pakistan, killing little girls by bombing their homes on top of them and the tale of imperialist aggression and domination goes on and on.. Is the modern West and half –baked minds elsewhere really in a position to lecture others about violence or about values?
It is this broader context of provocation in which violent Muslim reaction to insulting caricatures came. It is here that our focus should be. As for critique apart from insults, that linger on, stifling of serious debate is unacceptable in Islam. Critique of any ideas or beliefs is welcome in Islam, insult of any beliefs of peoples is not. In fact, prophet of Islam (PBUH) has insisted on respecting others’ faiths and beliefs and on deepening one’s own faith through meditation. It is in this connection that Imam Ghazali has said that unless we pass through the valleys of doubt and questionings, our faith is not authentic( in the Sartrean sense) that is unless we re- create our faith through our own efforts of intuitive reasoning, leading to our spiritual rebirth, our faith is bad, blind, something not born afresh in our hearts but having come down from others. You can critique Islam in intellectual tones, about why prophet is not prophet, why such and such thing is not true in Islam, why Shariah is or is not time-bound. Such books fill the best selling book stores in the west but none of these books have resulted in a riot. But to mock, to denigrate, to provoke, to agitate, that is something else and not acceptable.’
Modernity did not do away with sanctities, it merely shifted them from the religious to the worldly,’ tried to seek new frames of reference for it, it’s quest for new alternative traditions of the sacred in nature, art, poetry, music, painting and so on is well known.. Insult is not an acceptable mode of interaction for evolved mature self respecting people. It is the modus operandi of pseudo intellectuals with nothing to offer, no intent to engage, only projecting their insecurities on to others. Insult offers nothing to society except hate and divisions. It is not required for pursuit of truth, for open inquiry, for making governments accountable. All beliefs and sanctities should be protected from insult including all that which is most sacred to billions around the world-God and His Prophet. This should be done in the present context by the elevation of values, not the imposition of laws. We cannot regulate civility. We cannot force people to be respectful. This is by elevating the human condition, reviving the sacred and the most basic of human decency, excavated by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways. The fact that even to have this debate, frankly speaking, is the ultimate insult to human intelligence just as Lucky’s incoherent torrent of thinking in words is a parody of rationality in one sense and ultimate in rationality, in the other, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.( I am indebted to a debate on free speech in Australia and have used some of its expressions in this article)