Limits of freedom

Limits of freedom

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)