Let me begin by issuing the obligatory affirmation of the importance of free speech and the necessity of protecting it from any censure designed only to protect power from criticism.
In that same breath, though, I feel that I have also outlined the boundaries of free speech, namely that it is a right to be preserved for the purpose of maintaining a free and informed populace, not to provide a platform for the airing of every opinion, offensive, abusive, or worse.
In fact, England has a hate speech law which has already identified some limits to free speech. Although there have been some concerns about this law and the limitations and punishments it imposes, for the most part people have accepted that there is such a thing as “hate speech” and that it should not be allowed on public/shared platforms.
In my brief career as a journalist, I was very taken with the idea of ‘speaking truth to power’. This noblest of journalistic aspirations is what many have lauded Charlie Hebdo for, and admittedly, their often incisive and poignant satire did just that. In the case of their portrayal of Islam and particularly their decision to depict the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), however, I’m not sure the case is so cut and dried.
But before we get to that.
I first heard about the shootings via a headline on Facebook. I immediately put the BBC World Service on the radio in hopes of picking up a news bulletin. Instead, and uncannily relevant, there was a documentary piece on a certain sub-genre of Japanese Hentai.
Lolicon, and other such comics, portray prepubescent and underage children in sexual situations. A law banning these types of drawings has recently been vetoed by the Japanese courts. Opinion seems pretty split on this decision. In a society where the lines between fantasy and reality have always been a lot more defined, and the distance between the two far more pronounced than in the U.S. or the U.K. there appears to be more tolerance for fetishistic make-believe.
Such images have been illegal for sometime in both Europe and America, and public sentiment is very strongly behind this prohibition. Not only is there almost unanimous support for the ban, but through various international organisations, pressure is being applied to make the ban universal.
My point here is that we must realise that we all hold something sacred, and not just in our hearts but in a way that makes us strive to require others to hallow it also. As an absolute, the value of free speech makes a hypocrite of us all anytime we wish to protect what is most important to us from ridicule or abuse. As a cultural value on the other hand, we must recognise the need to contextualize its implementation. This is evermore important as society becomes increasingly cosmopolitan and communities evermore global.
So then. I would like to take the idea of contextualisation and apply it to the notion of self-censorship. While censorship imposed by governments against the public will is always suspect, every journalist, writer, artist, commentator and critic has the capacity to weigh their own words and determine both what the intention of their actions are and how effective a strategy provocation might be.
This is where we can return to the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo.
Although it can be argued that they respond in timely fashion to current events and that they sometimes make valid criticisms, it is hard to find in any of them an imperative need for the depiction of the Prophet. In most cases the publication of these images was preceded by requests from the French police to reconsider. The cartoons were often met with disapproval, not just from the minority muslim community but from the population at large. Even in France, a thoroughly secular country, where the burka has been banned and religion of any nature is viewed with mild distain, there was a sense that such images were unnecessarily provocative.
While it is all very well to defend free speech and uphold it as a pillar of democracy, it is quite another thing to defend someone’s right to pick a fight, or poke fun. Again, we must weigh the intention and consider the means.
Furthermore, any attempt to reach out to Muslims in order to garner their support or engage in dialogue, must begin with the recognition of the legitimate hurt and offense many may have taken. As conservative Christian responses have demonstrated (i.e. the Pope’s Charlie Hebdo kinda deserved it comment and others like it), there is a sympathy among the religious for the protection of the sacred. I would much rather see this as a point at which an inter-religious dialogue about self-censorship and respect could begin rather than yet another chance for contention.
It is also naïve and ignorant in the extreme to imagine that some dialogue similar to that between a citizen and her/his democratically elected government, exists between a Muslim and Allah. Even liberal Christianity recognises a level of authority beyond negotiable cultural values that resides solely with God. We must be careful that, in urging extremist elements of the Islamic community to reconsider their values in light of the teachings of their own faith, we do not make the mistake of assuming that the values of the postmodern, secular, West are fully compatible with even a moderate Muslim’s. As proponents of tolerance and inclusivity it seems counterproductive to push people into a position where they have to choose between their society and their God.
Although it is true that the Quoranic prohibition against images of Muhammad cannot be a prohibition for non-Muslims, that does not mean that we should exercise the freedoms granted to us by a secular government just for the sake of it. Is there scope to criticise the subjugation of women, the suppression of political decent, the limitation of the freedom of information and education and general socio-economic inequality without violating religious taboos? I think so.
Also read this: http://redflag.org.au/node/4373