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Limits to Freedom of Speech? When Legalism Replaces Humanism

To claim that everything should be subject to ridicule is to state that nothing is sacred.

January, 2009: French police spray demonstrators at Gaza solidarity rally. Pro-Palistinian demonstrations have been banned in France since July of 2014. (Photo: Looking4Poerty)

Charlie Hebdo’s editor once stated, in defense of the magazine’s offensive content, that the publication never stepped beyond the rule of (French) law. Stephen Fry’s quote was tweeted by many, to paraphrase – if you are offended by my words, so fucking what? So this means that the limits to our behavior are governed by what we can get away with as defined by the law? Treasuring our precious individual freedoms then means we are free to be rude to anyone about anything, in order to take a principle to its logical extreme, and test its limits?

But what about the outcomes of living in a society, as Tariq Ramadan pointed out on Democracy Now!; is it helpful to go around provoking everyone, when you have to deal with these people on a daily basis? Would you aim such provocation at your boss? I would say that such maximizing of lawful but anti-social behavior is in fact minimizing ethical care and respect for fellow human beings. The higher values of law are that they are supposed to protect the weak from being dominated by the powerful, but too often the reverse is true.

Let me be clear that the level or type of response was not justified by the provocation made by the cartoonists. A friend gave the analogy that a woman wearing a short skirt cannot be blamed for provoking her rape. But there is a power dynamic at play here. I am the first person to say that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. “Lighten up!” we say, to lift a heavy mood. But there is a line between benign encouragement and using humor as a coercive tool, to say, “You are wrong; this is how it is.” What I mean is this. The satirists are trying to tell Muslims not to be serious, when in fact they are wholeheartedly (not usually deadly) serious about the daily practice of their faith. Virtually all the Muslims I know have a wicked sense of humor concerning just about everything else. Yet their faith gives them purpose, and who are we to ridicule this? The Muslims I know are generally less interested in the metaphysics of truth than the pragmatics of living with dignity and treating each other decently.

I am not religious, but to claim that everything should be subject to ridicule is to state that nothing is sacred. This is an extension of the idea that there is no meaning to existence. Should we force others to accept our nihilistic ideas, and is this really promoting tolerance?

I will take the argument further. Most individuals are able to make the distinction between Muslims and criminal extremists who manipulate religious statements to their own ends. But some do polarize the argument and target Islam itself, such as the infamous Richard Dawkins. For such atheists, the “war” is about Western enlightenment and reason, over Eastern irrational superstition and sloppy thinking. This ideological bullying is itself an intolerant position, which belies the fact that atheism itself is a belief, not a lack of belief. To clarify, the belief in a godless universe is based on a lack of measurable evidence, rather than on incontrovertible proof that divine phenomena do not exist. This is then attempting to replace one belief set with another, an ideological colonization, through coercive ridicule disguised as benign fun.

With the ongoing protests in Europe, many are stating that they are standing for liberty in the face of archaic, outmoded, medieval views of social life (Islamism). Yet those in the Muslim majority countries that I have spoken to see themselves as attempting to guard themselves from the corruption and unbridled fulfillment of desires through consumerism that they see in the West – immorality disguised as freedom.

It has been said that we can poke fun at things that can be changed, but no fixed things like race, gender, disability and so on. Yet, religion for many is not a choice, but a normative way of life that is reinforced by parents, peers and religious teachers. Even so, most of the Muslims I have met do debate their religion. Islam did have its reform period, contrary to popular belief; it is just that it repealed these reforms in the name of going back to original principles, as in the Wahhabi and Salafist movements. Some Christians also wish for a return to the original teachings of Jesus, of love and forgiveness, but look, for example, at how forgiving the powerful has allowed the status quo to remain in South Africa, where white supremacists were absolved, yet the majority of the black poor continue to starve. Most of these principles were, indeed, less abstract and context specific, and now utterly inapplicable to our times.

Let us go to the heart of the issue of Islamic legitimization of violence against non-Muslims. It is true that selective use of the Koran can be used to find such justifications, whereas on the whole, the Koran is very clear that the taking of any life is abhorrent, and an insult to humanity as a whole. Where the Prophet justified the use of violence, it was when Islam was a fledgling, persecuted faith. Now, however, it constitutes a powerful global movement, and in no way justifies violence to defend it; defense should only take the form of the “battle” of debate.

To conclude, it doesn’t help to state that the “enemy” is ignorance either, of weak-minded people culpable to persuasion by extremist voices. Rather, the enemy is the continued removal and denial of the dignity of a people, through occupation, theft of resources, domination, taunting, belittling and ridiculing. Those who have been stripped of dignity, resources and indeed possibility have nothing left to lose, and in anger wish to lash out at those who have robbed them. It is understandable (not justifiable) that these dispirited individuals may seek to join forces with those who can re-empower them to act out this anger. All too often, no one asks what the source of all this “terror” is. It comes down to the continued neo-colonization by many Western states of former colonies: once in the form of land and bodies, now in terms of economic resources.

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