Free speech is not absolute

Rights per se have no value. It is in the use to which they are put; it is the restraint and responsibility with which they are exercised.

THE massacre by Muslim gunmen of a dozen employees of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan 7 was an abomination, an outrage, an atrocity and “an evil deed without a name”. It was a savagely disproportionate act of revenge.

However, it must be recorded that some Muslims had indeed moved the French courts to prohibit the magazine from committing vile acts of blasphemy but had lost in the courts. It is a matter of speculation how things would have worked out if the admirable French (and European Union) apparatus against discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism had been extended equally to give shade to the Muslim minority.

Europe is in the throes of Islamophobia. Geert Wilders, Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen and French Southern League, Northern League of Italy, Democrats of Sweden, People’s Party of Denmark and Freedom Party of Germany are in the forefront.

How “the heroic Enlightenment-inspired West” must react to this affliction is a matter for Europeans to decide. Outsiders like me can only react with concern to how educated and otherwise wonderful people can delink Islamophobia from racism so that today in Europe it is possible to be both anti-Islam and anti-racist.

For eight years, the irreverent, sadistic, rogue editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo used the delightful art of cartooning not for humouring but for hurting and humiliating. The journalists defiled the sanctum sanctorum of all religions and pursued a warped passion for blasphemy despite being told that they were offensive to the faithful and risked danger to their innocent workers.

As we pray for the souls of those murdered, I hope that this tragedy will lead to fundamental rethinking on a number of issues:

Western values: It is argued by some that Charlie Hebdo represented free speech and, by extension, the value system of the West. To hold up the magazine as the standard bearer of Western civilisation is to sully the West. Charlie Hebdo was a bigoted, incendiary and racist publication. It specialised in Muslim baiting. It banalised Arabs and Islam. Surely these are not “Western values”.

An absolute right: Many Westerners assert that freedom of speech is an absolute, non-negotiable right. This view is not supportable morally or intellectually. Rights per se have no value. It is what rights are for; it is the use to which they are put; it is the restraint and responsibility with which they are exercised that is important.

The assertion that speech is an absolute right is a legal lie. No nation adopts an “all or nothing” attitude. Everywhere, freedom of speech co-exists with laws against defamation, contempt of court, privacy, confidentiality, public order, national security and terrorism. Nowhere does one have the right to shout “fire” in a crowded cinema hall.

A Council of Europe Convention outlaws “public provocation to terrorism”. Edward Snowden tells us that state surveillance of information is widespread in the West.

Public order laws are used regularly in the United Kingdom and Germany to criminalise pro-Nazi ideas and any analysis that departs from the officially sanctioned version of the holocaust. In February 2006, Austria jailed British historian David Irving for three years for denying the holocaust. Across Europe there is legislation against hate speech, racism, anti-Semitism and against defamation of whole groups.

The existentialist reality is that in the West, overt and covert censorship is widespread. Only that it is more refined, non-governmental and decentralised.

For example, Israel’s barbarous treatment of the Palestinians is censored out of the public domain. Any journalist, professor, activist, public official or clergy who dares to speak critically of Israel or report accurately the brutalities of its illegal occupation is made to pay a heavy price.

Spiritual aspect: Human beings are not merely physical creatures. There are also the spiritual, emotional and psychological facets of our personality. Just as we have no right to violate the physical person of another, we should have no right to injure the spiritual, emotional side of another’s personality.

No advocate of free speech should have the right to denigrate our religion, our prophets, our mother, father and other objects of our devotion to such an extent that our mind, heart and soul find it difficult to bear the hurt and humiliation.

If the free speech advocate pushes us beyond the precipice, he should expect some reaction. His Holiness the Pope said it plainly in Manila: “You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people’s faith, you cannot mock it.”

Concept of the sacred: What is missing in Western commentary on this Paris tragedy is lack of understanding of “the sacred”. Even in this day and age many people feel reverence towards their religion. Those who have lost this sense of the sacred have no right to humiliate and caricature those who still have it.

False attribution: There is a general tendency in the Western media that whenever wrongs are committed by Muslims, their religion is immediately given the blame. But a similar attribution is not made, and rightly so, when atrocities are committed, of a hundred-fold magnitude, by Christian leaders of the North Atlantic nations.

Selective condemnation: While we mourn the innocent who were brutally murdered in Paris, we should also express indignation at genocide and war crimes elsewhere. Day in and day out, innocent families are being butchered in Gaza. A 65-year-old genocide is in place in occupied Palestine. United States and Israeli drones knock out homes and mosques and extinguish lives regularly, mercilessly and in total defiance of law.

Compared to the Paris massacre (17 dead), several million have been killed in US-EU initiated and financed military expeditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Libya and Syria. No bells toll for them.

While condemning the perfidy at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, we should be consistent in our commemorations and condemnations. As Martin Luther King once said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

> Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Opinion , Shad Faruqi , columnist


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