In Support of Charlie Hebdo

One must stand up for the right to mock, satirise and offend without a rider.

ByAbhinandan Sekhri
In Support of Charlie Hebdo
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The attack at the Charlie Hebdo office and murders of their staff by terrorists defending the Islam they believe needs defending must be slammed most forcefully – without any rider. Any “if”, “but” or “however” that follows the condemnation is a disservice to common sense, fairness and civilisation.

Growth, progress and evolution happen when better ideas replace old ones. If we don’t challenge the established, the worst of obsolete ideas that are way past their expiry date will never be rejected. If bad ideas aren’t rejected, new ones won’t find space. Without new and better ideas there is no evolution in any field. Freedom of speech and expression is fundamental for that process to play out. Freedom of speech and expression, which includes the right to offend, as it will anyone, who doesn’t want to embrace change, is the root of change. For that, satire and humour are the most effective and non-combative of all devices. They trump violence, angry quarrels and yelling at one another. It’s the most civilised, cleverest, most constructive and gentle of any method of challenging another. And humour is most effective precisely for those reasons. In Paris, that challenge was combated by the most primitive, ugly and horrific means.

One must stand up for the right to mock, satirise and offend whether you agree with drawing Mohammad with his pants off or not, without a rider. If you find that hard, you have just given up your right to be called liberal, civilised or tolerant. You don’t have to like or agree with a person’s work to defend their right to publish it. That’s the only way your own rights will be defended.

One can’t let other incidents of ridiculous loony elements making a nuisance of themselves enter a conversation where people have been killed in cold blood. That false equivalence does nothing more than providing ammunition to those against liberal values. It is true – liberalism has a convenient corner that is muted in its disdain for some while overly exuberant in that of others. If we are to lampoon we must strongly, extremely strongly say in clear terms that Muhammad is as much fair game as anyone else – Saraswati, Jesus, Ganesha, Nehru, Godse, Bapu, Ambedkar and everyone else.

When you see why Islam prohibits a visual portrayal of their Prophet, the irony of extremists wanting to avenge his “insult” becomes even starker.

It has been heartening to see figures representing sensible Islam (I won’t use the word “moderate”. You have sensible elements in all religions and you have idiots. The moderate–extremist divide can be misleading. I have seen some supposedly moderate voices say the stupidest things). Views such as the ones below are ridiculous because they go back to rejecting the concept of free speech while pretending to keep the peace.

Another instinct one sometimes witnesses was on display on CNN this morning. Arsalan Iftikar, founder of themuslimsguy.com, was repeatedly asked by the anchor if he would call the 16 per cent of French Muslims who support ISIS extremists. Mr Iftikar, who was most rational for the most part, could not get himself to give an unambiguous answer to that question. He claimed that you can agree with ISIS’ ideology but not support the murders and violence. Trying to separate the “ideology” of outfits like ISIS or AL Qaeda with their “violence” will not do the sensible section of the religion any favours. In those cases, violence is the ideology. Intolerance is the ideology. Trying to rationalise one aspect while rejecting another cannot be convincing.

While the world over the images that Charlie Hebdo’s staff paid for with their lives were published, in India most media houses have been very careful (Navbharat Times even took them down after having uploaded them initially). Freedom of speech comes with a rider here. Article 19 in India is subject to “reasonable restriction”, which is as vague as Article 66A of the IT act. In my view, the reason USA leads the world is that they take the first amendment (freedom of speech) very seriously. That sets your mind free, a fertile ground for innovation – creative, technological, institutional and all sorts of ideas. In India, politicians exercise freedom of speech most vociferously. There has been the offer of a reward by a BSP leader Yakoob Qureshi for the barbaric murderers in Paris.

This same nut had offered the same bounty on a cartoonist’s head in 2006. At the time he was a minister with the Samajwadi party.

Nothing happened to him back then and no action seems likely now either. Freedom of speech and expression is for politicians and the “reasonable restriction” is for the rest of us. That must change. And only we can change that collectively. Do we wait for the law to change and then exercise free speech or break the law and force the amendment? There is an honourable precedence for both. While those among us who value free speech can spend the rest of our waking time trashing each other and calling each other out on our ideological differences, on this one issue there must be one voice. Freedom of speech is too important to take lightly or lose in quarreling about things that come later.

Satire is an important change agent and humour makes some very bitter social truths easier to confront and deal with. Satire is not a news report. It’s an opinion. Satire and humour does not need restrictions and boundaries like national security and defamation, and there are enough laws to tackle those areas. It need not be at the cost of freedom of expression. This is a shrinking space that we must collectively fight to reclaim.

We at Newslaundry stand with Charlie Hebdo. If we are brave enough, steadfast enough and worthy, we would like to push existing boundaries.

“I think it is the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”  – George Carlin.

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