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We accept limits to freedom, but often deny they exist

columns Updated: Jan 18, 2015 02:05 IST
charlie hebdo attack

Let me start with a simple question: Does the Press have a right to publish articles and cartoons or broadcast TV programmes that mock God and satirise religion? Or are God and religion sacrosanct and beyond the right of the Press to question and satirise?

My immediate answer is not just the Press but all of us have this right. It’s inherent in our right to freedom of expression. That freedom includes the right to offend. In turn the ‘offended’ have a right to protest, but peacefully and without obstructing the ‘offenders’.

However it’s not quite as simple as that. The more you dig the more complex it becomes.

Let’s start with the objections or, at least, arguments made in opposition to this viewpoint. First, God is special. He is above rights and freedoms. He cannot be offended against. However, that only applies if you believe God made man. But if man is the master — or, at least, the conceiver — this argument crumbles.

Next, a more practical concern. Muslims can sometimes react violently to pictures and caricatures of Mohammad and Allah. When you know that to be the case is it right to deliberately provoke them?

For example, Britain doesn’t shy away from satirising Jesus. The Temptation of Christ is a classic example. But only rarely, if at all, does the British Press ridicule Islam and Mohammad. Isn’t that because it doesn’t want to play with fire?

Of course. However, caution may be wise but freedom is about challenging boundaries. If you stop yourself you could lose the right or capacity to go on. Second, satire is not meant as provocation but as the exercise of freedom. The provocation is either imagined or unintended and it has to be answered in peaceful, not violent, ways.

On the other hand there is a view that in France freedom of expression is taken to an extreme or fundamentalist position. This is much like French secularism. Whilst most people accept freedom must have limitations, France, at times, accepts none.

True. But, remember, freedom is always tested at its extremes. We all agree on the middle ground. The tough decisions are where we differ. That’s when the challenge comes.

Now, let’s approach this issue differently. Let’s start with a contrarian view of what satire amounts to. As Cardinal Silvestrini put it: “Freedom of satire that offends the feelings of others becomes an abuse, and here we are talking about nothing less than the feelings of entire peoples who have seen their supreme symbols affected.”

The West is not always deaf to this advice. In, at least, 17 countries you cannot question the Holocaust. You could be jailed if you do. Furthermore publishers won’t touch such books. All of that’s true of France.

So does this mean the West is extremely sensitive about offending Jews but far less so about Muslims? And is this double standards?

Yes, if you’re an offended Muslim. But no if you accept another reality. We all place checks on what we will ridicule or question. The Holocaust is one such for France. For us in India there are probably many!

This isn’t necessarily double standards if you realise and accept that every society considers something special. It doesn’t have to be God and religion, though it usually is.

The undeniable truth is we all accept limits to our freedoms but often, even regularly, fail to acknowledge them and, occasionally, deny they exist. That doesn’t exclude France and certainly not India.

The views expressed by the author are personal