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Freedom of expression is no fig leaf

We have been watching violence flare up across the Muslim world over the last fortnight.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2006 02:07 IST

We have been watching violence flare up across the Muslim world over the last fortnight. Protests have turned violent and lives have been lost. Property has been damaged and the chasm between the Muslim world and the rest seems to be widening.

The events have raised several questions that I believe need to be addressed. Where does freedom of expression end and respect for others’ feelings and beliefs begin? Why is the Christian Right Wing hell bent on portraying all Muslims as bloodthirsty murderers? Does the moderate Muslim, which I still believe comprises the majority, need to introspect about why the rest of the world sees us the way it does? Finally, a question that I have been asking myself and that is that if the cartoons were published last September, why did all hell break loose this February? Anger is usually spontaneous, especially when it is about something as passionate as religion. In this case it took months for the anger to manifest itself into the violence we are all seeing.

No right thinking person would question the right of the press, or the individual, to freedom of expression. In India, it’s something we hold very dear. Political leaders have paid a heavy price from time to time for trying to muzzle the press and because of this we have a fourth estate that has evolved into a responsible advocate of peoples’ issues. It does so in a manner that involves more self-policing rather than external control and seldom inflames passions in an irresponsible or hurtful manner.

The same cannot be said for the newspaper involved in this latest controversy, the Danish paper, the Jyllands-Posten. It published cartoons of Prophet Mohamed (SAW) and depicted him in the most clichéd manner designed to hurt. They now hide behind the freedom of expression argument, an argument that other newspapers have subsequently used to justify publishing the same cartoons in an apparent show of solidarity.

Up until this point I may have been willing to, rather grudgingly, concede some ground to these newspapers. I would have been outraged at the slight to my religion and the thoughtlessness of their actions but would have argued that we have to respect the right to free expression. But revelations of the last few days have ensured that I won’t concede them any space at all. They quite clearly have double standards. They commission cartoons of Prophet Mohamed (SAW) while at the same time refuse to publish cartoons of Jesus Christ. Why do they refuse cartoons of Jesus Christ? Because they believe that the cartoons will not be well received, the only bit of sensible thinking that they seem to have exercised. So it seems that it’s fine to inflame Muslim sentiments but not Christian sentiments. If this one single fact does not smack of double standards, then what does?

You can’t hide behind freedom of expression when it suits you regardless of the implications and then deny others the same freedom. What do you tell Al Jazeera when it shows tapes of threats being made by Al Qaeda? Is that not freedom of expression? Or worse still, what about those who wish to use freedom of expression to deny the holocaust or ask for the wiping of a particular country off the map? These are, for the record, points of view that I personally have strong disagreement with. These viewpoints are criticised, and rightly so, for hurting the sentiments of a particular community. Is the violence that followed the repeated publishing of these cartoons not another form of freedom of expression? If the answer to these questions is in the negative, which it should be, then the publishing of the cartoons cannot possibly be justified using the same argument.

All this could have been avoided with a timely apology, which wasn’t forthcoming. Instead we got a belligerent “we haven’t done anything wrong why should we apologise” argument from the newspapers involved. If Lebenon could apologise to the Danish Government for the destruction of it’s embassy, an act not of the Lebenese Government’s doing, then why not let cooler heads prevail? Extremists on both sides of the divide wait for opportunities like this to take advantage of. The pity is that we create these opportunities on an amazingly regular basis.

Omar Abdullah
Member of Parliament,
Lok Sabha and President of the National Conference

First Published: Feb 12, 2006 02:07 IST