What is it about the dichotomy between modernity and regression, the two forces running parallel today, one dead set on taking the world forward and the other even more determined to pull it back? The ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, the imprisonment and then exile of the famed philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo from Iran for his revolutionary philosophies and criticisms, the self-imposed exile of the iconoclastic painter MF Husain from India, the furore over the recent release PK, the hullabaloo over the movie ‘The Interview’ mocking the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un are just a few examples of curbing freedom in an era of free men and women. It is disheartening to see that Maithripala Sirisena took over Sri Lanka’s presidency not on the grounds of development but on the basis of a promise to bring back democracy, that many countries still sag under the burden of their dictators’ whims and that, in fact our own PM tries to be the Big Brother (of the 1984 fame). Why are we still stuck on freedom in the age when environmental issues need more focus? Why do we still live in a society where freedom comes at an exorbitant price, where we get trampled in the wrestle between the polarising modern and retrograde forces ? Obviously where there is a positive, there has to be a negative to balance it. So, antiquity and forward thinking, left and right, north pole and south pole...coexist. In fact, one exists because of the other. It would be highly desirable and infinitely peaceful if a middle path existed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
So, what is it with dissent? What is it with saying things aloud? Why is there so much taboo? What do we fear? Do we fear that we will discover things and ideas that may change our established perspectives forever? Or do we fear that we will lose our way and digress from the truth? Well, if thinking and reasoning takes one away from the truth, then one might need to do a reality check on the truth itself. And if it is a universal and unchangeable truth, then it cannot be changed, least of all by caricatures and posts. Do we scold a child when he giggles or makes fun of a serious topic? I guess we do. Why? Because we do not have the innocence of a child whose mind is a blank slate, we cannot brook ridicule or defiance regarding the beliefs we hold dear. It makes us uncomfy, shakes us up, makes us take a relook at our belief systems.
Let’s question the concept of freedom. Does the freedom of expression include the freedom to offend? Does it include the right to defame people, institutions and belief systems? Does it include the freedom to incite, instigate and foment rebellion? Perhaps not. Perhaps that’s the reason why Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg got death threats over his refusal to ban content about Prophet Mohammed. Perhaps that’s why Saudi blogger Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes and ordered to pay a fine of about $266,600 after being convicted of insulting Islam for writing a liberal blog. Perhaps that’s why Charlie Hebdo was attacked and its editors choked to death. For their ‘insensitive’ and ‘fulminating’ content. The freedom of expression is a double-edged sword, a weapon more powerful than any other. When we talk about freedom of speech and expression, we forget that we do not live in a utopian society where individuals base their decisions on their conscience and good faith. We are required to coexist in a society where power play and ulterior motives direct the use and abuse of this freedom. But should we then make laws to regulate this freedom? After all, whom can we entrust its judicious use to? If not the public, certainly not the moral or the legal police. As for the victims of this freedom, there could be many ways of retaliation-taking the issue to court, going for a tit-for-tat act by perhaps coming up with a counter publication to quash a blog’s or a magazine’s ‘outrageous’ ideas or the easiest way- ostracization. However, the attackers resorted to violence. The most cowardly method, the worst way of saying that we are weak and our arguments don’t hold water. Charlie Hebdo made fun of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many other religions and political systems. It was a magazine which shouted eccentric...off-kilter...unexpected...unpredictable. It aimed to plant the seed of independent thought. But the extremists did what they did best. Silence them, snuff out their lives and hence, their voices, their thoughts. They probably tried to disprove that the ‘pen is mightier than the sword’. They probably did not realize that the power of the pen is such that the more you suppress it, the more it grows. Most of us did not even know about Charlie Hebdo but thanks to the terrorists, now every Tom, Dick and Harry would google the caricatures and articles relating to the Prophet that led to the horrific attack. The attackers have spread the magazine’s message farther than the publishers and editors ever intended or hoped for.
The question arises, what are we watchers supposed to do? Stay quiet and let it all happen? Or get mired in the mesh and run the risk of being flogged, banned or killed? If we are the Roman mob, then any Brutus, Caesar or Marc Antony can make us think the way they want. But every such Brutus and Marc Antony still have the freedom to speak their mind and every such mob has the right to reject or accept their ideas without any side fearing a backlash from the other.
Long Live the Martyrs of Freedom!