The raging controversy involving the caricaturing of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) by a French school teacher and the subsequent beheading of the teacher by a student has engulfed large swathes of the planet, especially of the Muslim world. The reasons for this and similar other controversies around the world involving the act of ridiculing of a particular faith, a religion, a god, a prophet or a religious head/leader are to be sought in the multiplicy of meanings which are being attributed to the freedom of expression.
As a bedrock of a society that is supposed to be founded on the idea of modern, egalitarian principles, the freedom of expression and speech constitutes an important and fundamental component of the democratic world order and deserves to be safeguarded against all odds.
Having said that, it is equally important not to lose sight of the flip side of the picture. Which pertains to exercising this right within the norms of decency and the limits as prescribed by morality and good behaviour. The botyomline is that the limits to the freedom of speech stop right where this right begins to hurt the sensibilities of fellow human beings. Whether it was the caricatures of the prophet as depicted by Charly Hebdo in 2015, or a replay of those caricatures involving the recent episode by the history teacher Samuel Paty of Paris some weeks ago, both these acts are plainly devious and ought to be condemned as such. And that for the simple reason that one can’t have the freedom to say or commit an act that has the potential to hurt the sentiments of fellow beings and provoke a reaction from the latter that may be difficult to contain.
Here it is pertinent to quote the Finnish foreign minister who says “When we make fun of black people, we call it racism, and when we mock Jews, we are called to account for anti-Semitism. But when we ridicule Muslims, that is hailed as freedom of speech”. Doesn’t that befit being pinned down as hypocrisy of the worst kind?
What is currently happening in France and in the Muslim world is obviously a natural reaction to this mad act of an individual, and subsequent to that, an equally reprehensible act by a student who had lost his senses by doing the unthinkable – beheading the teacher who had done the mischief in the class. However, if indeed the reaction of Muslims across the world to such mad acts as witnessed in France are natural – and even understandable – there is no reason to suggest that the act of beheading the teacher is in any way to be justified as a natural reaction to the diabolical act by the French teacher. As opposed to that, a most potent weapon of mass protest would be for the Muslim world to do where it hurts the most: boycott the French products in their daily use while avoiding at all costs the resort to violence. That alone would get the rulers of these countries to rein in such rabid elements in their societies and not to allow such acts of provocation to go unnoticed under the ruse of freedom of speech. In the meanwhile, for those who are ridiculed and sought to be provoked to act in ways that are self-damaging, there is no alternative but to stay calm and patient while displaying restraint in the face of such provocations.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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