Absolute freedom of speech and why I wouldn’t republish those cartoons
First things first, I believe in freedom of speech and expression as an absolute right. This right was exercised by those who produced and published the Charlie Hebdo cartoons which depicted the Prophet Mohamed. They had the courage to provoke and paid for this with their lives. Let me reiterate, this paper had the right to publish these cartoons and it is important to invoke here the now frequently quoted words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall who, in reference to Voltaire, stated ‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it’.
And here’s the rub: listening to the clamour of voices now calling on media everywhere to reproduce these cartoons, I am reminded of the fact that I did (and do) ‘disapprove’ of these cartoons. Maybe the nuance was lost to me in translation (I don’t speak French) but these cartoons always struck me as somewhat unfunny and grounded in the explicit shock value of the pictorial representation of the Prophet Mohamed. Any picture of the Prophet can be deeply offensive to a majority of Muslims around the world: including the majority who are not ‘fundamentalists’ (whatever that term actually means in the context of Islam) and who certainly would not condone the atrocity committed yesterday in Paris as an appropriate response. Of course, the fact that I disapproved or found them somewhat clumsy and unfunny is irrelevant in the debate. Again I reiterate, they had every right to print them. At the time I just questioned whether or not it was a good idea to do so. I think a lot of things and I believe I should have the right to say what I want: but that doesn’t mean I say everything that comes into my head…
The production of material which, to me, is purposefully designed to provoke Muslim anger (whether in the name of free speech in a secular democracy or for some twisted ultra-right or evangelical agenda) is of personal importance to me as someone who has spent the last 5 or so years living and working in a part of the world where the population is essentially 100% Muslim by faith. Somalia is a country where an ongoing conflict is framed by many of the belligerents in explicitly religious terms (the reality is, of course, much more complex, but that’s by the by) and I spent a lot of time explaining to people (including said combatants) that neither I nor the organisation I was working for had the ‘crusader’ intentions of destroying the Islamic faith. Indeed, my personal security as well as the security of my friends and colleagues (Muslim and non-Muslim) depended on it, and still does. Again, my individual safety is not a reason in my mind to limit by statute or force anyone’s freedom of speech of expression, and as I’ve noted above I believe that that should remain absolute. But words (or images) have consequences, and if one has an aspiration to create a global environment where genuine inter-religious dialogue or tolerance are possible, or where satire directed against of those who most deserve it (like the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo staff) can be effective, then republishing those cartoons will only hinder that cause.
I understand the sentiment – an act of defiance against those who would try to silence satire with violence – but one would be foolish to think that that would be how that gesture would be interpreted across the Muslim world (where the global and the local are often inextricably linked and where news media, images and narratives are available to people in some of the most remote and inaccessible places: think pastoralists with smartphones and a keen interest in global affairs). Republishing the cartoons would be interpreted not as a timely gesture of solidarity with all those who critique and satirise and speak truth to power, but rather as an endorsement of images which are offensive (by their very nature) to a sizeable proportion of the world’s population whose worldviews, identities and conceptions of self are defined by a powerful and profound attachment to the Islamic faith. Only further polarisation of the debate would ensue, and this in itself plays straight into the hands of those who peddle narratives of a global conspiracy against Islam to consolidate their power and pursue their own brutal agendas. Once again, I feel that newspapers have a right to publish these images if they choose to, I just don’t think it would be a very good idea.