Charlie Hebdo: Intolerance and Totalitarianism more than Freedom of ExpressionJiwan Kshetry I Society & Culture I Commentary I January 27th, 2015
Journalists using their pencils and pens being brutally murdered with Kalashnikovs, can there be anything more despicable than that? To borrow the words of a 'common man,' a bunch of terrorists trying to apply blasphemy law with AK-47 on non-believers, can there be anything more outrageous than that? Should we let some psychopaths decide what limits we should impose on our 'freedom of expression'?
All of a sudden, a large number of human beings worldwide are asking these questions to themselves. Mainstream media (MSM) all over the world have multiplied and amplified these questions to such an extent that another cohort of people with ambivalent feelings towards the issue are increasingly feeling guilty for not being as outraged by the French killings as the former cohort and thus not contributing enough to preserve the sanctity of freedom of expression in the world.
So, are the Charlie Hebdo killings all about terrorists trying to apply blasphemy laws in Europe to muzzle freedom of expression worldwide? It seems so, if the whole saga is taken out of context and understood within the compromised limits of 'conventional thinking' as decided by the MSM. The reality is, however, far more complex with no easy answers to the questions.
Before entering the prickly issue of freedom of expression vs sacredness of religious faiths, let me clarify this: I am a non-Muslim. A bit of quasi-journalism has made my skin thick, so I am not easily offended; even when I am, I mostly keep it to myself and it is beyond me to decipher the psyche of people who are eager to do as extreme things as blowing themselves up when offended by others. You can call me the prototype of a tolerant citizen in this increasingly intolerant world.
Minding your own business and leaving others to mind their own, that is my way of showing to the world that I am a tolerant and peaceful citizen here. If I start dictating others how they should run their business, I am no longer tolerant and peaceful. If I still say I am tolerant, that is sheer hypocrisy and mockery of true values of tolerance. My attachment to my faith does not at all resemble with that of the Muslims anywhere in the world, nor does it with that of the Jews, the Christians, the Hindus, the Jains, the Buddhists and so on. Still I am perfectly alright with their way of carrying on with their faiths: some indulging in idolatry, others condemning it, some claiming a single god, others proclaiming many, and so on.
Yet, I am now badly offended by what Charlie Hebdo was and is up to, to be honest, even more than that by the terrorists who rampaged the magazine office. The MSM- propagated arbitrary dichotomy - between people advocating freedom of expression by showing solidarity to Charlie Hebdo and those ready to sacrifice that freedom either out of indifference or out of passive complicity with the deadly terrorists - is a hoax to me. Increasingly, they appear as the two extremes of the same spectrum of intolerance and insensitivity to the belief and faith of the others.
What do Charlie Hebdo and its European cousin publications do? They were (and are) literally condemning people for their faith. If 1.6 billion Muslims in the world believe that it is blasphemous to depict the physical appearance of their Prophet (let alone the abominable portrayals of nude Mohammad prostrating with the genitals highlighted), who are European cartoonists to proclaim it otherwise?
One excuse being given by the die-hard supporters of Charlie Hebdo is that they mocked the gods and symbols from other religions equally fervently. This excuse seems to have convinced many at the threshold that Charlie Hebdo was, after all, impartial if ruthless at mocking different faiths. But this can be said only with the presumption that every religious faith has to have exactly same attitude towards this kind of offence. But who is to decide that?
Apparently, every contentious issue in the world today has to be settled according to the so called 'Western' values, the mutated offspring of the European Enlightenment; the god of reason being the god of all gods. Can the Muslims statistically prove that drawing horrid images of the Prophet are blasphemous? No. Can they prove in the laboratory that it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet in a particular way? No. How would they possibly quantify blasphemy and assign a specific score for each of the potentially blasphemous act? They cannot do that. It is in this basis that the enlightened European cartoonists gleefully draw those cartoons offending no less than a billion people worldwide.
Not long ago, I was also one of the eternal admirers of this god of reason; the European Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were the best things that could have ever happened to the humankind. After all, who can imagine the convenience and luxury of today's world without the advent of science aided by the enlightenment values? If we set aside the excesses dealt on the planet in the mad rush to deplete and consume every life-giving resource aided by the science, the contribution of the modern science and liberal values to liberate people from the shackles of poverty, ignorance and servility has been significant.
But at the same time, I have now come to realize the sad truth that, the god of reason has been, by now, abused so thoroughly by the Anglo-European rulers (formal empires until recent past and deceptive and informal but ruthless economic empires today) that it is now doomed to elicit the sense of pain, loss and humiliation from a significant proportion of people in the world, arguably from a majority outside the Europe and North America. Wasn't it the economic and military superiority resulting from the scientific prowess of the Europeans that helped them keep the rest of the world under their boots for more than a century? Were not the enlightenment values applied selectively among the Europeans as the same 'civilizing forces' eradicated the entire populations of the 'barbarous races' from North America to Asia and from Africa to Latin America? Was it not a century of egregious humiliation of the Ottomans that has given way to a bloody and blatantly unjust status quo in the Middle East today?
I am aware I may be accused of stretching my imagination too far while connecting the apparently unrelated threads from history to contextualize the French killings. The reality is, the sense of humiliation and injustice at the hands of the West among the Muslims from the past century was only magnified by the mass killings that they undertook over the past decade in the Muslim countries, including Iraq.
Even as the abyss in Iraq and Palestine is too raw to be hidden, the western propaganda machine has been able to whitewash nearly all of the past crimes that the West committed against the non-white races, including the Muslims during the last century. Unless I had read the eye-opening book 'From the Ruins of Empire,' by Pankaj Mishra, splendidly detailing the rise and fall of the Anglo-European empires, there is a good chance I would have been far less vigorous on criticizing the sudden infatuation of the thousands of people to the harmless slogan of freedom of expression as being parroted now.
The so-called 'Western' and 'Enlightenment' values, often used interchangeably, have mainly enabled the ruthless subjugation and emasculation of entire non-western races as articulated brilliantly in Mishra's book. A subjugated and ramshackle Ottoman empire may have been the thing of the past, as might have an Egypt alternately looted by the French and the British.
But the legacy from the past lives to this very day aggrieving today's citizens in the former Ottoman empire as much as their predecessors. The unending economic hardship under brutal and sclerotic despots propped up by the West aside, the sense of perpetual injustice forced upon them with violence or the threat of it - with the very existence of the state of Israel as the mockery of the sense of justice in the history of 'civilized' mankind - it is a miracle if the masses in the Muslim world are not increasingly inclined to grasp their religious faith even more strongly in the times of tumult and hardship.
Appraisal of this reality has made many analysts wonder not why the Charlie Hebdo killings occurred but why they are not occurring more often. This is neither to say that the killers succeeded in their attempt to silence the flag-carriers of freedom of expression in Europe (apparently the living members of the publication are coming back with vengeance helped by the masochistic publicity given to the publication by the attacks) nor to assert that it was the right way to respond to their allegedly blasphemous acts. It goes without saying that the new set of iconoclasts condemning the unjustified bravado of Charlie Hebdo, including this author, loathe these killers as much as anyone else; and there is no question of justifying their grisly deeds. It is merely to remind that if you sow poison, you cannot expect to harvest otherwise.
On a different note, whatever their intention, the terrorists have brought more trouble for Muslims in the West, most of whom have been already reeling under the viciousness of Islamophobia and xenophobia.
Coming back to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, their stance on their right to keep mocking Prophet Mohammad on the pretext of freedom of expression is as totalitarian and intolerant as that of the murderers of the twelve people on that fateful day this week.
One is ready to kill people in a purported attempt to deter people from further blasphemous acts, the other is ready to get killed to make the point that freedom of expression means exactly what he thinks it means and nothing else. One has been indoctrinated by the idea that the global caliphate under his caliph and Sharia rule is what the world needs, the other has been indoctrinated by the idea that the Western values around the supremacy of reason and the absolute freedom of expression is what is needed to cure all evils of the day.
Neither side is ready to tolerate dissent, let alone making peace with the opponent. The worldwide demonstrations in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo are the attempts to institutionalize a brazen conformity in the world where the absolutist interpretation of the freedom of expression embodied by Charlie Hebdo, ironically, vows not to tolerate anything that deviates from it; that too in the name of protecting the right to 'dissent' against the religious dogmas.
That is indeed the symptom of the ailing era in which we are forced to carry on.
If not anything else, you must be convinced by now that I am undoubtedly devout in my faith. And let me confess this before closing this piece, I am an atheist.
Jiwan Kshetry is Kathmandu-based freelance writer. He regularly writes for his blog " South Asia and Beyond " and occasionally contributes for Asia Times Online and Foreign Policy Journal . His primary areas of interest are poverty, injustice, corruption and violence, particularly in South Asia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @jkshetry.