free speech absolutism

Written by Mir Adnan Aziz 9:09 pm Opinion, Published Content

The Dangers of Free Speech Absolutism

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton’s words can also be applicable to free speech. Mir Adnan Aziz holds that free speech absolutism—speech that knows no restrictions or limitations—has disfigured the sanctity of free speech. He makes his case by centering the piece around how Charlie Hebdo abused free speech, by continually publishing extremely offensive, and sometimes blasphemous cartoons.
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Mir Adnan Aziz is a freelance contributor.

“Satire”, wrote Jonathan Swift “is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own”. Old as communication itself, satire has evolved with humankind. In medieval times, a bard’s satire was deemed powerful enough to kill. A means to social criticism satire, like every other aspect of our individual and collective lives, is not sans duty and responsibility.

Dereliction of this all-crucial aspect leads to hate-inducing material in spoken and written words. It is encouraged by getting protection in what has dangerously become a limitless yet perilous ambit of free speech absolutism. One prime example is Charlie Hebdo, a French (so-called) satirical weekly paper. Referred to as Charlie, it proclaims its right to disparage, among other things, anything related to religious authority.

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It shot to notoriety in the Muslim world and fame in the West with the extremely insensitive and offensive publication of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) cartoons. This led to an attack on Charlie’s office killing 12 staff members. This act was condemned unequivocally across the religious divide. Muslim community leaders in France described the shooting as “an attack on French Muslims as well as their non-Muslim compatriots”.

Subsequent marches, with European leaders leading them, drew millions. The rallying slogan was Je Suis Charlie; I am Charlie. Unfortunately, the act of a few was lampooned with Islam as a religion and Muslims as a community. The provocation was further exacerbated when the offensive cartoons were projected onto government buildings. The use of the veil was banned as authorities cracked down on the Islamic community at large, citing their resolve to eliminate “Islamist” terror networks.

Charlie came up with the inciting mantra of “not to participate in ridiculing the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was to let the extremists win”. The western world lent support to this extremely offensive stand with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writing: “The right to blaspheme is essential to the liberal order”.

Charlie’s methodical insensitivity in publishing offensive material might not be all about satire. Fighting for survival, it had seen its readership dwindle from 120,000 per week to less than 30,000. Publishing Muslim-centric offensive material, it saw a reversal in its fortunes. The attack on its office was followed by large donations, record sales, and a legion of new subscribers. Five million copies of what Charlie called “the survivors’ edition” was picked up as soon as they hit the stands.

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Reveling in this Muslim-bashing adulation, Charlie printed a caricature of 2-year-old Alan Kurdi who, along with his family, drowned while trying to flee war-ravaged Syria. Charlie depicted this tragedy with heartless cartoons of the baby’s body with the caption “So near his goal”. One near a McDonald’s publicity board read “two children’s menus for the price of one”; yet another said, “The proof that Europe is Christian; Christians walk on water, Muslim kids sink”.

When Charlie published a cartoon with President Macron and his wife Brigitte, it drew the ire of many. Tiphaine, the first lady’s daughter, called it “totally outrageous to make such attacks in 21st century France”. President Macron dubbed it “a mockery; a terrible discourtesy”. Conversely, when the French government banned burkinis, Charlie’s front page urging Muslim women to loosen up and take to the beaches naked evoked no condemnation.

A recent cartoon, the latest affront to everything human, shows a huge pile of rubble in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that saw over 50000 perish, over 100,000 wounded, and more than seven million children affected in the Turkiye-Syria earthquake. It says “Earthquake in Turkey. Don’t even need to send tanks”. 

Hitler, despite what David Stannard’s book American Holocaust describes as the horrific genocide of the natives of the Americas, remains the most demonized person in history. Mere denial of the horrors wrought by Hitler is deemed a sacrilege, a punishable crime in the free speech western world today.

When Jyllands-Posten, a Danish paper, published caricatures of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Hamshahri, an Iranian paper reciprocated with the International Holocaust Cartoon Contest. The former was defended as an expression of free speech by the West; the latter was condemned with some even calling for what they termed retributive measures.

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Today, Muslim bashing is a surrogate of free speech. It has also become a monetary boom for many, given that Islamophobia has become a sure-profit industry, politically and otherwise, in the post-9/11 years. This is a world where user accounts can be suspended under the Covid misinformation policy. It is also a world where an individual is protected by slander and libel laws yet efforts to demonize a religion or its adherents are encouraged, applauded, and financed.

Ironically, what we have today is an ever-expanding web of intolerance snaring the world. Those entangled, entice incitement through hate speech. A very few within the targeted multitude react violently with the others claiming victimhood and glory for being the standard bearer of free speech. This vicious circle, with extremes at both ends, is a symbiotic relationship. It feeds off each other in an increasingly frenzied cycle.

Tolerance and empathy are the building blocks of each culture and society. It is imperative that we inculcate these attributes in our collective lives and forge a bond that educates us about the pain and anguish that unbridled free speech can and does cause. Free speech absolutism, like its religious counterpart, creates hate-induced barriers and divisions. Tolerance and empathy is the only bridge that can unite and create harmony and a far better world.

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