Freedom of Speech is absolute

Charlie Hebdo has raked the familiar debate on freedom of speech. We are forced to ask ourselves what is too much, when restraint is needed, what constitutes an insult, who decides what constitutes an insult etc. The answers are at best subjective, and based on the beliefs and affiliations of the interpreter.

Freedom of speech in its true sense has to be absolute. As long as the ideas, expressions and orations stay in written, audio or visual forms, freedom of expression cannot be open to censor, however offending the message, however irritating the messenger. Limits, if any, can only be placed when the expression incites a direct call to murder, violence or bodily harm to others . Laws may vary from nation to nation on how to implement freedom of expression, but at the core, we must be clear that our right to speak freely without retribution would always be the ultimate freedom sought by humanity. The danger of subjective censorship of course results in one form of voice getting more or less airspace than deserved. Deserve, the word itself is subjective and must pass muster and close inspection. Who decides what topic deserves to air and what does not? Who authorizes anyone to be that authority demanding obedience to it dictats? Can a think-tank ever be objective enough to be the maker of such poignant decisions? History is rife with examples of rebellion when self-appointed censors try to take control over the tenor of human discourse.

When challenged, cultures, societies and even faiths unsure of its moorings tend to react more violently than secure entities or groups. Can a movie like PK, really alter the true believer’s quest to understand her faith? Can a cartoon of the Prophet truly takeaway the message of love and peace delivered to his followers? We let a few appoint themselves as the guardians of our beliefs, with moral authority to decide who should consume our faith and how they should consume it. That in itself is a sort of arrogance, as no one among us has a stronghold on faith because no one can prove he or she is really that much more close to the Almighty. If we think we are closer to the Almighty than the others, then we have defeated the purpose of faith. Faith teaches humility, understanding, love, respect, submission and acceptance. Those who break these holy tenets do not belong to any faith.

As a moderate, I am offended when the so called guardians and protectors of my faith want me to not consume some form of media because its supposedly incendiary to my faith. I am not part of some herd who needs to be “guided” and taught right from wrong by elaborate interpretations of my faith. In fact, the very act of the so called guardians of faith can freely tell me to not do something, enjoying the protections granted by that very freedom of expression.

Imagine an atheist society where all religious and faith based discourse are censored, banned and punishable by death.

Despite that, we cannot begin to censor the freedom of others to criticize my faith or any faith. In fact, to take the dialog further and create a better understanding for naysayers, it imperative that people speak freely of our fears and misgivings about each other and each others’ religion. Some will be insensitive and some will not temper their criticism with reasoning. Charlie Hebdo emphasizes why we must use the power of protest, dialog and discussion over violence. Yes, the images are insulting to believers. The publication has equally offensively lampooned other religions too. It is the publication’s credo, their business and ethos to do so in order to make their living. Nothing is sacred for them. But the last thing I want is to teach them what is sacred. It is not my place, just as it is not my obligation to bother explaining to the masses why my religion gets constantly misappropriated. I am a personal citizen and a private follower of my faith. I will continue to follow my heart’s calling to abide by the tenets of spirituality I have learned. If you are offended, leave, ignore, protest, debate, argue, use legal means to control the narrative. And no, I am not limiting this critique to one faith, this applies equally to all blind followers who resort to violence to shut the naysayers. I cannot condone the violence of vandalizing movie theaters over PK or banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or exiling M.F.Hussain for his questionable artwork, or banning Perumal Murugan’s book because it offended someone’s sensibilities.

A moderate has to learn to navigate these waters, and remember that every incursion to freedom of speech must be countered with resistance. Remember the moderates who did not raise their voices bear the burden of allowing a Nazi maniac to rise to power and roll out widespread genocide. So be moderate, let everyone speak their minds, let your freedom of speech not incite direct call to violence against others, use good judgement but don't expect others to use good judgement in return. Do not be a silent victim to your faith getting increasingly militant or violent or intolerant of others. Let those who wish to make fun of your idols, your symbols, your ideologies or your texts, do it. But never give up your right to debate, discuss, protest, write, draw, speak about the injustices done to your beliefs. Most importantly, do not let parochial, maniacal bigots take over your belief system of choice. A moderate cannot let anyone be the arbiter of expression because the moment I grant that authority to someone, I am assured abuse of that authority.

We do not share common sensibilities, what is a joke to me is a serious affair to you. Let me not tell you to lighten up just as I do not invite you to tell me to be serious. Your art is my blasphemy so let me not tell you what you should create just as I wont listen to your art recommendations. It is the freedom of speech that lets a Pope propagate Christianity in a primarily Buddhist nation. It is freedom of speech that lets Muslims run religious institutions and Madrasas in primarily Christian nation without fear. It is freedom of expression that lets a Sikh proudly wear his turban even when he serves in the army uniform. It is freedom of speech that lets Hindus build three different temples, all within 5 miles of each other, in one single city of USA. We enjoy these freedoms without batting an eye, yet this freedom is now threatened across the world because fundamentalists have suddenly developed thin skins and a host of sacred cows. The choice is yours, do you let them win by staying quiet or do you fight for your freedom to exercise your belief system?

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