The terrorist attack on editors, cartoonists and policemen at Charlie Hebdo’s office is an insidious trap to destroy freedom. At a superficial level, it seeks to punish what its perpetrators consider impunity: an insult to their religion. But the attack is even more sinister. It is to make sure that some things become unthinkable. That no one dares express, reproduce or, therefore, even entertain certain ideas.
But he attack also lays a deep trap, where every response can be seen by the perpetrators as vindication. It is, like all al-Qaeda traps, designed for a “heads we win, tails you lose” strategy. If you give a call, in the aftermath of an attack, saying we should respect people’s religion and not be provocative, the attackers have won a kind of victory. They have induced self-restraint. If, on the other hand, such an act inflames anti-Islam feelings, as, despite best efforts, it might, then also a purpose is achieved. It produces the kind of polarisation al-Qaeda would like. States might use the language of bringing the killers to justice. But in the era after 9/11, it has invariably led democratic states to commit all kinds of excesses in different parts of the world, to the point where their moral self-confidence is dented. Again, al-Qaeda achieves its purpose.
Sometimes, we respond to such attacks by saying the perpetrators are not representative of a religion. What we are, in fact, saying is that the religion could not be behind the instigation of a wrong. The act is a betrayal of piety. We make claims like “this is not real Islam”. The sentiment behind that claim is understandable. And it does capture the fact that violence might be the desperation of a minority rather than the sentiment of the majority of believers. But it again traps you in a zone of the unthinkable: you are not allowed to think that Islam might have something to do with this. One of the grounds on which we condemn the perpetrator — he is not a representative of Islam — becomes a ground for his victory. It rests on sequestering the religion from criticism. We think we are distancing the perpetrator from the religion; but in doing it we are also distancing religion from criticism. Charlie Hebdo might have wanted to mock religion. But by saying, with good intent, that Islam could not do wrong, we have implicitly acknowledged the sacredness of Islam. A victory for the perpetrators.
Sometimes, such attacks are intended to draw attention to double standards. Can a country that bans hijabs stand the ground of free expression? If liberty can be curbed for equality, why not for piety? Suppose we now publish the cartoons, not as an act of disrespect for Islam but as an act of defiance against violence. The perpetrators can confirm their narrative: what we see as defiance can be construed as further evidence of the impunity that warranted the punishment. The insidious trap is to suffocate us by making every response feed the perpetrators’ intent.
This is the logic of violence against freedom of expression. Think of a narrative history, not unrelated to the Paris attacks, of the original Rangeela Rasool case in India. This awful pamphlet on Muhammad, ostensibly written in response to a derogatory representation of Sita, arguably changed the course of Indian history more than any other event. It led to massive public mobilisations, the publisher of the pamphlet was assassinated and we had a far-reaching transformation in our laws with the introduction of Section 295A of the penal code. It also, in turn, unleashed a politics of competitive intolerance and double standards. All groups, except partisans for liberal democracy, achieved their objectives, by linking the taking of offence and violence in one chain.
But two thorny issues remain for democracies. Is mocking the founder of a religion an act of bigotry or satire or both? Is an attack on the founder of a religion indistinguishable from an attack on the religion founded by him? And is the attack on the religion, in turn, indistinguishable from an attack on the people who believe in it? A liberal democracy like India decided that it was more important to send a signal, through the instrument of the law, against possible malicious intent (always a tricky thing to determine). It compromised, with grave consequences for free expression, though some would argue it mitigated violence. But even democracies that have not compromised by regulating speech have had self-censorship to mitigate the risks of violence. For example, Yale University Press refused to publish the Danish cartoons in a scholarly book about the subject. The actual question of violence is not that easily dealt with through bravado about freedom of expression. Your act of publishing could cost lives, not just your own.
The liberal hope has always been that the answer to discourse you don’t like is more discourse; if you don’t like a book, write a book refuting it. But the same logic does not quite work with what people take to be offensive representations of the founders of their religion or group. An argument can be matched with an argument. A satire cannot straightforwardly be matched with satire. Matching offence with offence or blasphemy with blasphemy is possible in contexts where groups are competing with each other. But it will almost certainly be the road to civil war. Which is why the category of offence is a tricky one: those who are offended feel they have been put in an asymmetrical position and hence victimised. What is the instrument of response? Is mere condemnation enough? Or does it also become merely one of those routine gestures that mean nothing?
Ideally, we want to create a society where people don’t take offence. And that is our stock response: “be thick skinned”, “ grow up”. One of the more intriguing lines from Charlie Hebdo was that they would continue to mock Islam until it became “as banal as Catholicism”. Implicit in the thought is the idea that your religion ceases to matter enough, at least in public, that you don’t get provoked. But the Islamic State and al-Qaeda also trade on the hope that there is a bunch of young people who will see violence or a cause as their only escape from banality. Modernity is rife with all kinds of experiments — from the genocidal to the farcical — that promise such an escape. The real challenge for liberal democracies is not fighting the bad guys to the end of the earth; it is understanding why some fall under such murderous spells in the first place.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’