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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Explained Ideas: Why liberals, too, have got the politics of offence backwards

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: The idea that Muslims need to be especially protected from offensive speech is itself an expression of a kind of anti-Muslim sentiment.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 2, 2020 6:45:36 pm
France, France terror attack, Nice terror attack, France terrorism, Emmanuel Macron, Macron Islamic terrorism, Indian ExpressFlowers, messages and candles lie in front of the Notre Dame church, in Nice, France, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (AP Photo: Daniel Cole)

A middle school teacher in France, Samuel Paty, is beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet as part of a class on free expression. Subsequently, three more people are killed. The killings have drawn condemnation. But almost as if on cue, this horrible incident is being scripted to bear the weight of every historical grievance: Illiberal states like Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan are, in a cowardly way, positioning themselves as defenders of Islam.

Every single argument over the failures of French multiculturalism or its neo-colonial past is being trotted out as an explanation. Islam is being put on trial. The French State is being described as a provocation.

But Pratap Bhanu Mehta, contributing editor of The Indian Express, says that all this is in the service of avoiding some plain truths.

“No liberal should equivocate on the right to freedom of expression. President Macron was absolutely right to robustly defend free expression as a principle. Liberals have been too squeamish about defending the freedom of expression,” states Mehta.

“But every single time you compromise on freedom of expression, you set back the struggle of millions of people, including Muslims, struggling to free themselves from the yoke of oppressive blasphemy laws everywhere across the world”.

The idea that Muslims need to be especially protected from offensive speech, paradoxically, is itself an expression of a kind of anti-Muslim sentiment.

According to Mehta, “liberals have also got the politics of offence backwards”. “The more it becomes acceptable to circumscribe speech because it is offensive, the more offence people take. Offensiveness has become a competitive community sport in many contexts, precisely because it can be weaponised for political mobilisation”.

It is a cardinal liberal principle that no one should be targeted for being a member of a particular community. But the liberal expression of this commitment is to retreat into a taciturn silence over the connection between religion and violence.

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It is, however, not for liberals to get into theological disputes and define people’s religion for them. When they do this, they come across as if they want to exercise power over the religion. All liberals should be interested in is making sure that freedom is not compromised. What kind of religion is compatible with this freedom is for believers to decide.

“Getting into this hornet’s nest, as Macron did, is overreaching, and muddies the principle at stake. Liberal states are right to take actions against the perpetrators of violence, and should worry about the atmosphere that nourishes a fear of freedom,” states Mehta.

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