Charlie Hebdo

To frame it as gun vs free speech is deceptively simple. A response will need more courage, more wisdom.

By: Express News Service | Updated: January 9, 2015 12:33:28 am

Amid terror, one refuge has remained: our ability to laugh at fanatics determined to blow up the pillars of civilisation. Now, following Wednesday’s killings at the editorial offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, it’s clear even that one small freedom is at peril. There have been terrorist attacks that, in their sheer scale, dwarf Wednesday’s killings: the slaughter of innocents that went with the targeting of United States power on 9/11; the murderous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed; even India’s 26/11. The killings in Paris, however, seem to be distinguished by their target: free speech everywhere. It isn’t hard to grasp why tens of thousands spontaneously turned out in Paris to protest the killings. Charlie was the custodian of an ancient European tradition of raucous, bawdy satire, familiar to many Indians through the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Jonathan Swift or Tom Sharpe. It took on political Islam, but with equal verve attacked the church, homophobes and racists. “Bête et méchant (dumb and nasty)”, an early reader wrote in an angry letter to the editors; they turned it into the magazine’s masthead. Leftwing in its political stances, hostile to religion and political authoritarianism, Charlie prided itself on mocking power — the keystone of any vibrant society.
The real question ahead is how governments, and societies, react to this challenge. The easiest response is to appease the extremist by censorship or self-censorship, in the hope of averting violence. From the experience next door, though, it is clear that appeasement only empowers extremists further. The other is to dare the extremist. This, too, can have the effect of deepening the religious and social faultlines and producing the polarisation on which extremists prey.
Like all other democracies, India’s government and people will have to negotiate this challenge with care. Ever since 1989, when India banned The Satanic Verses, threats of violence from a wide range of religious groups have led governments to ban more books than any other major democracy. This has poisoned our cultural and intellectual life — and there’s no sign of the political maturity needed to address the problem. “It’s hard to be loved by jerks,” Charlie had the Prophet saying on the February 2006 cover cartoon. It’s hard to be hated by them, too. But the killings in Paris make it necessary for us all to consider how this challenge can be best met — while denying the violent veto power over liberal civilisation, while protecting the right to free speech that necessarily includes the right to offend.

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