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 neocolonial past is being trotted out as an explanation. Islam is being put on trial. The French State is being described as a provocation. All 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 freedom of expression. There is a mistaken belief in some circles that defending robust norms of freedom of expression, especially in Europe, is to license colonial impunity or expressions of cultural superiority. 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. To put the point bluntly, the use of caricatures or writings about Muhammad as a paradigm case to limit free speech does incalculable harm to liberal freedom across the world. It does more to cement stereotypes of Muslims than the vile propaganda of Islamophobes. To take one example, the much misused Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code had its origins in the controversy over Rangeela Rasool; and the Satanic Verses affair irrevocably transformed free speech politics in India for the worse. Reform is not going to be possible if you do not swallow the idea that occasionally offensive speech will get through, including about the Prophet. There are reasons for liberals to worry about colonialism and orientalist caricatures. But these cannot be alibis to compromise on liberal freedoms. The idea that Muslims need to be especially protected from offensive speech, paradoxically, is itself an expression of a kind of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Liberals often have a well-motivated desire to respect, or at least not give offence to millions of believers. Standing steadfast behind the right to freedom of expression does not require valorising offensive speech; those who offend are at best to be tolerated, not encouraged. They might sometimes require condemning. Defending legal toleration cannot close off the question of what forms of ethical practices are appropriate for society. It, in fact, presupposes this difficult conversation. These are fine distinctions all liberal states should understand.
But liberals have also got the politics of offence backwards. Many people who want to gratuitously offend religion are puerile; often the motivation is to display a kind of impunity, especially towards minorities. But restricting freedom of expression, or violently reacting to it, ideologically rewards such impunity. It makes it more, not less politically potent. It unwittingly confirms the stereotypes the minority groups cannot handle freedom. 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. Moreover, it is otiose to think that in a globalised context, where images and ideas circulate instantly and speech is decontextualised and re-contextualised in ways no one can control, freedom will better served by promising any religious community a sanitised public sphere that could never cause them offence. If even a pedagogical project in a protected classroom can be re-contextualised as an offensive assault on Islam, then it is a fool’s paradise to promise a world where the sacred will never be seen to be violated.
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. There is the rush to go into the comfort zone of “root causes”, some secular experience or deprivation, discrimination, colonialism, poverty. These do matter in understanding how particular forms of violence are nourished. But the response that “religion has nothing to do with it” is historically inaccurate. Politically mobilised, fanatical religion has often not been safe for individual freedom, whether it is a form of Islam, Christian or Buddhist fundamentalism or Hindu nationalism. The idea that true religion would never incite anyone to violence is neither here nor there — the point is that people kill and behead in the name of religion. It is an interesting question what cultural power allows some incidents to be labelled as religiously motivated. In the same month as the beheading in France, a Dalit lawyer was killed in Gujarat for posts allegedly prejudicial to Brahmins. Which will be constructed as a religious killing?
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. But if they are doing it in the name of liberal principles, they will need to, as much as possible, adhere to those principles. They have to ensure that the asymmetries of power do not discriminate against communities. They will have to ensure that the purpose of public policy and public discourse is to protect freedom and not to stereotype or subordinate another culture or produce a forced uniformity.
This is a moment where the one thing that unites the political currents of the time is a sneering glee at exposing the fragility of liberalism. All kinds of forces will muddy the ideological waters around the violence in France to serve their ends. But remember the believer who thinks they exist to protect their God, and not the other way round; and those who think human beings cannot handle individual liberty are both taking our humanity away from us. It is time to cut through complicated politics and defend the simple principle of liberty, against all its challengers.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 31, 2020 under the title ‘In defence of liberty’. Mehta is contributing editor, The Indian Express.