Updated: October 30, 2020 8:50:56 am
You cannot kill an idea with another idea. But you can always kill a human being with an idea.
Let us talk of two ideas that often come to blows with one another: The idea of freedom of expression and the idea of the sacredness of your religious symbol. Someone makes cartoons of this religious symbol — in this case, the prophet of Islam, Mohammad. A dedicated teacher in Paris shows these cartoons to his students in good faith. He believes it is necessary for the sake of the first idea, that of freedom of expression. I have no problem with that. Neither do all the Muslims I know.
But there are some Muslims, some custodians of the religious symbol in France, who get outraged. They post intemperate things on social media. They later claim that it was simply protest and criticism, not a provocation to violence. But they do end up provoking an angry, confused young man, who beheads the teacher that had shown the cartoons to his students, and is dutifully shot down by police officers.
Two bodies. Two deaths. Death is a physical matter. So is suffering: Even mental afflictions have physical consequences. All pain is felt in the body. The body that is not immortal.
The two ideas do not die. Their conflict does not die. They have no body that can be beheaded or shot. They cannot be threatened, imprisoned, abused, tortured, killed. All this can only happen to the bodies that espouse either, and more, of the ideas. It does not matter whether the ideas are good or bad, or, as is often the case, both good-bad. What matters is that ideas do not have a body.
Hence, these two ideas continue to be at loggerheads. France believes constitutionally in secularism and freedom of expression and inevitably feels the need to buttress these ideas. Its president makes a strong speech reiterating such values. The fact that elections are just a year away adds urgency to the speech. Some French towns project the cartoons on buildings. Some Muslim countries, where the rulers use the idea of sacredness rather than freedom of expression to rule, decide to boycott French goods. These are countries whose autocratic governments do not trust freedom of expression in any field. The lines are drawn.
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I am told that, in retaliation, the French government is considering asking school-teachers to show the cartoons in class. Schools are closed right now. But they will open soon. Will they be instructed to show the cartoons to all their students? What do teachers think of this proposal?
I call a couple of teachers I know in France. They are French-French. This means that they are White and Catholic. But they teach in schools where many students are from immigrant and Muslim backgrounds. Both these teachers believe in freedom of expression. Just as strongly as I do. But both say that this proposal, and all such proposals, leave them feeling uneasy.
“Why?” I ask them.
They cannot pinpoint the reasons for their unease. Then one says: “How do I get across to students who feel that I am just insulting their culture? I am sure they won’t say anything to me, but I might lose them forever. They will just bracket away everything I could teach them. I will fail as a teacher.”
Then the other one says: “And what happens if they listen to me and go out and get into the wrong crowd, or into fights? What happens if they, or I, become vulnerable to violence by extremists on their side or my side?”
I can hear what they are trying to express. I know why they cannot express it. Because we have a huge vocabulary for ideas, religious or secular, in all languages. But we have so few words to utter the body. The body that eats and touches, laughs and weeps, hears and sees, believes and doubts. The body that is always different from other bodies in its looks and attire and movements and hopes and fears — and, hence, needs full freedom to be what it is. The body that shares mortality with other bodies. The body that can be beheaded, or shot. The body that can be manipulated by ideas — religious or secular — to make itself vulnerable. That precarious body.
Even as I write all this down, I hear more: Arabs beaten up, people knifed in a church in Nice. Bodies.
How does one ensure that this body, the body that suffers and dies, has the freedom to live as it wants? After all, that is why people like me believe in freedom of expression. It is not the idea that matters, but its necessity for the body to live. The body needs to be able to express itself without retribution. But, say those who object to absolute freedom of expression, what if the body expresses hatred for others, hatred that can induce some angry, confused man, on the other side this time, to take a gun and shoot down Muslims?
Yes, that danger is always there. It exists on all sides. There are laws to prevent it. But note: It is a danger to the body. Finally, this idea or that can be used to threaten, imprison, abuse, torture, kill the body. Do not fight for this idea or that idea, if it is at the cost of the body. Stand by the body. Let it be free to live, and not suffer.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 30, 2020 under the title ‘Lost in Paris’. Khair is an Indian-English author and associate professor in the Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark.
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