Pratap Bhanu Mehta, columnist of Indian Express, reflects on the beheading of a teacher in a French school in recent weeks. November 2020.
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.
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.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is an Indian academician. He was Member-Convenor of the Prime Minister of India’s National Knowledge Commission, Member of the Supreme Court appointed Lyngdoh Committee on elections in Indian Universities, and has contributed to a number of reports for leading Government of India and International Agencies. He was on the Board of Governors of International Development Research Centre. He was Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Global Governance.He is on the editorial board of journals such as the American Political Science Review and Journal of Democracy.