'Being Charlie Hebdo' Demands a World Worthy of Free Speech

Nothing will or can ever validate the actions of those who effected this unforgivable massacre, and the elimination of terror must be realised, without concession. BUT - if attenuating bloodshed and trauma for entire nations matters, it maybe best not to mindlessly encourage anyone else to 'be Charlie'.

And we do not have one.

We would also need to significantly reverse the painstaking civilisational rites of previous centuries, themselves unconsummated, or instead remember that freedom of speech goes hand-in-hand with critical thinking and rudimentary common sense - neither of which equate to extraneous affectation.

Freedom of speech is indeed sacrosanct, and nothing can dispute its inviolability; that is a truism that should preclude dissonance, but sadly, cannot. If we acknowledge that we live in a world in which lead-headed murderers have repeatedly evinced their will to mar, maim and massacre, keeping the peace for Bentham's greater good, and preventing even further gratuitous bloodletting does not equate to 'backing down', 'giving in', or 'cowardice'. It is called wisdom.

Mary Wollstonecraft catalysed a revolution in gender equality not through affront or bravado, but because she won the hearts of a nation, including of those whom she indefatigably opposed; centuries of crusading bloodshed did not cease asudden by insulting Lord Jesus Christ, but by developing, educating, and sensitising the masses within the Christian world. And the defeat of Islamic fundamentalism, an infirmity loathed by and afflicting Muslims most of all, will not be achieved by insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

As a Sikh, I am abundantly conscious of a history rooted in fighting fundamentalist intolerance, yet I encounter no difficulty in distinguishing the above, disconnected truths. Our Gurus - and their children, wives and mothers - lived and died fighting religious fascism, but they also built mosques after battle. If we cannot learn from our collective history, acquire a sense of perspective, and humanise our relentless fight against bigotry and terror - whilst also sparing no effort to crush it - it might be best that we stay well away from this domain altogether.

Failing that, the rubric that parents accord their teenage boys, "don't invite trouble when you know it's around the corner," should be imposed upon those who cannot comprehend that the six year old girl walking by their office might also be gunned down because of the ill-advised cartoon they wilfully choose to publish. Even though it is their right to do so.

Should she be gunned down, and can anything, ever, justify that ? Of course not. But could she be ? That question has been answered many times, including this fortnight.

Communicating with a modicum of delicacy is wholly distinct to solicitous political correctness; it can in fact contribute meaningfully to winning our collective war on fundamentalism, but it is unlikely that that was on the minds of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. Provocative disrespect, when you live in what is, in essence, a global war zone where no playground (or kosher shop) is truly safe, simply puts us all back by years, if not decades. And whilst caricaturing the sacred may be acceptable for most of us in the West, it behoves us to remember that approximately 90% of the world is not Western, typically far older and historically more progressive in civilisation than ourselves. Even if we do assume that we are always right, we should at least try to respect the most innocuous rudiments that others live by. For twelve year olds, this would be referred to as 'live and let live'.

The self-censorship that we individually apply in our daily lives, whether at a tea party, in the office, or with our elders, writ large, also applies between communities and cultures. To Muslims, who observe a deeply rooted tradition of aniconism, even a deferential visualisation of the Prophet Mohammad is prohibited. It costs us nothing to respect that, but also does not mean that we cannot challenge that which actually needs to be challenged.

Only the tiniest proportion of journalists deem it necessary to insult or imbrute what to others, remains sacred; doing so would be uncouth in any context, but it is especially irresponsible when it is amply evident that the default reaction of a savage minority is likely to involve a gun, blood, and children. In the case of the Paris bloodbath, this was even pre-warned, repeatedly.

Fruitlessly fleeting, self-indulgent journalistic salvos do not a guardian of free speech make, especially when the end result is the spiralling tragedy of this fortnight, or a chain of global riots and a reported 200 deaths in the case of Jyllands-Posten's obnoxious "Muhammeds ansigt". Mindless terrorists, lest we forget, are both mindless, and terrorists; they are best taken on by qualified security forces, not culturally unrefined, self-declared paladins with woeful judgment.

A debate between Anjem Choudary and Jeremy Paxman does far more, far more productively - and sans bloodshed - to sensitise people to religious fanaticism, than an image insulting a prophet revered by a fifth of humanity. And if we really seek to affect religious reform, the champions of that evolution will ultimately be found in the Islamic world itself, just as they were once to be found within the Christian world. The irony of the words below is that they apply as much to the culturally illiterate in our midst, as they do to blood-thirsty terrorists:

"Offending and insulting, is different from expressing an opinion that can be analyzed, argued on, and can eventually be accepted or rejected. But in addition to the West, we ourselves also have problems in this regard. Instead of logical criticism or debate, we only keep saying offensive things about liberalism, democracy and modernism. I had told some of our elders before, that the religion of today's world is 'liberalism' and we have no right to make insults about it."

Mohammad Khatami, former Iranian President.

In addition to those massacred at Charlie Hebdo's office, innocent bystanders have also been killed; various new attacks have been reported; thousands of additional security personnel have been deployed in banlieues, bays and basilicas; mosques have been vandalised; synagogues and churches are on high alert; deeper polarisation has led to further cycles of violence; scarce taxpayer funds continue to be drained; and decent, law-abiding Muslims all over France - in fact, throughout the Western world - need to think twice before entering public spaces, glance over their shoulders whilst walking to work, fix countless broken windows, and effectively apologise for existing, yet again.

Freedom of speech, as a concept, may well be black or white, but its employment requires the use of a brain; the barometer of a 'free society' was never to express absolutely anything and everything that comes to mind. We have collectively mourned enough fundamentalist butchery in recent times, and don't need to witlessly invite further reasons to do so, especially via armchair theorists who don't have to administer complex nations-states or patrol streets - and be shot dead in the process.

Nothing will or can ever validate the actions of those who effected this unforgivable massacre, and the elimination of terror must be realised, without concession. BUT - if attenuating bloodshed and trauma for entire nations matters, it may also be best not to mindlessly encourage anyone else to 'be Charlie'.

In the absence of an ever-elusive dharmic, zen world worthy of our most basal notions of freedom of expression, the deeply-embedded Hindu behavioural concept of ucitatva (appropriateness) might serve those for whom such conceit precludes elementary graciousness, an innate responsibility towards society, or at the very least, the lives of others.

Abhaey Singh is a social investor and the founder of the The Indian Debating Union. His promotion of 'Values-Based Leadership' and civil debate has been acclaimed internationally.


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