Analysts and researchers have recently begun to study “sacred values” that are basically deeply-rooted ethical or moral precepts that we hold dear regardless of whether they are political, religious or personal. When these values are provoked, even offering incentives to compromise over them is likely to backfire as the victim views an enticement as an affront. The sacred value will inevitably vary person to person but the response to provocation will be equivalent.
An African-American may be offended by the use of “N” word but not by someone excoriating MLK or Malcom X. Likewise, a Jewish person would be rightly outraged if the Holocaust is denied but may not care if Israel is criticized.
Which brings us to the recent Dallas cartoons event, hosted by anti-Islam activist Pamella Geller, that was designed to denigrate the sacred value Muslims attach to Prophet Muhammad. While debate and discussion on the Prophet Muhammad’s life, character and leadership should always be welcome, we need to recognize that Geller first deliberately tried to provoke Muslim sentiments; and when a handful of extremists predictably obliged her, Geller claimed vindication.
The historical evolution of free speech was a way to protect the weak from tyranny or fear of death if they spoke truth. It was not intended to incite people to hatred and thus indirectly beget violence. We must not overlook that the use of free speech right has enabled Pamella Geller and her partner Robert Spencer to inspire extremists as well. Anders Brevik, the Norwegian mass murderer, who killed to “protect” European Christian tradition is one such example.
However, because the transgression of Muslim radicals looms large in the media, their fear serves as a smokescreen for Geller’s promotion of hatred. Numerous Muslim groups, such as the global Ahmadiyya Muslim community, have condemnedextremism in the name of the faith and have reiterated that there can never be any justification for violence. That a violent response to blasphemy is itself a form of blasphemy.
While Geller’s hatred-driven show was deemed grotesque even by New York Times, free speech absolutists are milder when it comes to Charlie Hebdo controversy. It is argued that Charlie Hebdo lampoons ideas and not persons. If it did it so would expose itself to libel. Here is where the argument fails: Had Charlie Hebdo mocked only Muslim extremism then it might have barely offended Muslim sensibilities. Yet it chose to conflate the extremists with Islam’s founder and thus insult all peaceful Muslims who derive their inspiration from him.
Prophet Muhammad was clearly a real person – not an idea – who positively impacted human history by initiating anti-slavery reform, instituting unprecedented women’s rights and combating racism. When he is depicted in the same league as the extremists, who merely use his name, it undoubtedly attempts to draw equivalence between the two. By implication, it insinuates that ordinary Muslims also belong to the same category.
That Charlie Hebdo also crucifies Jewish and Christian traditions does not reduce indignity. It exhibits a misanthrope attitude that can hardly be a cause for celebration. Taking insinuating potshots at a historical personality through ridicule is different from criticizing a particular religious teaching. Yet one can detect some imperceptible taboos; Charlie Hebdo would probably steer well clear of cartoons drawing equivalence between Ann Frank and her Nazi captors. And if it tragically did so, one can rest assured that this would certainly not advance freedom of expression.
What should free speech absolutists do? For a start, condemn bigotry and hatred especially when it is cloaked in the garb of their own “sacred value” just as ordinary Muslims must condemn extremists using the name of their faith.
Perhaps the wisest words yet spoken in the current environment are by His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Head of the Ahmadiyya community. As he pointed out we should not be afraid to admit that there may be imperfections in man-made precepts. That freedom of speech becomes flawed if achieved at the expense of world peace.
May the agents of provocation realize this.