On January 26, 65 years ago, when we the people of India gave ourselves the Constitution, we adopted a new way of life defined by individual liberties, secured by free speech. In the 7th century, when Prophet Muhammad proclaimed Islam, he too gave a way of life, but let’s first go hundreds of years before him to one of his ancestors, Abraham. In Muslim imagination, his story is etched as such: as a youngster, Abraham had a questioning mind about god. Once as everyone left the village for a festival, he entered the temple, beheaded the idols and hung up his axe on the biggest idol. When people returned, they demanded explanation to which he taunted: ask your big idol. Their religious sentiments were hurt; they threw Abraham into the fire. Abraham had just exercised liberty of thought and expression: free speech, which is essential to the legitimacy of democracies.
Cartoonists—or writers, prophets, actors, painters, journalists, playwrights—play a meaningful role: they question social tenets, challenge religious orthodoxies, force people to rethink long-held ideas and shatter the idolatries of their times, thereby upgrading the software of ideas of existing societies and enabling them to adopt new paths to common benefits. However, by doing so, these agents of change become outsiders in their social midst, are ridiculed, ostracised and exiled—or are killed as in the January 7 attack on the French weekly Charlie Hebdo. In India, young couples who defy social norms to marry across caste and religious boundaries are cartoonists of our times who chart new life ways, defend free speech by their actions.
At great personal risk, Abraham proclaimed monotheism, which informs Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Muhammad meditated at the Mount Hira, found enlightenment, emerged and proclaimed Islam, a new set of beliefs. At risk to his life, Muhammad disagreed with the people of Mecca, mocked their gods and questioned their religious beliefs. By doing so, he seeded a new civilisation distinct from the lifestyles of Meccans, who saw him as a dangerous individual and refused to listen to him; nevertheless he fought dozens of wars against them to establish a new world order. Both Abraham and Muhammad were lawbreakers, launched wars of civilisation for their times and birthed clash-of-civilisations theories much before American political scientist Samuel Huntington noticed that germinating around the world.
The ideas that drove the jihadists to kill the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are shared across India; Muslim youths in their teens and twenties expressed support on Facebook for the Paris killers. Expressions of beliefs are accepted tenets of democracies, but incitement to murder is no free speech. You have a right to free speech, but a limitation kicks in only when it harms others. In Hyderabad, Islamic cleric Maulana Naseeruddin used free speech to hold a funeral prayer for the Paris attackers, but his statement that anyone guilty of blasphemy be murdered is unacceptable. On December 26, Mumbai-based daily Urdu Times published an article that cited Qur’anic verses and several books of Hadiths (traditions of Muhammad), arguing Muslims converting to Hinduism in ghar wapsi should be killed. We stand for the free speech of jihadists but oppose their incitement to murder.
In all societies, people do have free speech but they do not exercise it. So, free speech begins the moment someone challenges it. Muhammad’s right to free speech kicked in the moment the anti-Muhammads of Mecca opposed him. The French cartoonists’ free speech started the day they were challenged. Free speech becomes necessary for the reason it is challenged. Free speech is unlimited because it is unlimited for Islamic clerics. Free speech is absolute because it is absolute for jihadists. Free speech must be defended from the moment a friend or a local tough opposes it. Free speech must be defended because the lack of it is the reason Muslim communities’ progress is blocked. It must be defended because our inability to do so stuns Muslim societies. Absence of free speech prevents self-reflection among Muslims.
Free speech, as expression of creativity, has empowered individuals to discover the wheel, steam engine, surgery, ships, planes, Internet and our travel to Moon and very soon to Mars. Philosophers, cartoonists and prophets have understood it. In 399 BC, Greek philosopher Socrates was accused of corrupting youths and chose to drink hemlock against offer to choose silence. In 1633, Galileo was punished for arguing correctly that the earth revolves around the sun. In 1989, Iranian cleric Ruhollah Khomeini issued fatwa against Salman Rushdie. A book must be published for the precise reason some do not want it to be published. A cartoon must be drawn for the exact reason that some do not want it to be drawn. Free speech must be protected because some are protesting against it. Free speech must be defended because if we do not, the anti-cartoonists, anti-Abrahams, anti-Muhammads will dictate our minds, our thought and our actions. Free speech is the engine of civilisation. We cannot draw a line on free speech, especially if someone wants us to draw a line.
If we allow jihadists to win, it will next invite murder. Certain values are non-negotiable for our democratic era. “Without freedom to criticise,” writes British philosopher Nigel Warburton, “democracies might degenerate into tyrannies.” Free speech must be defended because we are witnessing the rise of tyranny: people and groups think that it is right to ban books, banish painters, murder cartoonists. The rise of tyranny threatens the democratic future of our children. Certain Islamic beliefs harm not only Muslims but also non-Muslims. Our girls are forced to wear burqa in our midst and we must criticise the tortoise on whose body this set of ideas thrives. In 1950 we gave ourselves the Constitution, which requires us to stand for women’s equality. When we oppose the anti-cartoonists, we shape our society, we do it for ourselves. The fight for free speech is between those who want to drag us backward and those who want to propel us to Mars and beyond.
The author is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC.