Right to offend is an inalienable part of right to religious freedom, free speech

I stand with French President Emmanuel Macron in declaring that free speech includes the right to offend. Those offended are welcome to protest peacefully, but not to gag or kill the offenders.

In France, a Christian teacher was assassinated by a Muslim fanatic for showing his class controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed earlier published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. When Macron condemned the murder and defended free speech, another Muslim fanatic killed three Christians in a church in Nice.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed Muslims had “a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” Really? Does he also give Christians, Jews, and Hindus the right to kill millions of Muslims for Muslim massacres in many countries in past centuries? Or for more recent murders of non-Muslims by ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

Turkish President Erdogan was outraged not by the murder but by Macron’s defence of free speech. He called for a boycott of French goods. This was echoed by Muslims in several countries. Later, Malaysia and Turkey formally decried the murders. Yet the rhetoric of their presidents will fan Islamic violence.

In France, Charlie Hebdo was prosecuted in 2007 by a Muslim organisation saying cartoons of the prophet implied racism and hate speech. The magazine responded that it specialised in satirical humour, not racism, and had lampooned white racism as well as Catholics and Jews. One of its covers had a cartoon showing the prophet saying, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.” That’s humour, not racism. The magazine was acquitted.

But its office was firebombed in 2011 and attacked again in 2015 by two Muslim fanatics who killed 12 journalists. Charlie Hebdo courageously refused to change course. Hats off to it.

Many Indians argue that free speech does not extend to offensive speech. Phoeey! Every religion has strong beliefs in its own superiority, and this necessarily offends other religions. Freedom to practise any religion necessarily implies freedom to offend others, and tolerance by those offended.

All freedoms are subject to reasonable curbs. If you deliberately incite violence that can certainly be stopped. But not cartoons.

Christianity views those who reject Christ as “heathen” who cannot go to heaven and will go to hell. This can offend non-Christians. But does that justify burning the Bible or killing Christians? The Quran and Hadith led Muslim conquerors to convert by the sword and kill millions. That can offend others, but does not justify banning the Quran and Hadith. Hindu scriptures hold that bad people (including those of other religions) will be reborn as animals, including dogs and pigs. This can offend non-Hindus, but does not justify killing Hindus or banning the scriptures.

People of different religions can co-exist only through tolerance, not revenge or punishment. I have often lambasted Hindu fundamentalists for intolerance and violence. I condemn Muslim fundamentalists no less.

Some Indian Muslims abuse Macron. But at a webinar of the Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy, convenor Javed Anand said, “We are here to condemn in unequivocal terms, no ifs and buts, not only the man responsible for this barbaric act but all those who had any role in the instigation of the crime as also all those who seek to justify it.” He also demanded “the abolishing of apostasy and banishing of blasphemy anywhere and everywhere across the world”. Activist Feroze Mithiborwala said, “It’s high time religious people realised one basic truth: every religious text and tradition is offensive, blasphemous and heretical to the followers of other sects and religions.”

Well said. This Muslim promotion of secular values has similarities with the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh. Muslim protests are often led by mullahs, but the Shaheen Bagh protesters invoked not the Sharia but freedoms of the Constitution. The BJP paints them as anti-nationals, but they wore headbands saying, “I love India’, sang the national anthem, and festooned their dais with pictures of Hindu leaders of the independence movement who shaped the Constitution. The BJP should welcome Muslims who swear by the Constitution. Muslims in turn should condemn Islamist violence, whether in France or India.

Atheism is a religious belief no less than Islam or Hinduism. As an atheist, I demand respect for my beliefs. Yet this is widely missing. Few condemn the killing of several atheists in Bangladesh by Muslim fanatics. In India, three prominent atheists — Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar — have been killed, allegedly by Hindu fanatics. Like Charlie Hebdo, despite the risk of provoking fundamentalists, I stand by my right to offend. It is an inalienable part of my right to religious freedom and free speech.

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