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Offend, but within limits

Offend, but within limits
The recent debate over a cartoon published in Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine, featuring a figure resembling Prophet Mohammed can be viewed in different lights. Some claim that this is a clash between the Islamic and the Western world while others say the debate is about the unfettered right to free speech and artistic freedom.

While casting their Prophet in an obscene light, the cartoons/caricatures evoked strong reactions from the Muslims all across the world. The magazine attacked the most important figure of Islam. And all this was done eight days after a film mocking the prophet triggered angry protests.

Such outrage can easily be understood because everyone in this world has their own culture and the believers of Islam specifically feel that their religion as part of their culture was seriously insulted by a cartoonist in the Western world. In a democracy, if we stand by our right to offend, we must stand by others’ right to feel offended as well. No reasonable citizen can deny another citizen’s right to feel the froth.

Freedom of speech is often considered to be one of the most basic tenets of democracy. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety for the protection of the reputation of rights of others.

Quoting Stephane Charbonnier, director of Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine, ‘My staff is “not really fueling the fire” but rather using its freedom of expression ‘to comment (on) the news in a satirical way.’

Having said that he added, ‘It happens that the news this week is Mohammed and this lousy film, so we are drawing cartoons about this subject’.

Laurent Leger, another journalist from the same magazine, said the magazine did not intend to provoke anger or violence. ‘The aim is to laugh,’ he said.

Trying to define it in the framework of so-called freedom of expression, what is more wounding for some may be the kind of indifference that one shows towards an insulting piece of work, which harms the feelings of almost two billion people across the globe.

The question is: why is there a need to trigger chaos and cause mayhem by hurting someone’s sensibilities in the name of freedom of expression?

Quoting the chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, ‘No freedom can be absolute. The hold of religion is very strong in India, and you have to respect that. You can’t go insulting people.’

Katju’s concerns are perhaps understandable in a country whose birth was scarred by the mass murder of Hindus and Muslims at the time of Independence in 1947.

Importantly, this has to cut both ways. Saying that, it also brings forth the question that why is the response so violent and intolerant. The cartoon in question is deplorable, but then, it should be simply ignored by the Muslim community. If I don’t like a TV programme, I can always change the channel, or switch the TV off, not take a hammer and destroy it? This argument seems to be valid since the cartoon was a work of a few individuals, not backed or supported by the majority or the rest.

Religion should remain a personal domain for individuals. If a non-issue is granted a lot of lime light, then it becomes an issue, like this particular cartoon did. And on the contrary, if the issue is not worth touching with a barge pole and is left as such, it withers into obscurity.

We do this with a lot of things in our everyday life, so not that this is a new concept. We will always have a number of individuals who will try to garner attention in life using shock tactics, generally crossing the boundaries of tolerance but if they get the attention, then their tactics have worked. And if it is shown to such people that such tactics don’t work, they will probably stop using them and try something else.

Neha Jain is a senior copy editor with Millennium Post.
Neha Jain

Neha Jain

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