Analysis of the third kind
29 June 2017 04:05 (South Africa)
Opinionista Nejm Benessaiah

Limits to freedom of speech? When legalism replaces humanism

  • Nejm Benessaiah
    Nejm.jpg
    Nejm Benessaiah

    Nejm Benessaiah is a doctoral candidate in anthropology, specialising in power, religion and ecology in the North African region.

It is not enough simply to condemn the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, nor to condemn Islamist extremists. There is a need for a greater interrogation of why peaceful coexistence remains out of reach.

Charlie Hebdo's editor once stated, in defence of the magazine's offensive content, that the publication never stepped beyond the rule of (French) law. British comedian Stephen Fry’s quote was tweeted by many, to paraphrase – if you are offended by my words, so f****ing what?

Taken together, these two statements express the view that the limits to our behaviour are governed by what we can get away with as defined by the law. Treasuring our precious individual freedoms then means that we can be free to be rude to anyone about anything, in order to take a principle to its logical extreme, and test its limits. But as Tariq Ramadan pointed out, it is hardly very helpful to go around provoking everyone when you have to deal with these people on a daily basis. Would you give such provocation to your boss? I would argue that such maximising of lawful but anti-social behaviour is in fact minimising ethical care and respect for fellow human beings. And we should not forget that while the higher values of law are sometimes that they are supposed to protect the weak from being dominated by the poor, the commodification of most legal systems means that too often the reverse is true.

Let me be clear that the provocation by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in no ways justifies the murderous response. But, while it is essential to affirm this, this moral necessity should not blind us to the power dynamic at play here.

I am the first person to say that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. “Lighten up!” we say, to lift a heavy mood. But there is a line between benign encouragement, and using humour as a coercive tool, to saying “you are wrong, this is how it is”. What I mean is this: the satirists are trying to tell Muslims not to be serious, when in fact they are wholeheartedly (not usually deadly…) serious about the daily practice of their faith. Virtually all the Muslims I know have a wicked sense of humour concerning just about everything else. Yet their faith gives them purpose, and who are we to ridicule this? The Muslims I know are generally less interested in the metaphysics of truth, than the pragmatics of living with dignity and treating each other decently.

I am not religious, but to claim that everything should be subject to ridicule, is to state that nothing is sacred. This is an extension of the idea that there is no meaning to existence. Should we force others to accept our nihilistic ideas, and is this really promoting tolerance?

I think that we should take this argument further. Most individuals are able to make the distinction between Muslims, and criminal extremists who manipulate religious sentiments and statements to their own ends. But commentators do polarise the argument, and target Islam itself, such as the infamous Richard Dawkins. For such atheists, the ‘war’ is about Western enlightenment and reason, over Eastern irrational superstition and sloppy thinking. This ideological bullying is itself an intolerant position, which belies the fact that atheism itself is a belief, not a lack of belief. To clarify, the belief in a Godless universe is based on the lack of measurable evidence, rather than on incontrovertible proof that divine phenomena do not exist. Fundamentalist atheism attempts to replace one belief set with another, an ideological colonisation, through coercive ridicule disguised as benign fun.

With the recent ongoing protests in Europe, many are stating that they are standing for liberty in the face of an archaic, outmoded, medieval view of social life (Islamism). Yet those in the Muslim majority countries that I have spoken to see themselves as attempting to guard themselves from the corruption and unbridled fulfilment of desires through consumerism that they see in the West. In their view they are protecting themselves from immorality disguised as freedom.

It has been said that we can poke fun at things that can be changed, but not at fixed things like race, gender, disability and so on. Yet religion for many is not a choice, but a normative way of life that is reinforced by parents, peers and religious teachers. Even so, most of the Muslims I have met do debate their religion. Islam did have its reform period, contrary to popular belief, it is just that these reforms were released in the name of going back to original principles, in the Wahhabi and Salafist movements. Similar impulses are evident in some currents of Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism.

Let us go to the heart of the issue of Islamic legitimisation of violence against non-Muslims. It is true that selective reading of the Q’uran can be used to support such justifications. But, taken as a whole, the Q’uran is very clear that the taking of any life is abhorrent, and an insult to humanity as a whole. Where the Prophet justified the use of violence, it was when Islam was a fledgling, persecuted faith. Now, however, it constitutes a powerful global movement, and in no way justifies violence to defend it; defence should only take the form of the ‘battle’ of debate.

It doesn’t help to state that the ‘enemy’ is the ignorance of weak-minded people culpable to persuasion by extremist voices. Rather, the enemy is the continued removal and denial of the dignity of a people, through occupation, theft of their resources, domination, taunting, belittling and ridiculing. It is that which gives the extremists a hearing in some quarters. Those who have been stripped of dignity, resources and indeed possibility have nothing left to lose, and, in some cases, lash out in anger at those who have robbed them. It is understandable (but not justifiable) that these dispirited individuals may seek to join forces with those who offer the illusory promise of re-empowerment. In the absence of a secular left in many largely Muslim countries, a result of its deliberate destruction by a partnership between the West and local autocrats, there are limited choices for people who wish to oppose the current order. All too often, no one asks what the source of all this ‘terror’ is. It comes down to the continued neo-colonisation by many western states of their former colonies: once in the form of land and bodies, now in terms of economic resources.

To condemn perverse responses to contemporary forms of oppression without also condemning oppression is an empty gesture, and one that avoids taking on an urgent political task. DM

  • Nejm Benessaiah
    Nejm.jpg
    Nejm Benessaiah

    Nejm Benessaiah is a doctoral candidate in anthropology, specialising in power, religion and ecology in the North African region.

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