Freedom of speech cannot be absolute — in practical terms nothing is. But it ought to come pretty darn close to absolute. As it is, there are laws for libel, slander and defamation if you cross some lines when it comes to personal space and reputation. There are other lines drawn as well — obscenity, incitement to violence, encouraging hatred and such.
These laws however apply after the fact — you say or write or create something offensive, there are objections, investigations and potentially a court case. But to proscribe free speech takes you into very dangerous territory — the very anathema of democracy.
The film ‘Innocence of Muslims’ was undoubtedly made to provoke and offend. But the reaction to it has been far worse than the film itself — death and destruction. That such an appalling, cheap and crude film got such extreme reactions is tragic. The repercussions have gone further than just roiling Muslims — one of the actresses has accused the film-maker of endangering her life. Many involved in the film apparently did not know what they were getting embroiled in.
Religions are sacrosanct only to those who believe in them. Many religions are also in competition with each other for the same flock of followers. Conflict maybe inevitable but violence ought not to be the chosen reaction. To add to the mix, there is the growing tribe of atheists to whom every religion is anathema. All this is well-known but it still creates problems, some of them fatal.
The anti-Islam climate in the world saw a massive spike post the 2001 attacks on New York but seemed to have dipped recently, especially after the “Arab spring”. But once more it seems that Islam is the main protagonist and antagonist. Images of Muslims supposedly hell-bent on destruction do nothing for the cause of Islam or the predicament of many Muslims around the world. You might say the maker of that terrible film achieved his purpose — he proved that Muslims will react not just irrationally but also violently.
It need not be like this, however. The film would have been best ignored — as many moderate Muslims and others have suggested. Those most offended could have taken legal action against the film’s producers. But to attack US embassies, kill and wound people and destroy property is not an appropriate or even a wise reaction. As a result, stereotypes have been fortified and the only beneficiaries have been the baiters of Islam and rigid Islamist preachers. The average Muslim will only bear the brunt of the wrath on both sides for the extreme actions of a few. His or her voice is usually ignored or drowned out in all the clamour of the discussions around Islam.
There is little point at this stage to point out that all religions have had their good and bad moments and Islam is no better or worse. The current problem is that on a large scale, other religionists are not behaving in quite the same way. One answer could be though for moderate and non-believing Muslims to speak together and stronger.
An Indian example would be the way “secular Hindus” are able to counter extreme elements within Hinduism by questioning them at all times. The bigger threat to religions comes from vocal atheists and they are forced to contend with non-believers the world over, much to their distress!
Yes, there are political and historical reasons why so many Muslims and Muslim countries are angry with the West. There are also double standards in freedom of speech — questioning the Holocaust remains a no-no as far as liberal Europe is concerned. But even then, on the average, it is better to lean towards more freedom of speech rather than less. Rigidity and lack of discussion never help. And a sense of humour makes most of life easier to deal with.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona