The attack at the Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, a French satirical magazine, leaving 12 people killed for what they have published, left the world in general and the champions of freedom of speech in particular devastated in the same way as the Muslims all around the globe have felt shocked, injured and broken (not for the first time sadly) on the publication of the satirical cartoons depicting the last and final Prophet from God, Muhammad (pbuh).
From the very outset the reader of this paper should appreciate one fact about the Charlie Hebdo’s magazine. It is satirical! Satirical, in its ordinary sense, means to make a mockery of a person or an idea or an institution by using humor showing the faults of the same.
In the religion of Islam, the principles of law enunciated by God and His Prophet are faultless. As the Holy Quran says in Surah Al Maidah chapter 5 verse 3 “…This day have I (God) perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion…” and by analogy the promulgator of law, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has to be faultless too. The will of the Prophet is the will of God and vice versa as it also mentioned by the Quran in Surah Al Nisa chapter 4 verse 80 “He who obeys the Prophet, obeys Allah…” Keeping in mind the sanctity of God, His Prophet and His religion in the light of the aforementioned verses of the Quran, a prudent person may ask why someone has to make a mockery of the Prophet and defiles his personality that is recognized by 1.6 billion people living on this planet? Do not these people who call themselves Muslims deserve respect and honor of their beliefs? Does the ‘freedom of speech’ recognized by civilized nations as a right have some certain limitations so to honor each other beliefs?
Before commenting on the above questions of similar nature it is essential to have a glimpse of French laws on freedom of speech and its limitations e.g. Gayssot law, 1990. The said law (recognized by French, European and United Nations law) punishes any racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic act and prohibits any discrimination based on someone’s belonging or not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a religion. Such law basically protects the dignity of Holocaust victims and their families by prohibiting statements contesting, denigrating even denying the existence of crimes against humanity. It was enacted with an intention of the parliament to maintain public order given the disturbances that have resulted when the circumstances of the Holocaust have been called into question, and given the tensions that such attitudes can spark between ethnic communities. Furthermore, French criminal law provides for a 15,000 Euro fine for publication of a document that causes serious damage to a victim’s dignity which is published without the victim’s approval.
All these laws suggest that freedom of speech may be (in fact have been) limited when it comes in conflict with the victim’s right to dignity. So it becomes abundantly clear that French population is not ignorant of limitations on freedom of speech and appreciates its importance in society.
Now the questions remains, why not Muslims are accorded such protection and security? Why their sentiments are repeatedly trampled upon and shattered in the name of freedom of speech and expression? What about their dignity? Are they not covered under human dignity, self respect and self esteem? Why Islam is at receiving end always?
In the past as well as in recent times, we have seen Islamic ideals, the Muslim sentiments and the dignity of humans been trampled under the feet of the so called champions of ‘freedom of speech’ as if they were ignorant of the values that former hold. In our view they are not ignorant. They are not unaware of the beliefs of the Muslims. They do not do it unintentionally and unknowingly. As a matter of reasonable assessment, they know exactly what they are doing and what could be the repercussions of these. They inflict hurt and injury to the Muslims to derive sadistic pleasure out of it to which no effective action was ever taken, even in the recent episode under discussion. Instead, Islamic Militants are being highlighted as they are responsible of every wrong but there is no deliberate mention or protest against the provoking act. It gives a reasonable impression as if anybody can write and publish anything without taking due care of the sentiments of others and can get away with it easily under the umbrella of ‘freedom of speech and expression.’
Any prudent man having a basic knowledge of history can reach to this conclusion because there seems to be no other reason why they do so. If freedom of speech includes anything according to them why not publishing cartoons depicting Hitler of what he has done in Holocaust? Will the people of France praise such an action? We do not think so! The persons responsible for such a publication will be behind bars the very next day. The reason being Hitler and his laws were cruel, inhumane and barbaric. We agree, sympathise and stand with the victims of the Holocaust including France of what was done in the past was indeed unjust and respect their take on it. But, in the similar vein, why cannot they stand with us in respect and honor of our beliefs that we hold pure? This is nothing but a farce and deception on their part.
Freedom of speech is not a license to say anything to anyone at any time! And those who perceive it so are the ones who actually misunderstood and misused it. They need to be educated about its limitations. And while this process of educating the masses continues a strict action must be taken simultaneously by the concerned authorities both within and outside France. It’s high time! Things must change!
The writers are law graduates from the University of London and are partners and legal advisers at Danishwar Advocates| Advisers, Lahore.