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Freedom of speech and the feudal state

In most Islamic societies there is no right to public dissent

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Freedom of speech and the feudal state

Policemen stand guard during a Shia student protest outside the French consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, on Nov. 1. (Photo: AFP)

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Nothing has depressed and saddened the world more than the recent killing of Emmanuel Paty, the French schoolteacher who attempted to discuss freedom of speech with his class of students. 

And nothing has caricatured that great religion Islam more grossly than the intemperate rantings of certain heads of state who attempted to justify the murder.

Various issues come to mind, and we will take up some of them in this discussion.

Firstly, the right to free speech. Most Western countries prize this right above all because it has been dearly won.

Christian Europe itself did not have the right to freedom of speech and opinion until fairly recently, for the Catholic Church clamped down heavily on “heretics” like Jan Hus (1415) and Giordano Bruno (1600). The wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants devastated France and Germany for 30 years (1618-48), and culminated in an uneasy peace.

It helps to know from where the hostility to religion and to its priests in modern Europe come from.

Most Muslim migrants into Europe do not realize this. Millions of them seek the safety and economic prosperity of the secularized societies of Europe, rather than migrate to Islamic countries which are far more repressive and intolerant towards their own. Isn’t there a contradiction here?

Secularized societies

When we say that a society is “secularized,” we mean that its religion and politics are distinct and separate, that they do not overlap and feed off each other.

But this was not always so. Earlier, in feudal Europe, Christendom only privileged Christians — sometimes not even all Christians. Jews were herded into ghettos and often slaughtered in pogroms. Hitler’s Holocaust had many such brutal antecedents.

But if Christianity has had an uneasy relationship with secularism, the other world religions have even less. Today political Islam — Islamism in its forms of al-Qaeda or Daesh — harbors fantasies of recreating the Caliphate, even as political Hinduism — Hindutva, our home-grown fascism — nurtures dreams of a Hindu rashtra.

Both mock the secular ideal and reject it. But there is really no alternative to a secular polity in modern society, which is multi-ethnic and pluralist, and where minorities are strident about their rights. For migration today has created large pockets of “outsiders” within many very homogeneous societies.

Here it is that a democracy, unlike a feudal society, offers space to every group, even minorities.

By contrast, a feudal society, a theocracy, only offers rights to a single group and persecutes its minorities, be these ethnic, religious or economic.

Can religious societies transform themselves?

The question may well be asked: when will societies which are now religious and feudal, transform into more democratic, more secularized forms? Is there a process, perhaps assisted by scientific and technological change?

Not an easy question to answer. Such societies often see themselves as “perfect societies” or “divinely ordained” and so not in need of change at all. They remain static, closed in. Like the Christian society of an earlier epoch, they persecute all dissenters, all reformers. A Malaila Yousufzai or a Gauri Lankesh is simply shot.

Yet unless such societies look at the rot within themselves, they are doomed to implode. In recent years, the Soviet Union was one such example: outwardly powerful and intimidating, it was inwardly rotten and so collapsed from within, and imploded in one year.

The freedom to dissent

The chief among the rights offered in democracies is freedom of expression and opinion, the ability  to voice dissent and contrary opinions without fear of arrest, imprisonment or arbitrary murder, the right to clamor for justice if one feels deprived of it..

In most Islamic societies there are no public dissenting opinions, be these political or religious. Not only does the state punish such opinions, it also encourages vigilantes to mete out “rough justice” to all who express dissent.

Vigilantes who execute acts of terrorism against the general population often do so with the covert encouragement of the state — sometimes of foreign states. Vigilantes encourage hate speech and issue threats of retaliation via social media, all because someone else’s public behavior is not in accord with their own feudal patterns of thinking.

It is a corrupt state which, instead of protecting its citizens, allows them to be harmed by complicit terrorists.

Rights and duties

A final point. It is commonplace to argue that all rights have proportionate duties. In well-ordered societies, there are no rights without responsibilities.

Thus the right to free speech implies that there is no deliberate and malicious desire to offend. Hate speech, for example, cannot claim impunity as a form of freedom of expression. Similarly, to consciously ridicule what others hold sacred is inadmissible, even if  those “others” are held to be  contemptible and inferior.

The question to be posed to Europe’s secularized societies is therefore: is there an undercurrent of racist contempt for these strangers from Asia and Africa living amongst you, whose cultures are secretly despised and therefore gratuitously insulted? 

If this is so, then the claim for a sacrosanct freedom of expression is not as guiltless as it might appear.

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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