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Desicritics And Historical Commentary On Free Speech And The Danish Cartoons

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Free Speech is under attack!

This refrain is as old as Cato, the “conscience of Rome”. The Romans noted that “No sooner a word is spoken than it is gone never to be recalled”.

Justice Brandeis commented, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify oppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of free speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

In the South Asian context, Ashoka’s Pillar Edicts recorded a focus on Free Speech and its restraint as the hallmarks of a good society.

Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought “Let me glorify my own religion,” only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

Those who are content with their own religion should be told this: Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. And to this end many are working — Dhamma Mahamatras, Mahamatras in charge of the women’s quarters, officers in charge of outlying areas, and other such officers. And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows and the Dhamma is illuminated also.”

John Milton addressed the English Parliament in the Areopageitica on the freedom of the Press, to great result.

Cato was resurrected in the American Colonies in the form of political columns under the headline of “The Cato Letters”. A particularly relevant one reads,

“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech, which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know.This sacred privilege is so essential to free government, that the security of property and the freedom of speech, always go together; and in those wretched countries where a man can not call his tongue his own, he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech; a thing terrible to publick traitors.”

The tale of the guardians of free speech continues till today with the recent cartoons in Danish newspapers and the resultant reactions/over-reactions in various countries, countered by courageous commentary and collaborative criticism, not least in the blogosphere. The Committee To Protect Journalists reports on a bomb threat received by the Jyllands-Posten in Viby, Denmark recently. The newspaper’s website has been flooded with 80,000 hate-mails.

These reactions remind me of a memory from my childhood in Bangalore, India. We rose late one balmy Sunday afternoon, read the paper and settled down to much on some juicy watermelon. After a while, we heard some shouting in the street outside. My father went outside to check and came back, somewhat pale. Apparently there were bunches of men gathered in street corners, and a sense of approaching menace seemed prevalent, like the stillness of the air before a summer storm. He made a few phone calls to friends in the city. This was in 1986, in the days before 24-hour television, the Internet and the blogosphere, so information spread through the grapevine faster than through official channels, as it probably does even today in the post-modern world.

Apparently, the local newspaper, the Deccan Herald, had printed a seemingly innocuous short story in its Sunday edition, which we received. The story concerned itself with the travails of a poor handicapped rickshaw-puller named Mohammed. The title of the story itself was “Mohammed The Idiot”. Ancedotally, the same story also had a character named Sita, a prostitute. The illiterate mobs had heard of the tale, and begun to gather around the city, instigated, apparently by leaders like C M Ibrahim, later Aviation Minister. They finally marched on the offices of the newspaper on M G Road, and in short, tried to burn them down, rioting ensued, and 4 people were killed, scores others were injured. The fracas spread to Mysore within a week, and old Bangaloreans still remember those tense days with a frisson of fear. The New York Times also reported on the incident, in a pre-PC matter-of-fact manner.

The years have passed, yet one finds the mobocracy seems to have spanned the Flat World. The “Book Of Daniel” can be terminated in the United States, while writers and bloggers face imprisonment from Teheran to Beijing, and points between. The world has grown closer, totalitarian regimes fallen, yet the dichotomy of free speech and social conservatism & restraint continues to tilt to either side of the liberal balance. Free Speech has pervaded even the Arab world, thanks to the likes of Al-Jazeera and the Arab street’s new-found openness.

Hugh Hewitt opines clearly that, “The third course between the cartoonist provocateurs and the radicals waving guns at the EU employees in Gaza is to denounce without ambiguity or excuse the latter but at the same time to delineate a very bright line between what the West stands for and the churlishness of the caroonist provocateurs.”

Haroon Siddiqui feels this is not about free speech, but double standards around the relations between the West and the Muslim nations. “It features the easy clichés of the age — freedom of speech vs. Islamic intolerance, and open democratic debate vs. politically correct cravenness.

But what it has actually exposed is the European media’s tendency to exploit anti-immigrant, particularly anti-Muslim, bigotry, as well as the Danes’ readiness to bow to the gods of commerce.”

Also, a comprehensive link to a huge selection of images of Mohammed, dating back centuries, ref boingboing

Desicritics have expressed their opinions forcefully and powerfully on the Danish situation, a round-up follows:

Hamlet by Mohammad Jacques-Pierre

– Gazelle took the lead, responding to a Blogcritics article on Islam and Intolerance. We are pleased to have the cartoons themselves reproduced on these pages through her post.

Does God Have A Sense Of Humor?

Anil Menon asked a few pithy questions, including, “Why is the Prophet a legitimate target for so-called “free expression” but other topics — such as anti-Semitism or making fun of gays and minorities — are off limits?

The Freedom to be Offended – Part I and Part II

Atanu Dey started with the very direct “My advice to anyone who is offended by the lawful expression of free speech is simple: don’t watch, hear, or read whatever it is you find offensive. Nobody is forcing you to read or watch what you find offensive.” and then refined that argument to one familiar to proponents of ‘small government’ – local societies should set their own interpretations and laws. He noted, “What is legal and permissible is local; there is no global standard that can, or even should, be applied. Problems arise when one does not appreciate that distinction.”

Prophet Cartoons Spark Protests!

dkaps asked, “…Can non-believers depict visuals (even in a decent manner) of these two entities?”

An Assault On Muslims

The Teeth Maestro feels the controversy has been manipulated by the Western Media, and expresses his despair that “Sadly it seems as if the Muslims continue to be pushed into a corner especially after 9/11 and continue to remain in the intense investigative spotlight for a good five years.

Sacred Dogmas Of Free Society

Subhan Ahsan expresses his frustration at irresponsible journalism, saying, “Free Press would have been a good thing had not Journalists shunned away their social responsibilities in the name of Editorial Liberty.”

Speak Out For Yourself

Anil remembers Lennon and asks people to think for themselves, saying, “Religion did not create man, man created religion. Just step out of your religious boundaries, reach out and see the world just as a human being.”

Do you have a contrary opinion on the issue, or on the limits of Free Speech? Tell us what you think.

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  • Eric Olsen

    great job on this Aaman, fascinating context and juxtaosition – thanks!