The obsession with seeing free speech as a fundamental right in the West at time appears to be just an excuse to mask hate and loathing. At its extremes, it is a licence to be openly bigoted. The obsession to say and do what one wants, whether it is portraying the Prophet (PBUH) in a cartoon, or being vocal about hating immigrants, is the exercise of sheer privilege and it can be argued that the Western citizen, in many cases, is a spoilt brat.

I have been going over the history of political cartoons in the West, and I have heard again and again, that if Christianity can be made fun of, why can’t Islam? This fundamental lack of knowledge about the “other”, and a stubborn insensitivity towards emotions, has not left the Western social discourse since Edward Said called it out in 1978 as Orientalism. The way I argue this to the Western liberal/neo-conservative/free-speech-crusader is that how would they like it, if the Dutch paper ‎Jyllands-Posten published a cartoon that made fun of their mother to the point of you wanting to sue the paper for slander? And what if, it did that to your mother/father/sister, but to that of your whole community/ race/country? Would there not be mass protest? And would it not get violent? There are umpteen cases of communal and gun violence in the US for example, that support the claim that arms could be taken up. It is a crude analogy, I know. But one has to be crude when talking to someone from a civilisation premised on its own exceptionalism, that can’t see beyond its own bloated sense of self-esteem. It is not hard to understand, that the reverence and respect one has for their family, or loved ones, might be similar to the way Muslims think of their religion. Why would one wilfully offend someone, when there is nothing to get out of it- no social reform, no economic reform, no allusions to pluralism, no push for freedom and democracy. Just visual shock and basic “othering” of communities, that is biting the west back in the form of terrorism, and has eaten countries like Pakistan alive.

Killing, and the threat to kill are inexcusable, and I can never condone the action of any terrorist who tried to attack a cartoonist or journalist. I say this not from a western ideological standpoint, but hopefully a universal one, that lives are not ours to take, and such final judgment is not ours to give, and pluralism and reconciliation and goals to strive for. But there is a large history of colonisation, neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism that one can look towards to understand how things go to where they are today when we talk of the global north and global south. Western democratic societies have been absolutely hammer-headed when dealing with difference. There is no bravery in saying something shocking in a society where one knows there will be no physical and economic repercussions. Charlie Hebdo publishes its cartoons with aplomb every week, no matter who gets steamrolled by its satire. Former Brietbart Writer Milo Yiannopoulos can openly ridicule women who are speaking out about sexual abuse, because his society protects his right to spew hate. Would they be able to be so brave and bold had they been in countries that are under dictatorships? They would be censored, abducted, arrested and prosecuted. 

In Turkey, under President Erdogan, journalists and cartoonists regularly get arrested. Tony Namate, a cartoonist from Zimbabwe has been threatened by government ministers and has been chased mobs because he makes fun of the President. In 2000 Pedro Leon Zapata was confronted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez asking whether he had been bribed to publish them. Zapata answered the President with another question: “Mr. Chávez, did you accept money to refer to my cartoons, thus inducing so many people to rush out and buy the newspaper?” On November 6 cartoonist G Bala was arrested in Tamil Nadu in India, for lampooning the state’s inability to prevent the deaths on October 23 of a farmer, his wife and two children, who set themselves on fire outside the Tirunelveli District Collectorate on October 23. Basically, the man ended up in jail for a cartoon that was in “bad taste”. It is easy for Americans and Europeans to make fun of Trump, and to criticise who they like when they like, because they have the security of knowing they aren’t in immediate danger.

Have you ever wondered why, cartoonists in Pakistan do not try to critique the military or terrorist groups? There is a plethora of cartoons on social conditions, politicians and the government is fair game, even the judiciary is dragged into the fray, but there is no critique of the military, even when it comes from earnest nationalism and desire for positive reform. We all know, that is not because the military has never made a mistake, or that any cartoonist or editor loves militant outfits and won’t ridicule them. Public expressions of opinions can lead one into danger very fast. To find and depict truth in Pakistan, one has to be very brave. Pundits and commenters in the West do not have to go through this test. Free speech is a right, a very important one that many in the global south are struggling to have, and then we see people in the US or France using it so irresponsibly and dangerously. The western demand that free speech is absolute, even if it is hate speech, is a disservice to all subaltern movements that are fighting against political oppression. I call western citizen brats in the start of this essay, because many there do not truly know what it is like to live in under poverty, oppression and censorship. They have the luxury to see free speech as an inalienable right rather than a duty (if they ever saw it that way in the first place).

Even John Stuart Mill, the grandfather of liberal freedom, who framed freedom as from harm or coercion, felt that this ideal was inapplicable to “backward races”. With such a racist intellectual history, even when great liberals talked about freedom and equality, one wonders if humanism is even a word that some in the west can understand, especially in France in the US.

“Post Script: I use the umbrella term of the “West” to point to problematic debates in France, the US, the UK, and across Europe that have brought about the alternative right notions of free speech. There are movements for responsible re-assimilation of minorities in the West as well, but hate is always louder. There is only so much parsing of definitions that can happen in an Op-Ed.”