Freedom of speech is a worthy goal, tolerance a golden virtue. But it helps to remember that France is like any other nation state full of contradictions
Imagine a world, in distant future, when an African American child stumbles upon a word in the dictionary and cannot make head or tail of it. An elder tries to explain but in vain. The word is racism. For many white people that utopia already exists (Okay, that’s a bad joke). For that black child the killing of an African American man by a white cop might not conjure up any link to historical injustice.
The recent news about white Floridian cops practising target shooting on black male mugs would not probably even exist. That black child would also be free of any hatred for white police officers and white society in general.
This would mean the American society would have dramatically moved on from its horrible past having atoned for its sins. For reasons most of us understand it hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen in near or distant future. So, when we take the historical context away while commenting on acts of brutality, which hinge on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class, language, colonialism, we act disingenuously.
When the great Italian poet Dante (d. 1321) placed the prophet in the ninth circle of hell, it had nothing to do with the freedom of expression but hatred for Islam and the prophet. That thread is pretty consistent throughout European art and literary history. Also, when the great French sculptor, Rodin, treated the prophet in a similarly grotesque fashion at the height of French colonialism, it would be stretching credulity to suggest that his work was not influenced by racial and religious prejudice.
Insulting the prophet predates Dante, Blake, van Leyden, Dali, or Rodin. There were the early Christian martyrs who’d show up before a mosque or a judge’s house in Spain and elsewhere, and hurl insults at the prophet with the burning desire to achieve martyrdom. At what point does that anti-Islam strain, beefed up with the added shots of anti-Semitism and post-Darwin racism, metamorphose into a secular movement to insult everything under the sun, in order to uphold the sacred idea of freedom of expression?
As a friend of mine posted his Je suis Charlie message on his Facebook in the aftermath of the killing in Paris, the clown in me was tempted to comment Et tu Brute? but I checked my hand. When I told him about it, he laughed and insisted I should have, since to poke fun, even at the sacred, is the message for which the cartoonist died.
And in that little exchange I saw two different cultural sensibilities. That would be the last thing I’d do, joking at the expense of someone else’s grief. But as I ruminated over the tragic episode, having read countless articles from various sides, a few conversations with friends, I found myself in a pickle. Is it enough to condemn an act of violence and move on? Should we bear the responsibility to look deeper at issues that produce violence? Examine historical context? Is doing so akin to condoning violence?
It also forced me to recall my childhood and youth when the society I grew up in was much more tolerant as Shia and Sunni friends constantly joked about things held sacred, often stepping into the zone of blasphemy. Even a few Christian friends I had joked about things which could get them in trouble in today’s Pakistan.
It is important to understand what has caused such a hardening of our collective sense of humour.
I am heartened to see a lively debate in the western media and elsewhere too, which mostly concerns the context in western countries. Thanks primarily to colonialism, a large number of immigrants, both Muslim and non-Muslim, reside there in large numbers in conditions not very different from how African Americans survive, marginalised, ghettoised, racially profiled, seen with contempt and distrust, contributing to a higher percentage of prison population.
In my estimation, having lived in the US for the last thirty years, I am not optimistic about any structural changes, and with the kind of mess the developed nations have created both in developing and under-developed countries, and within their own borders, more senseless cycle of violence is going to come.
That’s not because the people are not talking about it and don’t want some of the things to change. It is primarily because the governments of those people don’t represent them. They are being run by a cabal of 1 per cent who control the purse and the policy. Conflicts, manufactured clashes, chaos suit them.
There are some changes which can be brought about by common people inspired by debate and dialogue. But some changes can only occur with the support of the state. The ghettos in the US and ghetto-like sprawls around Paris and elsewhere can only be dismantled by the state. I hope that the current tragedy will allow continued introspection about integration, racism, sexism, multiculturalism and what agency the marginalised have.
A murder is a murder and hints at a deranged mind’s work whether committed by a French citizen of Algerian extraction or by a Parisian police under Papon (look up: A 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris when the media failed the test), or by white police officers killing black men and women without consequences or by an American sniper hailed as a hero. It could be a mob burning down a house with its Christian inhabitants inside or a pogrom against Muslims of Gujarat.
Besides deranged minds at work, the atrocity points to state failure, even complicity. Freedom of speech is a worthy goal, tolerance a golden virtue. But it helps to remember that France is like any other nation state full of contradictions, with beautiful museums, cafes and bookstores, yet with a selective amnesia. When it wanted to, it banned movies and publications, arrested and killed those it tagged as an enemy.
But it is never too late to start working towards a better world and it must start with introspection, and writers and artists can lead the way.