Seventeen persons, of different faiths and walks of life, were mowed down last week in France, triggering mass protests and unity marches in numerous places to condemn that butchery. Maybe the events precipitated by the horrendous doings of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had primed the French since many months and the event in Paris had been the one drop too many. Numerous heads of states seized the opportunity to participate and condemn vehemently not only the collateral butchery in France but, by innuendo, the extremism in the Middle East.
After all the latter is supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, bosom friends of the Americans. Was there an American elite in the March for unity?
One of the cornerstones of western thinking is that of freedom. All of us know that everything we do has advantages and disadvantages, but the West wants us to believe that it has discovered something that is an exception to that rule: freedom.
Some of us may ask the inevitable: why did the terrorists choose Charlie Hebdo and not ‘Le Canard Enchainé’ or ‘Liberation’?
We humans have discovered with pain and experience that extremism does not pay. And that’s where the problem of Charlie Hebdo (CH) comes from. All of us disapprove vehemently of the horrendous crimes against a press where dozens of journalists have been killed; we cannot advocate such physical violence – it is criminal. But in the same vein we cannot condone the extreme caricatures that CH publishes to mock others’ feelings and faith. We choose the pen or pencil to write about our feelings or experiences, our views and conceptions of society, of novel ideas, to stimulate our contemporaries to think differently and ponder on their own actions or blunders, to draw cartoons to pass a certain message succinctly and humorously. But what happens when this art is chosen to offend or irritate others’ feelings and faith?
Are these cartoonists also crossing the line, like the terrorists, and indulging in dangerous provocations? Cartooning or writing that Hindu girls in India must be converted into sacred cow so as to avoid being raped can only be addressed to a public who likes to guffaw. The French have a sense of humour of their own; maybe they look on life more with the mind than the heart — so to them life is a comedy; just as many of their films or dramas can illustrate, and which all of us enjoy.
I remember after a long flight, as our plane touched down and we were ready to disembark with so many French nationals on board, someone suddenly called out ‘Que personne n’oublie son soutien gorge’! I can hardly fancy hearing this from some Indian if I were in an Indian plane which had just landed in Mumbai. Each country has its own way of looking at life. Some have a high sense of humour while others, unfortunately, abhor indulging in it.
Responsibility of Charlie Hebdo
Possibly most of the journalists of CH were atheists, freethinkers and rationalists, but they should not believe that the whole world think alike and should espouse their viewpoint, just as the religious extremists should not think that the rest of the world must adopt their faith. If CH were really concerned about changes to bring to society they would have known that there are certain limits not to cross, lest their writings and cartoons create just the opposite effect. Were they so naïve? CH failed to appreciate this. May be that’s why the famous New York Times had dissociated itself from CH; it must have a very valid reason.
CH should have known that there are countries where faith is more important; where religion is still the mainstay of everyday life, collective living is still predominant, sentiment plays a major role in family life, individualism is not a major factor in all societies, unbridled rationalist behavior is not encouraged. As such CH would have known how not to injure other people’s feelings, because not all of us can be on the same wavelength all the time. Trying to bring social changes by attacking other people’s faith and feelings is an unwise and strange way of expressing freedom; mind the backlash, unless CH’s agenda was just to sell their paper for a living.
We like freedom, but we must know that there is always the risk of infringing upon others’ way of thinking. We may not like extremism, yet we cannot adopt the same policy to fight the extremists. It would become an eye-for-an eye policy, which results in perpetual conflict, distress and misery.
The killers of last week were religious fanatics, groomed in a certain school that is anathema to true religion and god. They could not respond to CH’s caricatures by counter-caricatures, being of different intellectual caliber. So they responded using the best of means and thoughts at their disposal: reinforcing their belief in certain obscurantist beliefs. They are frozen in time like the ascetic in the serial ‘Devon ki dev, Mahadev.’ A fan of this serial would know how the faithful devotee Lakulesh, after being in hibernation for a millennium, was totally confused and flabbergasted after waking up and learning that his Guru Shiva is no longer an ascetic, being now married, with children. This was totally unacceptable to the loyal devotee, who accused Shiva of being an imposter. Our modern religious extremists suffer from the same delusion, and are ready to kill to force their ideas down other people’s throat. This is a tragedy.
Yet if we want to progress we should all have participated in the Paris march on that 11th January, had we the means. We should protest against the killings; against those extremists who want to rule the world according to their tune; against the killing of journalists who were at work; against the rape of freedom of thinking and expression, but not in favour of the extremist cartoons; they are uncalled for in our society. The Paris march, led by many statesmen, should be against extremism, whatever form it may assume — religious, racial, verbal, or journalistic. If they fail to condemn the extreme, offensive cartoons of CH at the same time then they would be just indulging in another political ritual, and would send the wrong social message to the world. Freedom must be universal, not regional.
We cannot drown our mistakes and push the dust below the carpet. However hard it is we must face the music and blame both the criminals and also the irresponsible people who had misinterpreted the conception of freedom of expression, though they should never have been the final target of terrorism: this is not acceptable. It was good policy for some of our faraway ancestors, but in modern times we prefer dialogue or countermeasures of the same intensity and kind as those of our opponents.
Are the sages right after all? Moderation in everything is the only path to peace? How can the extremists be converted to that view?
I am half Charlie.
* Published in print edition on 16 January 2015