A friend recently asked me what I thought about the controversy over caricatures of Prophet Mohammad. I had not given much thought to it and soon afterwards the movie “Interview” came out followed by the journalist attacks in Paris. These events have sparked a large debate on freedom of speech and the situation makes me think of a simple but profound statement someone once said to me, “You stand close to where you sit.”
Your opinion on what happened in Paris will depend largely on how you believe this event affects you personally. Could you be the victim of the next attack? Are your personal rights now threatened? Are you being unfairly associated with bad actions of few others because you happen to share the same religion? The event is not relevant until the issues become personal. So, I’m not surprised that most people advocating tolerance and respect in this case are Muslim while crowds of people gather in Europe and US in solidarity for “je suis Charlie”. Being an American and a Muslim, it is hard for me to take a stand on this because I don’t sit clearly on either side.
As a Muslim, I can’t help but think of how important the notion of respect in Islam is and how any kind of religious imagery, let alone caricatures of Prophet Mohammad, would be offensive to any Muslim. I also wonder if the value of free speech could be so exaggerated in a society that it forces people to undermine other important values such as understanding and respect for each other’s differences. As an American, I support protecting free speech as a basic human right and believe that compromising it could lead to giving up more and more rights. I can also empathize that these drawings are meant to be simply humorous and not to be taken so seriously.
The fair way for me to form my stand though is not battle which side suits me more given where I currently sit. Instead, I have to take “me” out of the picture and think about what’s right which has led me to this conclusion. Freedom of speech and the journalists’ rights to publish the caricatures of Prophet Mohammad should be protected. At the same time, we can choose not to uphold this type of content as an aspirational example of free speech because when we do that, we create artificial demand for it. Charlie Hebdo sold seven million copies not on merit of it’s content but as a symbol for free speech. Creating artificial supply and demand for content that is offensive to others under the guise of free speech is something I disagree with.