Two major incidents lately – one in the international news, and one in Sri Lankan/Indian news – have flagged the age-old debate about Freedom of Expression, Capital F, Capital E.
The first is the explosion of violence, taking place in several parts of the Muslim world, targeted mostly at embassies of countries in the West, in protest of an ‘anti-Islam’ film, that looks like it originated in the US. In countries like Yemen, Lebanon, Pakistan and Tunisia, people have died and and many more have been injured as a result of these ‘protests’. There’s lots of reports of these incidents all over the web, but here’s a concise one from Al Jazeera.
The second is the incident of the cartoon published in Sri Lankan English newspaper, Lakbima News, which depicted Manmohan Singh looking up, in-between the legs of Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, as she hikes up her sari and shakes her fist at the little island of Sri Lanka. This cartoon was drawn and published in the wake of Jayalalitha’s racist, extremist response to the attacks on Sri Lankan citizens in Tamil Nadu recently. See the cartoon in question here.
Now, in both instances, the term ‘freedom of expression’ has been bandied about liberally. Let’s examine the circumstances of both events.
‘Innocence of Muslims’; the ‘anti-Islam’ film
This latest incident, unfortunately or fortunately, falls right into a neat pattern of ‘Muslim rage’. We’ve seen many examples of this – in particular Muslim rage at ‘art’ – and this particular brand of violence has become so predictable, and sadly so, that these incidents have become another example by which the rest of the world broadly asserts to itself that ‘Muslims are an enraged, over-reacting, hysterical bunch’. We do not wish to make such claims – or at least, I don’t – but ‘really’, we think to ourselves, ‘the evidence has piled up over the years in support of an argument that says so’. There are countless incidents; the fatwa on the life of Salman Rushdie as a result of The Satanic Verses, the forced exile of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, the infamous Danish cartoons. The list goes on.
The film, titled ‘Innocence of Muslims’, is badly made in every way. But bad production value is not what has triggered bloody protests across the world, no. It’s the fact that it depicts ‘Mohammed’, the great Islamic prophet, as a ‘thuggish deviant‘ who brazenly violates every rule put down in the Islamic doctrine. There’s more detail of that here.
Of course, it’s not to say that other religious groups haven’t reacted violently to seemingly inconsequential things, too, and while India seems a central point for such action, Sri Lanka itself has shown its ugly side. Brought to mind are the protests against Deepa Mehta’s films Fire and Water, the attacks on exhibitions of and subsequent forced exile of Indian artist M F Hussain, the explosion at a Shah Rukh Khan concert in Colombo (instigated by Buddhist monks), the protests in Sri Lanka against popular hip-hop star Akon because his video featured skimpily-clad girls dancing in front of a Buddha statue.
Of course, we need to remind ourselves here that a significant portion of ‘art’ across mediums has also been banned/censored on the grounds of Christian ‘morality’ and ‘immorality’ and the centre for much of this action is the United States of America; from the very famous Da Vinci Code (both book and film), and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, to children’s book Tango Makes Three (which chronicles the real-life incident of two male penguins in Central Park Zoo living as a mating pair and rearing a baby). The list of things once banned or still banned in America is endless, and includes many films and books that we now take for granted as era-defining works of fiction: A Clockwork Orange (book and film), Slaughter House Five, The Colour Purple, Brave New World, The Bell Jar. The American Library Association continues to have a real problem with works they deem are ‘un-Christian’, and, as you will notice, homosexuality.
However, all this considered, many incidents of violent protest against art deemed ‘offensive’ has frequently come from the Muslim community – and this begs a few questions. Is it that the Muslim community – as a community – are simply less tolerant and more voraciously defensive of their faith? Or is it that it is the Muslim community, and the Islamic faith, that seems to most frequently come under attack? Or is it the long history of being oppressed by Western imperialism and being the battleground for war after war, instigated by the West? As this post articulately notes about Yemen, ‘…where US policy has resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fuelling anger against a regime whose brutality and corruption has left the country ranking among the poorest in the Arab world.’ So does the Arab world have a right to be enraged? Or is this pattern a combination of all these things? A part of a vicious cycle?
The Jayalalitha/Manmohan Singh/Sri Lanka cartoon
This cartoon created a stir, causing the newspaper to officially apologise to those it offended, and resulting in the cartoon being removed immediately from the newspaper’s online edition. However, the cartoonist defended his stand to the end. The cartoonist defends the cartoon, saying ‘vulgarity’ is subjective. He also sees the condemnation of the cartoon as an assertion of Indian power over Sri Lankan power, which he also, valiantly, resists. He says, ‘I suspect that some egos might have been challenged, but our Indian colleagues should understand that Sri Lankans are also entitled to express themselves.’
If you look at why the cartoon was condemned by media groups and women’s groups in Sri Lanka and India (forget the politicians), those reasons are valid. Most pertinent was that the cartoon was called ‘sexist’.
Now, personally, it’s fairly obvious why this cartoon is sexist, very deliberately so, and that’s not just because I’m a woman. The cartoon depicts Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu’s ferocious Chief Minister, as being hostile to Sri Lanka. It depicts Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a tiny figure in relation to the larger-than-life Jayalalitha, as being ‘lost’ in Jayalalitha’s politics, powerless, not asserting himself to this woman, who he evidently fears. Finally, Manmohan Singh is depicted as standing directly underneath her legs, looking up, a sort of bewildered expression on his face. So you see, the cartoon says, he is not just politically wimpy, he is emasculated. And of course, this is much, much worse. His ‘manliness’ is brought into question here, not just his prowess as a political leader, and the fact that she is a woman seems to be the driving force behind the message of the cartoon. Not only is he being ‘un-manly’ by bowing down to a woman, she is depicted as being ‘un-womanly’ because of the way she conducts herself. Now, what if it were a man we were talking about, instead of a woman? Would the cartoonist then not have found another way to depict Singh’s state of powerlessness and inaction? If it was another man we were accusing Singh of being afraid of, would gender have been brought into the equation? Surely not. The point here seems to be to embarrass both prime minister Singh and Chief Minister Jayalalitha – but this embarrassment is done through asking of him ‘How can you be afraid of a woman?’ and asking of her ‘Isn’t it unsightly when a woman behaves as you are behaving?’.
Freedom of Expression, Tolerance and Substance
Now, I’m all for creating a society that respects, even appreciates, artistic perspective and the right of a person, particularly a journalist or an artist, to express themselves freely. I would rather live in a world in which governments invest time and energy in telling people not to riot, rather than one that shuts cinemas down or bans books. I would rather invest in breeding tolerance than censorship. I would rather live in a world in which our sensitivities, our spirituality, our faith, our sense of identity, is not threatened by someone else’s perspective; a world in which we are able to view ourselves, our communities, our beliefs and our traditions critically, a world in which we can all have a sense of humour about ourselves. This is the ‘Freedom of Expression’ we fight for.
It is interesting that in both the situations detailed above, ‘Freedom of Expression’ has been brought into the battlefield, to defend both the anti-Islam film and the said cartoon. Theoretically, this defense is untouchable. Theoretically, it protects the right of anyone to say anything. And yet, when we fight for Freedom of Expression, it feels larger, grander, more important. There is a feeling that we are fighting for something worthwhile, something valuable, something we believe is contributing to our advancement as a species. We fight for things we long to express, we fight to defend people whose ideas we feel need to be heard, the things we feel are imperative. We fight for the right of those who have made us think, made us stop in our tracks, made us open our eyes.
The fact remains that both the film and cartoon in question are undoubtedly the products of not-very talented people. The film is no The Satanic Verses, the cartoon is not the work of Jim Borgman. They are unthinking and crude; they are neither clever nor funny. They offer no intelligent insight into a particular situation, they do not provide intelligent commentary. Both the film and the cartoon – which are perhaps attempts at satire – are not satire. They fail to attack the things they wish to attack in any substantial manner. They fail to present a convincing argument. They fail to make you think. Both, in their own way, are actually rather pointless.
It makes you ask: why did someone make this film? Why did someone draw this cartoon? What were they trying to say?
With the film, I think it’s safe to assume, that the intention was none other than to offend and provoke. There cannot be any other intention. With the cartoon, it’s less one-dimensional – the cartoonist is a regular contributor to the local papers and is clearly attempting to make some commentary on the prevailing Sri Lanka/India issues. He fails to do so because this cartoon lacks ideas, and he is perhaps genuinely a chauvinist (who knows).
The question is: will I fight for the right to ‘freedom of expression’ of people like this, who unthinkingly, stupidly, mindlessly churn out things and then expect us to protect their right to do? Am I going to waste my battle-strength defending meaningless things that lack integrity and substance?
Theoretically, I should say yes. I should fight for freedom of expression on principle. But I’d like to live in a world in which freedom, though it is everyone’s birth-right, is not abused. A world in which freedom is used intelligently and responsibly. A world in which freedom is both respected and protected. I’d like to live in a world that takes freedom seriously – and does not use it as a mask with which to hide bad judgment and poor taste.