The brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo that resulted in the death of a total of 17 people created a shock wave across the world. The main target was the humorists of this satiric journal well known for its irreverent and anti-establishment attitude. As usual, the collateral damages were impressive – innocent people paying with their lives for things that do not concern them directly or indirectly. Our cover story by Subhodev Das provides a detailed account of the incidents.

My editorial is not about the incident itself, it is about the aftermath and about resurrection of issues and problems that were hidden in closets and swept under carpets in most Western societies for a long time now.

As 3 million people demonstrated all over France to defend liberty of expression and freedom of the press– an impressive turnout of the civil society with no political banners, several questions were raised - about the meaning and limits of liberty & freedom. How far can freedom and liberty be extended? Does the media, especially the press, have the right to instigate, infuriate, insult people or communities or religions? A lot of ink has flowed about how the anti-Islam cartoons drawn by the humorists of Charlie Hebdo pandered to the reactionary forces in France with strong anti-Islam tendencies. How the Muslims in France (according to the savant journalists) were deeply hurt by cartoons that ridiculed the Prophet. I am willing to believe this. Just as cartoons about politicians certainly hurts them personally as well as the political parties.  Just as the cartoons about fat women hurt a sizeable part of the world population.  So here is the basic question – who draws the line to define what is permissible? Is there a barometer for measuring the ‘hurt’? Don’t we, as ordinary individuals, hurt each other constantly? So what is the basic issue here?

According to me, the main issue here is the persisting incompatibility between State and Religion. The fundamental values of a modern state, for instance, liberty, equality and secularism are in direct contradiction to any religion. Take the principle of equality, for instance – the State is the guarantor of this equality for each and every citizen. Right to education, right to health services, and equal opportunity in all walks of life – the list is long and quite impressive. But when it comes to religious issues, the discourse becomes ambiguous. A secular state, in principle, is totally neutral as far as religions are concerned. Take the case of France. Since the French revolution, there has been a clear distinction between the Church & the State. But that does not prevent France from being overbearingly Christian – and Catholic, at that. Look at the French calendar & you will see how many public holidays are for Christians alone. But of course, French citizens are free to adopt any religion and practice. The number of mosques & synagogues in France are quite impressive. France allows Catholic, Jewish and Muslim schools. Where the children are indoctrinated from a very early age – it does not make the slightest difference that they all follow the national curriculum. They have become the prime instruments for segregation. This is not unique to France – this is the model found in almost all European countries. So here we see the flip side of secular states – there is no ‘state’ religion and each individual is free to practice the religion of their choice. Except that, in doing so, the modern States reinforce the differences between different religious communities rather than bringing them together. By creating religious ghettos that are not necessarily geographic - these are ideological ghettos that span across the country.

Take the principle of liberty now. The Charlie Hebdo massacre brought the question of liberty and freedom to the forefront once more. Liberty of expression, liberty of press. Are they sacrosanct? Or should they be carefully monitored?  If it is the former, then there can be no control, no censure, and no impositions on the liberty of expression. In the Western democracies, the mainstream Press is often in cahoots with powers that be. But there is another Press as well – one that dares to go against the current, a Press often arrogantly anti-establishment, irreverent, and bold. They remain a pillar of the democracy as well – the fourth estate as described by Thomas Carlyle back in 1841.

So should this liberty be curbed? Should the Press pander to the same issues as the politicians whose only concern is the vote bank? Should a free Press turn a blind eye to communalism, fundamentalism, religious and racial hatred in the interest of social peace and harmony? Condone things that are wrong, anti democratic, anti secular, against the founding principles of a modern democracy?

There can be no cut and dried response to such questions. Each country, each society need to find the answers that are best suited to their individual situations. Each society is treading a fine line between the modern values of State and the ancient values of religion, and the solutions can never be universal. So let us stop throwing stones at each other and foment dissociation. Let us unite in deciding what values are fundamental to the modern world.



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