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Business News/ Opinion / Charlie Hebdo and the ‘but brigade’

Charlie Hebdo and the ‘but brigade’

The lesson from Paris is that we cannot shirk from asking uncomfortable questions about the interweaving of politics, society, and religion

Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters Premium
Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters

Someone wise once said the law is a crucible in which society may burn away irrelevancies and come to grips with the essential elements of an argument. A crisis such as the recent murderous attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and its bloody aftermath, presents a similar moment. After the initial superficial outpouring of solidarity with the slain journalists, punctuated by ephemeral tokenisms such as “Je suis Charlie", the criticism, first muted, now swelling into a crescendo, has begun.

Thus, we are told, the cartoons themselves were Islamophobic, homophobic, racist and that there is a whole history of colonial occupation and current geopolitical strife which helps to explain—if not excuse—the murderous rage of the attackers. While the right to speak freely is part of the bedrock of a liberal society, it must be exercised with prudence, so as not to cause offence, we are told.

These arguments, and many variations on the same themes, in lower and higher registers, constitute the forward charge of what Salman Rushdie has aptly branded the “but brigade": freedom is sacrosanct—but—it must be constrained in the interests of social harmony or some other goal unconnected to the primacy of individual liberty.

Such arguments are insidious, place us on a slippery slope toward an intellectually deadened, politically correct world of self-censorship, and must be opposed in the strongest possible terms by true liberals, for whom freedom of expression is not only one of the most fundamental of all civil liberties, but linchpin of the many others which require, at root, the unfettered commerce of ideas and opinions.

In a country such as the US, which has perhaps the most robust, constitutionally guaranteed protections of freedom of expression anywhere in the world, the debate around free speech has amounted to a litmus test separating true liberals from faux liberal apologists for some form of censorship or self-censorship. The same holds true in India, in which many self-styled liberals are in any case of the faux variety, with few ready to take up the cudgels in defence of liberty and most quick to make excuses for why it would be better for liberty to be curtailed, or not exercised in the first instance.

This ethos is, alas, yet another of the most damaging of Nehruvian legacies, carved by Nehru himself into the First Amendment of the Constitution—which, together with several illiberal provisions within the Indian Penal Code, severely constrains freedom of expression in India. As recently as 2006, when the Danish cartoons controversy erupted, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress led-United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government expressed “outrage" that the sentiments of the Muslim community had been hurt, protested to the Danish government against the cartoons, and then, in an appropriately Orwellian turn of phrase, claimed that the government was committed to “religious tolerance".

It is noteworthy that the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has not criticized the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the manner that their predecessors condemned the Danish cartoons: perhaps because it is not necessary for them to do so for electoral gain, or perhaps—and hopefully this is the reason—because they are beginning to evince a greater commitment to freedom of expression than their predecessors. After all, it was Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a member of the BJP pantheon, who most bitterly opposed Nehru’s move to restrict freedom of speech. One hopes that some of this remains in their DNA.

Either way, in such an illiberal legal environment in India, it is more important than ever for those who cherish liberty to make the case for it, and press for the necessary constitutional and legal reforms to give it substance, severely uphill a battle though this is. And, while we work toward reform, courageous media houses, acting in concert, might in their pages or broadcasts test the limits of the current Indian law, which has, remarkably, faced little serious challenge in decades. Else, despite the trappings of a constitutional democracy, on matters of freedom of expression, we will remain closer to some of the Islamic states than to the US.

The second fallout of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is a predictable, although sterile, debate on whether it is possible for Islam to reform, much as, it is claimed, Christianity reformed itself somewhere in between the horrors of internecine sectarian wars and the present day. In the aftermath of a tragedy in which radicalized Muslims killed in the name of their prophet, some analysts ask rhetorically, where is Islam’s Martin Luther? But to ask this question is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther was not reforming Christianity in any sense in which we would understand that word today, but rather railing against the institutionalized venality and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and its practice of granting an “indulgence"—essentially, a free pass for having committed a sin—in return for money. In terms of doctrine, however, Luther was far more fundamentalist than any Catholic theologian of the time—and thus should hardly rate the moniker of a reformer of doctrine or any exemplar for Islam today.

In the West, Christianity did not reform, so much as it became increasingly irrelevant, after the discoveries of the new science in the seventeenth century and scepticism about religious doctrine that followed logically from this during the Enlightenment of the next century. While thinkers of the time could not quite bring themselves to banish God altogether—true atheism was as yet a step too far—they transformed him into a watch winder, someone who passively sits outside the universe and does not interfere with it, having once set it in motion. This is very far removed from the God of the Old Testament, who spent six very active days creating the universe before resting on the seventh.

As secularization proceeded apace through the centuries, God became ever more distant a figure, eventually receding to the vanishing point of the intellectual horizon. Yet many of the boldest thinkers challenging the Biblical God were themselves nominally Christian or Jewish. The implied cognitive dissonance was transformed into celestial harmony by—explicitly or implicitly—reinterpreting religious texts as works of mythology, furnishing—when allied to the Graeco-Roman heritage—a rich metaphorical language for the worlds of literature, art, and music, while jettisoning a belief in their literal truth.

This transformation was accomplished over centuries in the West, and, even now, is incomplete, as the potency of fundamentalist Christian Evangelic movements in the US and elsewhere attests. It would be foolish to conjecture on the contours of a similar journey in Islamic societies—all the more given their enormous heterogeneity—but most assuredly it will require more than the usual pieties seeking to create a an artificial boundary between religious doctrines and those who commit heinous crimes in their name.

To deny an intrinsic connection between the violent acts of the Paris attackers in avenging their prophet on the one hand and Islamic doctrine on the other—or, at any rate, an interpretation of it widely shared by radicalized Muslims—would be as cretinous as to deny that the horrors of the Inquisition were legitimized by an understanding of Christian doctrine widely shared by Catholic theologians of the time which, in turn, was approved and acted upon by the Vatican.

The Inquisition did not disappear because of any fundamental change in Catholic doctrine, but because the Vatican became emasculated politically. The same logic applies, surely, to the acts carried out in the name of radical Islam today.

If we have learned anything from the Paris tragedy, it is this that we cannot—we dare not—shirk from asking difficult, often uncomfortable, questions about the complex interweaving of politics, society, and religion. To retreat into comfortable platitudes from which no serious lessons may be drawn does service neither to the dead nor to the living.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist. You can read his previous columns at

Follow Mint Opinion on Twitter at

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Published: 12 Jan 2015, 12:46 PM IST
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