Today, the front pages of the newspapers are covered with the news about the yesterday’s terrorist attack in Paris. Two thugs associating themselves with Islam have entered the office of a French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo and killed 11 people in the building. Apparently, this was an act of “revenge” for a series of “blasphemous” cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad and Islamic leaders. The attackers later killed a policeman a few blocks away who wasn’t even confronting them, stole a car, and robbed a gas station. I’m not sure how those acts are upholding the values of Islam.
Response in society worldwide was immediate. This act is considered to be an attack on the freedom of speech — the “holy cow” of democratic society. In western democracies, one can criticize anything, except the freedom of speech itself. I do believe that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a civilized society and needs to be protected as a basic human right. People cannot be killed for expressing their opinions and beliefs. But does it mean that we are free to say anything?
Rights come with responsibilities. They are two ends of the same stick — you cannot have one without the other. Words are powerful. They can cause emotional reactions in other people and cause them to act. The effect of public words is multiplied million times. I think, in this age of Internet, freedom of speech is the right that is abused in the most irresponsible way.
After 19 years of marriage, I have learned that people may react to my words in most irrational ways. However irrational, these reactions are often very predictable. Certain words and certain images trigger very predictable responses. Advertisers use this predictability. Mass media and propaganda use this predictability. Religions not only use this power, but also teach others, willing to learn, how to use it.
The book of James, my favorite book of the New Testament, says in chapter 3:
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
This is a mere statement of the power of the word. This implies that the words, like any other power — weapons or fire — must be used with great care and responsibility. Otherwise, they may cause great evil. The passage also points out how difficult it is to “tame one’s tongue”.
Christianity was liberal by the 1st century standards. In 1 Corinthians 10, Apostle Paul reflects on the liberties that Christians can take:
23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.“I have the right to do anything”— but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
This is the case with all “freedoms”. “Freedom” to do anything is not freedom from consequences of our actions. When someone mocks Prophet Mohammad in a cartoon or a video, it causes an outrage in some part of the world. This reaction is so very predictable. If you step on a viper, it is very likely to bite you. If you disturb a bear with a cub, it is very likely to attack you. So, why step on a viper or disturb a bear? When a viper bites me, it’s silly to scream “I have the right to step wherever I want!” And, speaking of consequences. How does mocking of Islam free the world from Islamic terrorism? How is it even supposed to free the world from Islamic terrorism?
On the same note, how is a terrorist attack supposed to protect Islam? Isn’t it, again, predictable that immediate reaction in society will be an outcry and, likely, violence against Islam? Somebody has bombed a mosque in Paris already and there has been a surge of those cartoons on the Internet. Why do people do something that is guaranteed to produce results exactly opposite to intentions? Well, that’s a silly question. Why do people ask silly questions? I don’t know, but they predictably do.
Later in the same chapter, Paul continues:
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
“Do not cause anyone to stumble.” Do not drink wine in the presence of an alcoholic. Do not show drugs to a drug addict. Do not give a gun to a maniac in depression. Do not publish cartoons mocking Islam. Is it, really, such a great limitation of freedom? Should we have censorship and legislation limiting such acts? Definitely, not! Who will judge what’s offensive to whom?