Just read a very balanced commentary on the inflammatory topic of the Charlie Hebdo bloodbath, written by a Singaporean PhD student. For me, what happened in France was the result of the clash of two extremes: an extreme interpretation of religious teachings, and an extreme belief in liberty. Granted it is important to have an ideology in life as it imbues our lives with meaning and purpose; however, when that ideology takes over reason, good sense and even common decency, it leads to ruination.
For me, there is a grave imbalance in asserting rights without an equal willingness to bear responsibility. It is the yin without the yang. No civilised society can exist without equal measures of rights and responsibility. For instance, my right to move about freely in society is balanced with my equally crucial responsibility to refrain from robbing or physically assaulting others. Should I fail to fulfil my end of the social contract, society is discharged of its obligations to give me freedom, and can throw me into jail. Similarly, the freedom of speech must be balanced with responsibility. And what more basic human responsibility is there than to desist from profaning what is sacred to someone else’s religion?
Apart from the restrictions on free speech mentioned in the above mentioned article, France also has some of the toughest laws against defamation and violations of privacy, which you can read about here and here. Hence it is clear that French society and law uphold the importance of responsibility as a social counterweight to freedom. Why then do they not apply the principle to one of the most fundamental responsibilities of a human being – to show the most basic respect to what is most sacred to one’s neighbour?
A Singaporean friend and her French boyfriend have been having interesting discussions recently regarding the horrific attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris.
The Frenchman’s views fall in line with Western mainstream media’s framing of these terrorist acts as a gross attack on freedom of speech, a value the French hold especially dear and are now rallying defiantly around. Solidarity manifests in Je suis Charlie placards, light projections, hashtags and Facebook profile pictures. After all, France is the land of Voltaire, whose views on freedom of speech were summarised pithily and memorably by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
On the other hand, my Singaporean friend is a freethinker who identified more with the Je suis Ahmed hashtag: Ahmed Merabet was the Muslim policeman who was killed in action trying to stop the terrorists from fleeing the Charlie Hebdo offices. Belgium-based Lebanese activist and writer Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) tweeted: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.”
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