What Price Freedom of Expression?


Muslim faithfuls hold placards during prayer organised by the Muslim community in the city centre near the French Embassy  in Rome on October 30. 2020. — Getty Image

Unhinged exercise of freedom of speech is not freedom, it is recklessness

DR SAMINA SALIM | Clarion India

I WAS six years old when I noticed my grandmother’s trinket box. Upon my prodding, she revealed there was mouth freshener in that box and warned me to not eat it as it was meant only for the adults to have. Curiosity transformed into rebellion and the desire for a thrill pushed me to taste what was forbidden. I became dizzy and nauseous. It was tobacco.

The debate on freedom of speech reminds me of this incident. Although the analogy might sound a bit too simplistic but it reveals the basic instincts of human nature. If we are prevented from doing, writing or speaking about something, we feel our intellect is under attack and we must defend it–even if that defies logic or compassion.

Obviously, there is great value in our freedom. People before us gave up a lot so that we can have what they did not–freedom of expression. But with freedom comes responsibility. The balance between criticism and hate, satire and loathing, mockery and insult is critical.

This is especially sensitive in the context of religion. Caricatures are an important medium of political and social commentary and deserve the freedom to deliver creative art and entertainment. After all, that is what they offer, a good laugh. But, a good laugh is not worth the creativity, if the motive is to disrespect and discriminate.

Hatred and discrimination are already in abundance; there is no room for more. Everyone seems angry, hateful, insecure, hurt, deprived and upset. We are a society that has learnt to hate the “other” so much that we have normalised hate and discarded reconciliation.

Peace seems a scarce option and often considered a virtue of the weak. I believe we have reached a point where the fatigue of hate is consuming us all. Yet, we keep on fueling more of the same– the hateful rhetoric, professing hateful ideologies and championing hateful causes.

Nothing gives us a pause; not even the stark reminders of history. It took six million Jewish lives to acknowledge anti-semitism, enslavement of 10.2 million innocent men and women to recognise racism, and suffering of generations of women to acknowledge sexism. Islamophobia is the newest form of discrimination. We must not propagate it. End it.

The cartoon controversy revolving around Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) caricature is offensive not only for Muslims but also for Christians and Jews. Demonising and demeaning all prophets of Islam, including Jesus, Moses and Abraham, is offensive to Muslims, and should be offensive for all People of the Book. There can be better caricature subjects which undoubtedly can bring great humour without insulting or hurting people’s religious sentiments.

Why insist on this type of humor? There are plenty of politicians, intellectuals, artistes and movie stars to poke fun at. Unhinged exercise of freedom of speech is not freedom, it is recklessness. And, violent reactions to such incidents, no matter how reckless, are heinous acts of savagery and deserve the strongest condemnation.


Samina Salim, Ph.D., is Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacological & Pharmaceutical Sciences, Houston College of Pharmacy. She was born in Lucknow and raised in Aligarh and moved to the United States in 1999. The views expressed here are author’s own and Clarion India does not necessarily share or subscribe to them.

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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