Friday, March 03, 2006

European hypocrisy?

Two issues in the recent past, very similar in essence, bring out this instance of what I perceive to be European hypocrisy. The first, being the publication of the controversial cartoons by the Danish newspaper. The second, being the arrest & imprisonment of the British author David Irving for denying the Holocaust. At the very outset let me put the required disclaimer: The emphasis of this piece is about the dual standards as I see being displayed, and not about the merits of the individual cases. At the core of all of this is freedom of expression, which must be absolute in scope for it to make sense, because, it is very likely that an opinion I express is likely to offend some random person at some random place on this globe. Now if I were to be take into account all such possibilities, I'm not likely to have much to say. Hence, this freedom must be absolute.

A minor digression. This does beg the question though, if the freedom comes with a responsibility. In my humble opinion, the water gets too muddy for any meaningful & objective rules to govern this freedom, for it to make any sense. And it would end up contradicting the very freedom that I talk about. One could argue that this would allow fundamentalists/extremists to deliver inflammatory/communal speeches etc. But, look at it this way, putting such people in jail is not going to prevent supporters/followers of the cause from doing what they want to anyway. In fact, there is even the danger of the action of punishment backfiring. So, if people wish to make "inflammatory" speeches, let them! However, if and as and when they break the law, they should be dealt with appropriately. That would be the responsibility of the state.

So getting back to the main point. Since the argument presented in favor of the publication of the cartoons is freedom of expression, how different is it when Mr. Irving does it? He chooses to deny the Holocaust. If you don't agree with him, don't listen to him or read his books. Him denying facts would only prove his delusion, and doesn't change a thing. Agreed that most of Europe and the world at large feels very deeply about the Holocaust (and rightly so), well, so do Muslims about the depiction of their most divine. One puts state before religion, the other, religion before state. And both societies exist, and for them to co-exist, each has to be tolerant of the other. (In this context, a friend of mine remarked that Europe has learnt more about the Islamic world than the other way around.) Having said all this, doesn't the whole issue smack of double standards?

ps: Read Amit Varma's brilliant take on the cartoon row here.