There’s a commonly-uttered sentence in the English language that puts me in a state of apprehension in about 0.1 seconds:
“I’m a big believer in freedom of expression.”
Pop quiz: About eight out of ten times, what’s the word that follows?
It’s not “Period.”
And so it is with Ali Selim, a Muslim lecturer in Ireland who has announced that he’ll go to court to punish or gag Irish journalists who dare spread Islam-mocking Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Selim is also a dignitary with the Islamic Cultural Center of Ireland. On an Irish radio show that aired on Wednesday, while the bodies in Paris were still warm, he said:
“I am a great advocate of freedom of expression.”
And immediately, the vacillations and qualifications began.
But I encourage freedom of expression that does not give room for confrontation, that does not turn one person against another. I encourage people to live in harmony and peace and respect each other. If they want to have a good sense of humor, do have it within the boundaries of what people can understand.
Was that the problem with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? They were just too hard to grasp? Interesting.
It’s not his style to merely appeal to journalists, editors, and bloggers who wish to republish the Charlie cartoons, Selim explained. He wants to sue them into compliance.
When asked by Niall Boylan on 4FM if he (Boylan) retweeted the cartoon would his life be in danger, Dr. Selim – who condemned the shootings – said: “Not your life would be in danger but definitely we will check the Irish law and if there is any legal channel against you, we will take it.”
What you see as funny, what you see as comedy, if it is related to others, then we have to take their perception into account as well. Why do we think solely of our perceptions and not others’?
It’s an abject approach that, when the power of the law is placed behind it, would mean forcibly defining comedy and satire down to the level of whoever has the thinnest skin. It would bring an end to the availability of Monty Python movies, Jesus and Mo comics, Jim Jefferies DVDs, Tim Minchin tickets, books by H.L. Mencken and Friedrich Nietzsche and Mark Twain, and, of course, cartoons by Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, and Tignous, the four artists who were murdered on Wednesday.
But no worries: Shutting other people up is for the common good, Dr. Selim elaborated.
I have to look for the spirit of the law, and see what guarantees good relations between you and me, what can bring us closer. How to bridge the gap.
The scary part is that in Ireland, the man may currently have the law on his side. The country has a Defamation Act that forbids
“Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter”, which carries a maximum fine of €25,000. The offense consists of uttering material “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion“, when the intent and result is “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”
But perhaps lawsuits such as the ones pondered by Ali Selim will be good for Ireland, and good for liberty. A few months ago, the Irish government announced that it would hold a referendum on the defamation law. It’s easy to see how voters could be annoyed by Muslim activists’ judicial trial balloons, and how that annoyance could finally sweep blasphemy from the law books via the ballot box.
By the way, Trinity College, where Selim lectures, is the alma mater of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett, writers who set a high benchmark for satire and mockery.