Freedom of expression – the precious gift of the secular
Probably the most influential theologian on the African continent in our time, John Mbiti, has said that according to the African world view everything is permeated by religion.
I have at least two problems with such a statement. First, if this is true, it will be impossible to isolate or demarcate religion as a particular phenomenon to be studied or otherwise enjoyed, as everything is religion, one way or another. Secondly, a suspicion is that such a state of affairs could seriously curtail human freedom of expression, as powers that be could refer to an ultimate authority of a religious character.
The killing of cartoonists of the French paper Charlie Hebdo on 7 January has brought us into a state of shock. However, there are signs of hope in that there now might be a much deeper reflection on our heritage of freedom of expression and why that freedom is so important.
As has been said frequently, religion historically speaking, seems to have little to offer in terms of creating spaces of radical freedoms of expression.
Our hope should now rest with the secular. Those of us who are paying allegiance to a religious tradition should here confess that we have, at least historically, failed utterly when it comes to freedom of expression. Hence, let us accept that the secular has something of ultimate value on offer.
The French revolution of 1789 envisaged a society built on liberté, égalité and fraternité. We know for sure that many French people will now spend time reflecting on their heritage of freedom and how that should be understood today. My point of departure is that we all have something to learn here.
Let us hope that those religious who are offended by satirical drawings come to their senses before long. Let us hope that the Roman Catholic Church in France comes out in full support of people like those of Charlie Hebdo, accepting with gladness that they have to operate in a secular society, and bear with being ridiculed once in a while.
Let us consider the sacredness of a secular space, if one may say so, where there is an open space for a complete freedom of expression, in terms of words, music, visual arts including cartoons, but without violating other people’s freedom or doing harm to them physically. In such a space even Voltaire’s dictum of the church “écrasez l’infâme” (crush the infamous) should be acceptable.
This text was written in Sweden. Back in South Africa I realise that things are different. We are not in Europe. To be honest I have not found much sympathy here for those making caricatures for Charlie Hebdo, who were killed by extremists claiming to act in the name of the Prophet. The peace in terms of inter-religious relations that we enjoy in South Africa is built on a consensus of respect and a secularist life view here has never gained ground. For the first time I realise that this state of affairs also carries with it weaknesses and it is a fact that even here people would have to guard what they are saying and indeed make sure that what they say in some sense at least is politically and religiously correct. Not to be guarded in this way would be risky.
The well-known poet and intellectual Adam Small expressed sentiments in his column in Cape Times on 23 January, which would have been very difficult to publish in Europe at this time. He shows little sympathy for the Charlie Hebdo drawers/draughtsmen/cartoonists. But he also has no sympathy for the radical, young Islamists and their deed. Small differentiates between satire and caricature and says that the magazine in question at best produces caricatures of bad taste: “The writers and cartoonists of a magazine like Charlie Hebdo suffer a sickness of soul: they are people I cannot consider to be either serious or profound. They have sparked violence and societal turmoil – terror and death – hence, unfortunately, cannot be ignored. What a waste of a country’s resources, what plunder of its economy! Their performance has nothing to do with freedom of speech and liberality, being simply manic (and, of course, it is about more and more money, about skyrocketing sales)”.
In a strange way Small wants us to believe that the victims and the perpetrators here sail in the same boat of Western decadence and meaninglessness. In his quote from Breyten Breytenbach he concedes to the utter madness of these young Muslims (and I am just going to quote Breytenbach on this), but sadly I must say that Small misses the point completely. The issue at stake is freedom of expression. Is South Africa prepared to go the route that among others is envisaged by South African cartoonists like Zapiro, the Richenbaums and others? Do we realise that freedom of expression needs a sacred space even in South Africa? If it is accepted that our leaders are exposed to ridicule and are caricatured like our current president has been and is, then there is some hope. But, rest assured, the day will come when also the religious South Africa will be tested. In the name of freedom of expression, I start realising that even South Africa needs a secular space that is free from religious authorities and meanings.
Breytenbach says about the young Muslim terrorists (and this is translated from Afrikaans to English by Small in his Cape Times article):
“(They are) young nihilists in search of meaning for their maladjusted lives… which they find in a skewed, fanatical, manipulated interpretation of realities, religious and otherwise in the world. They despise and reject everything that’s Western, but themselves are products of the rottenness of a hollow consumerism dependent on its emblems… obsessed, murderous, clowns, lackeys… without moral vision… obscene fundamentalists.”
This is the new reality. We are now living in one world, the only one there is.