By Monobina Gupta
Oct 4, 2012
Is the west being hypocritical in its selective response to the debate on freedom of expression? This is a loaded question that seems to defy easy answers. The violence triggered by an amateur film on Islam has been under public glare for two reasons: first, the scale of the violence; and second, the issue of freedom of expression.
But what caught much less attention is another recent incident of a controversial religious representation, this time in the western world, which poses the same question about expression.
The poster campaign of a clothes company representing an unusual version of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper has been banned in Milan, while the Catholic Church in France has secured a court injunction to ban the same image. The court judgment described the representation as "a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people's innermost beliefs". It has been criticised for playing with the very basics of Christian belief. A parody of such theological symbols, it has been said, can't be done for "commercial ends without offending the religious sensitivities of at least part of the population".
So what had triggered such punitive state action? Created by Marithe and Francois Gribaud, French fashion designers, the advertisement has a gaggle of women, dressed in the company's designer chic, seated around a long table as Christ and his apostles. A man, probably John the Apostle, is sitting on a woman's lap, in low slung jeans and bare torso.
It could be argued that such radical representation of an iconic painting, which has in many ways come to define Christian imagery, could offend the sensibilities of devout Christians. Yet, it must be remembered that the 'offending' image is an adaptation of a painting and not the Holy Bible.
Brushing aside the company's defence of its work as a 'tribute to women', the authorities concerned have taken off the poster, which, for weeks, was plastered on billboards in cities like Paris and New York.
Clearly, countries like France and Italy seem to stick to different standards when it comes to their own religion. The pertinent question, therefore, is: doesn't censorship of creative work, regardless of religion and community sentiments, negate the very principle of unqualified espousal of freedom of expression?
However discomfiting it may be, the right to offend is imminent in this principle. Innocence of Muslims ignited so much violence precisely because it offended the devout Muslim just the way the 'sacrilegious' Last Supper image offended sections of Catholics. Equality before law would necessitate either banning both the works or allowing them to flourish.
That, however, is not how it's played out in the west. When Muslim populations protest cartoons of the Prophet or films insulting Islam and its practices, supposedly liberal regimes respond with an unequivocal espousal of the right of offend. In other words, by resisting bans and censorship fiats. The right to freedom of expression, if honoured in letter and spirit, however, should apply to all such controversial cases, regardless of religion and country.
But this is where hypocrisy sneaks in. It seems Muslims are not the only ones to give religion primacy over freedom of expression and liberty. They are not the only ones to consider blasphemy a serious crime that shouldn't go unpunished. Till 2008, Christians in UK had the legal protection under blasphemy laws forbidding the publication of "contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ or the formularies of the Church of England".
Many European countries have outlawed Holocaust denial, display of the swastika, and forms of 'anti-Semitic' speech - even in academic and research work. This includes any minimising or trivialising of Nazi atrocities. These bans also cover crimes by communists in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, the violation even attracting a five-year imprisonment.
Germany has laws to punish any person 'insulting' or 'defaming segments of the population'. The Netherlands has outlawed any matter that might verbally, in writing or through images deliberately offend groups of people based on their race, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation.
These legal measures show how perhaps free speech is never free. As philosopher Stanley Fish points out, "The only condition in which free speech would be realisable is if the speech didn't mean anything. Free speech is speech that doesn't mean anything. Once meaning, assertion and predication get into the act, the condition of freedom has already been lost."