Freedom of expression


YOU know I was scrolling down my timeline on Twitter this week when I came across what I considered to be an offensive depiction of Jesus nailed to the cross with his buttocks exposed.

The caption below read “Waiting to be crucified then you hear Anaconda”. For those who might know, Anaconda is the pop song by Nicki Minaj. I don’t know the lyrics, but if you have seen the suggestive and lewd dancing by Minaj, it leaves nothing much to the imagination.

Judging by the number of retweets, there are probably some who found the caricature humorous. I thought it was blasphemous.

However, even if I expressed my outrage I would have simply been muted with three words: Freedom of expression.

What these three little words mean is that a person has the right to communicate their own opinion publicly without fear or recrimination. Expression can either be oral, written or illustrated.

As a writer I understand the concept of freedom of expression too well. I certainly would not want to be censored or have my voice curtailed in any way, but still there is a responsibility that comes in how we express ourselves.

Last week’s incident at the French weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo brought this to the fore. 12 members of staff met their demise last week in an Al-Qaeda-orchestrated attack in which the Islamic militant group asserted the magazine was targeted for its cartoons depicting prophet Muhammad in an unsavoury light.

A policewoman and four others died in a separate attack on a kosher supermarket. This has sparked fears of terrorism and there has been a rise in anti Islamic sentiment. This has sparked off riots in other parts of the world.

Charlie Hebdo has been around since the ’70s and has thrived on satirical content that is meant to incite discussion and raise awareness of issues.

Satire is the use of humour, irony or exaggeration to ridicule, expose or criticise people in politics or society. Even in the instance of the controversial spear painting featuring South African President Jacob Zuma, the artist Brett Murray, in his defence, pointed out that satire was critical entertainment.

He said: “While I might be attacking and ridiculing specific targets, what I am actually doing is articulating my vision for an ideal world. . .” Jonathon “Zapiro” Shapiro has often used satire in illustration of issues around Zuma’s administration. He faced legal action as a result of the controversy arising from those cartoons.

Legal action is a more plausible way to seek redress. To borrow from Pope Francis 1, “Satire and mockery” definitely do not justify the merciless killing of people. Religion is a contentious issue. This is something we all know. Wars have been fought over religious dissent.

The fact that there are over 4 200 religions worldwide is testament that there is religious dissension among us.

However, I think we must all agree that everyone has a right to practice their own religion. We do not need to agree with the tenets of that religion, but we still need to respect it.

So clearly making a cartoon out of prophet Muhammad, who is one of the most revered prophets in Islam, would definitely ruffle some feathers. Islam has a large following of over two billion.

I do not condone killing in the name of religion. I think it goes against any religious teachings. Most religions, I believe, have in common the tenets of love, peace and generosity.

Of course the counter argument is that people should be allowed to be critical of religions so as to conscientise others.

However, I think there is constructive criticism and destructive criticism and in my opinion belittling or making a mockery of someone else’s beliefs or non belief would fall into the latter category. Like Pope Francis 1 rightly pointed out, there is freedom of speech, but there should be a limit.

I am not advocating for laws to govern what people say, write or draw. All I ask is that we should exercise our freedom of expression responsibly.

Just as there are religious extremists there is danger in becoming extremist in our freedom of expression.

Sukoluhle Nyathi is the author of the novel The Polygamist. You can follow her on Twitter @SueNyathi