Freedom of speech or right to offend?

    The western world is often quite fascinated by the socio-political climate and religion-based laws in Pakistan. In particular, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been brought to attention on numerous occasions. Several individuals have suffered at the hands of these laws which were supposedly created to protect religious sentiments. However, as we have noted in the past few decades, countless of these allegations arise from personal animosities and result in innocent lives being lost forever.

    In the West, there is a huge emphasis on freedom of speech, human rights and liberation for all. In Pakistan, however, all these are alien concepts. Growing up as a woman from a religious minority segment of the society, I have always been taught by my parents and elders to avoid any religious, social and political discussion with others. Of course, they feared for my life and my safety. However, as a result, I grew up with limited knowledge and understanding of numerous social, political and religious issues. When I went to New Zealand to pursue higher education, I was shocked at how effortlessly people could indulge in dialogue and exchange various opinions without it leading to a clash. For me, this was unheard of.

    As I started working on the social identity theory and intergroup prejudice as part of my PhD projects, I slowly gained an understanding of the social climate in Pakistan. According to the social identity theory by Tajfel and Turner (1986), individuals value their membership in a social group. This collective identity provides a new meaning to their existence as it adds to their sense of belongingness and self-esteem. For example, in Pakistan, belonging to the Muslim community is a source of pride and superiority for many. However, non-Muslims often try to conceal their identity, which leads to a roadblock on their way to success. A prominent recent outlier was Coke Studio sensation Shae Gill who bravely proclaimed her religious identity. We are yet to see the consequences of her declaration, but can safely say that many in her place would have chosen to stay mum.

    Similarly, in India, religious identity is an important source of pride for various groups. This religious affiliation is often accompanied by a sense of superiority about one’s group members (the ingroup) and a sense of inferiority towards members of the other group. This is particularly evident in the case of religious discourse as the popularly held belief is that “my religion is better than yours”. The problem arises when one places his or her own religion on a higher pedestal and starts to belittle other religions. This can happen in a variety of ways… for instance, advertisements that ask for non-Muslim sanitary workers, forced conversions and religiously motivated physical attacks, to name a few.

    The recent comments by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nupur Sharma in India were considered offensive as they hurt the sentiments of Muslims not just in India but across the globe. Consequently, Nupur was suspended but the question is why did she make those comments? Was there an underlying feeling of religious superiority that led to these remarks? Undoubtedly, her comments did not go down well with the Muslim world, but a number of people also rose to her defense stating that she had the right to express herself. Is such a right valid? Can freedom of speech soon turn into the right to offend, if not guarded properly?

    Looking at the tense history between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent, it is no surprise that there is always an ongoing clash between these religious groups. But does belonging to one religious group mean you have to loathe the other group? Is it not possible to respect the religious perspective of other groups while maintaining your own stance? Is it not possible to find common ground so as to not hurt each others’ sentiments? Perhaps that would be the only way forward for peacemaking in these countries.

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