One of the basic ideas of democracy and liberalism is that every human being, regardless of race, creed or belief, has individual freedom. I like that. It means that I have the freedom to do what I want, say what I want and practise what I want. Just as long as that freedom doesn’t infringe on others, we are all free – theoretically.
But sometimes, those who are advocates for democracy and liberalism can be a little bit anti-democratic and anti-liberal. By pushing so hard for a democratic and liberal society, they tend to reject anything that has the slightest threat to their brand of democracy and liberalism. Let me try to explain.
Take, for example, France. This progressive European country has a law that prohibits Muslim women from wearing the headscarf to school and many public spaces. The country claims to be a liberal democracy that protects individual freedom. Then where is the freedom for a woman who wants to wear a headscarf because of her belief?
Of course, the argument is that Muslim society oppresses women and hence the wearing of the headscarf is considered oppressive. So the banning of the headscarf is actually done to put a stop to an oppressive practice. It can even be seen as symbolically preserving liberal democracy.
But there are many Muslim women who do wear the headscarf out of their own volition. Then wouldn’t France’s law that forbids headscarves be an oppressive law that stops these women from freely doing something that they want to do because of their beliefs? That would go against the basic tenet of democracy and liberalism.
The recent incidents in France are horrific. No matter what happens, there is no justification for violence and murder. There are many, more productive ways to confront racism, Islamophobia and narrow-mindedness. I shall repeat that violence and murder are never the solution to anything and the killings that happen supposedly in the name of Islam are wrong.
As a journalist and content producer, a lot of the content that I create revolves around Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). The objective is to create content that will create awareness that violent extremism is never the answer to any problem. So when incidents like the ones in France in the past few weeks happen, my heart sinks.
The first incident was the murder of a teacher who had reportedly shown his students a caricature of Prophet Muhammad in a lesson about free speech. This was then followed by a knife attack in a church where two women and a man were killed. Both perpetrators are believed to be Muslims.
In all honesty, I can understand how the Muslim community in France (and the rest of the world) can be angered by the things that happen in France (i.e. the banning of headscarves, the portrayal of Prophet Muhammad as a caricature, et cetera). Who wouldn’t be angry when their belief system is directly attacked in that way?
However, that anger should not result in violence and murder. Nothing is ever a justification for killing innocent people. There are many ways to express that anger and dissatisfaction in a liberal and democratic society. Fight freedom of speech with freedom of speech. Have debates, organise protests and demonstrations, engage in public discourse. These are valid ways.
But then those in power should also play their part if they are in fact leading a real liberal and democratic country. Listen to the people, allow yourselves to be engaged, enter into discourse with the community and just care. It is proven that extreme incidents only happen in extreme situations.
If a society is truly liberal and democratic, then it should be so for every single individual who is a part of that society. It should not only be provided for the majority. Even the minority has a right to that democracy and liberalism too. The freedom and rights of everyone should be protected even if it is something different from the rest.
And that is also why we have freedom of speech. It is so that everyone can voice their opinions and beliefs, and have discussions and discourse in order to come to an understanding. The system is already there for us to avoid extreme situations. The problem is that we aren’t using the system properly and in the way that it should be used.
This problem can be solved. It isn’t impossible. But for it to work, everyone must be able to play their part responsibly. The problem here is that everyone is just acting and using the system to protect their own self-interests. If this persists, then we will never be able to solve the problem of violent extremism.
[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]
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