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True Democracies Protect Everyone's Freedom of Expression

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On Thursday evening a horrifying event took place in the heart of Afghanistan's capital. Alongside the Kabul River that winds through the city centre, a mob of men viciously attacked a woman named Farkhunda before setting her ablaze and eventually dumping her burned body on the banks of the river.

The cause of death is not yet clear. Some reports state she was burned alive, others say she was beaten to death and her body set on fire. It is clear, however, that she experienced enormous suffering. Footage and still images show blood streaming down her face. Men are shown slashing her with various objects, kicking her defenseless body, and tearing at her like animals on prey as they scream sadistically. Dozens of people are also seen filming the incident, arms waving cell phones over the lifeless, bloody heap in the dirt. No one is shown trying to stop it.

The Afghan Government says an investigation will take place. All news reports to date -- from within and outside of Afghanistan -- begin their stories by noting that the woman is accused of having burned a Koran. It is also noted that her family says she was mentally ill. These are pertinent details to report in the news, but other than establishing motive, they are not pertinent to any criminal investigation. Whether Farkhunda did or did not burn a Koran will not rationalize the depravity of her killers, numerous as they are. Even if Farkhunda was in no way mentally ill, and it was proven beyond a doubt that she burned a Koran, there cannot be an iota of justification for the brutality she endured, not a sliver of "yes, but."

This is, firstly, because Afghanistan has a justice system, precarious as it is. The country has laws, courts, judges and a parliament elected by the people that passes bills into legislation. Sadistic men do not get to mete out their own twisted interpretation of "justice," and when they do, they must be held accountable within a system that at least strives to uphold the rule of law.

The second reason why what Farkhunda did or didn't do, or whether she was ill or not, must be stripped away from the legal and moral analysis of this crime is because we should wish to exist in a world where even a modest version of liberty can hope to persist. This is a normative statement, but one I challenge anyone to dispute, and still retain a modicum of decency. Our civilization -- and it is a collective ours at this stage in our shrinking, globalizing world -- depends on upholding the freedom to dissent, even when one person's dissent is grounds for one million peoples' offense.

Farkhunda's story is a test, one that will tell us how far we are willing to extend the catchment area for protecting the right of freedom of expression, and who we think gets to be included in this catchment area.

When men who were offended by caricatures in the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo slaughtered 17 people in Paris in January, for many people who found themselves horrified and enraged at these killings, their stance on freedom of expression crystalized. If sometimes before you said that it was unacceptable to offend the religiously inclined, you might have shifted somewhat in your opinion in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, acknowledging that no offense justifies cold-blooded murder. We, thankfully, became a little more ardent in our defense of freedom of expression and a little less soft on the special treatment demanded by the faithful.

But that was the killing of French citizens on French soil, in a society that long ago lay the foundations of secular jurisprudence. Farkhunda was a Muslim living in a Muslim country, in a society where some unknown proportion of the population, though we might assume it to number in the hundreds of thousands at least and even maybe to make up a majority of the citizens, takes offense at the desecration of their holy book. It is certainly more dangerous to criticize, dissent or desecrate religious symbols in such circumstances, but does an Afghan in Afghanistan have less of a right to do so?

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, columnist Ross Douthat wrote of how we need blasphemy in a free society:

1) The right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order.
2) There is no duty to blaspheme, a society's liberty is not proportional to the quantity of blasphemy it produces, and under many circumstances the choice to give offense (religious and otherwise) can be reasonably criticized as pointlessly antagonizing, needlessly cruel, or simply stupid.
3) The legitimacy and wisdom of criticism directed at offensive speech is generally inversely proportional to the level of mortal danger that the blasphemer brings upon himself.

Democracies must protect freedom of expression, which includes the right to blaspheme. As an aspiring democracy, Afghanistan must keep this principal in mind as it determines how to approach this case. It should not be said that the killers were uncouth because Farkhunda was mentally ill and knew not what she was doing when she burned a Koran. The Government of Afghanistan must take the position that freedom of expression precludes personal religious offense, an inherently subjective experience. If they do not, they risk setting a dangerous precedent that leaves justice to the will and interpretation of the masses.

And on Thursday, the mass that descended mercilessly upon a woman who had harmed no one was one driven by a barbarous violence. There was a terrifying hatred pulsating through the crowd surrounding Farkhunda, men intoxicated with the monopoly of violence they held over an utterly defenseless woman. A taste for cruelty perhaps tempered in individuals, once combined in a crowd, manifested into unchecked heinousness. It is to these men that credit is given when freedom of expression is curtailed by the sensitivities of the religious. As Douthat wrote, "when offenses are policed by murder, that's when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed."

Freedom of expression and the right to dissent is either for everybody or for nobody, or the principal falls apart entirely. Relativism and freedom of expression are at inherent odds with each other, whereas universalism and freedom of expression are symbiotic. If there is to be any semblance of justice for Farkhunda, if we might learn anything from her tragic ending, we mustn't protect the right of violent, mindless mobs, but rather of individuals to think freely and to express dissent securely, where ever they live. There can be no fences around liberty.


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