The expressions of solidarity with Avijit Roy are impressive. But I think that they are too late. Had journalists, artists and political activists taken a more robust view on free speech over the past years then we may never have come to this.
Instead, they have helped create a new culture of self censorship. Partly, it is a question of fear, an unwillingness to take the kind of risk that Avijit Roy courted, and for which he has paid such a heavy price. But fear is only part of the explanation. There has also developed over the past two decades a moral commitment to censorship, a belief that because we live in a plural society, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offense.
So deep has this belief become embedded that even free speech activists have bought into it. Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of “tolerance” or “respect”, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
What is called “offense to a community” is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim majority countries across the world, challenging religious based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms.
What nurtures the reactionaries, in Bangladesh and other Muslim majority countries, is the pusillanimity of many so called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within communities. On the one hand, this allows Muslim extremists the room to operate. The more that society gives license for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. And the more deadly they will become in expressing their outrage. There will always be extremists who respond as the Avijit killers did. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious moral legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it unacceptable to give offense.
So let us challenge the Islamists and the reactionaries within Muslim communities more than ever before. Let us also challenge the anti Muslim reactionaries. But equally let us call the fake liberals to account. If we do not alert ourselves even today then we will lose many more like Avijit.