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Preserving principles of democracy

10

The trinidad Guardian / Ryan Hadeed

Towards the end of the first century, Anno Domini, the Roman historian Tacitus, wrote a scathing description of the empire. He floridly stated, “They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretences, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.” What’s surprising about it is here we have a Roman citizen, writing for a Roman audience, criticising the Roman State; the exercise of what modern society calls freedom of speech. Even today, such a concept struggles to reconcile whether all speech, regardless of form or intention, should be included under its protection or excluded if it offends and incites disapproval.

Fellow Guardian columnist Kevin Baldeosingh caused a bit of controversy with his infamous submission titled How Not To Be Killed By Islamists, which appeared in this newspaper on July 6, the same day as Eid ul-Fitr. By itself, the distasteful content would have been enough to enrage the local Muslim community, but the negative sentiment was further amplified by the questionable timing of its appearance. On the Friday of that same week, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Orin Gordon printed an apology, explaining that the opinion writers are allowed some “latitude” in order to encourage “robust commentary.” This, however, wasn’t enough to placate Inshan Ishmael, T&T’s very own self-styled activist and self-proclaimed ‘big mouth’, who responded by hosting a live broadcast on IBN that same weekend (July 10) to discuss the inflammatory column. But what should have been an informative programme about Islamic dogma, instead turned out to be a televised lynching of Mr Baldeosingh’s character and Mr Gordon’s professional reputation. It epitomised the Shakespearean expression of wanting a ‘pound of flesh’, which is just as macabre-sounding as ‘heads will roll’, but doesn’t run the risk of sounding Islamophobic.

Putting aside Mr Baldeosingh’s personal beliefs, it needs to be kept in mind that he is a satirist writing in an exaggerated style that’s not only intended to be humorous but also to serve as social criticism. Readers may like or dislike what he has to say, but to his credit, he is equally crass to everyone and everything: politicians, social ideology, the law, and, yes, even religion. While he may have a pro-atheist agenda, thinking that everyone who prays or believes in a higher power is a moron (myself included), his fundamental principle is that faith should never override common sense. 

The reaction the column generated, angering local Muslims and even some non-Muslims, was swift and fervent. Any person who found it offensive was well within their right to voice it; be it by contacting the author and the newspaper’s administration, or discussing it as a community and organising a boycott. All those things are proper and healthy methods of getting involved in the conversation and affecting change. But what we got from Mr Ishmael was the complete opposite.

Never one to be subtle with his opinions, especially pertaining to Muslim-related issues, Mr Ishmael began waging a social media campaign against both author and editor, and the publication they represented. In keeping with his usual temperament, he unleashed a melange of insults akin to childish name-calling and even posted the phone numbers of individuals associated with the paper, encouraging his supporters to call and ‘lash dem hard’. This was coupled with the repeated demand for the immediate termination of employment of both Mr Baldeosingh and Mr Gordon, and he chastised any Muslim who didn’t take the same stand. So on the two Fridays that followed, he staged protests outside the Guardian building in Chaguanas, the second of which was cut short by his arrest. But in a case of irony, he cited Section IV of our country’s Constitution which, along with ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘assembly’ also guarantees ‘freedom of thought and expression’. Perhaps he believes that these freedoms apply to him and no one else. Taken all together, these are the actions of a malicious bully, not a conscientious citizen crusading for justice. Mr Ishmael’s behaviour brings his very character into question, and his tactics not only do himself a disservice but also diminish the righteousness of his cause.

Truth be told, Mr Baldeosingh, Mr Gordon, and the Guardian newspaper don’t need little ole me to speak on their behalf. So let me be clear-I am in no way defending what was written, only the right to do so. Was it detestable? Absolutely. But the point of the opinion columns is to stimulate thought and provoke dialogue. But we didn’t get those things in this case and the opportunity was wasted by ignorance on one side and arrogance on the other. Nonetheless, this is an issue that goes beyond opinion and ego. Because once we declare some topics off limits, then there’s no stopping such a list from getting longer and longer. To again use the words of Shakespeare, ’tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows’ than lose the chance at achieving the understanding that comes from reflection and discussion. The failings of Mr Baldeosingh’s tone and the Guardian’s timing, while undeniable, are surpassed by the attempts to make amends. We should never use ‘respect’ as a convenient shield if it compromises the principles that are vital to a well-functioning democracy.

If we sacrifice the right to express criticism just for the sake of sparing sensitivities, then we deprive ourselves of the ability to present challenges for the purpose of seeking improvement. The alternative is for our society to become stagnate; devoid of those ideas that would motivate it to flourish for the benefit of all. We will make it an intellectual desert, and call it peace. 

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