Speaking In Tongues: The Curious Nature Of The Free Speech Debate In Pakistan

Speaking In Tongues: The Curious Nature Of The Free Speech Debate In Pakistan
“I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This often-quoted statement is attributed to the 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire. But he never said it.

It is from a 1906 biography of the philosopher by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in which Hall used it to summarise Voltaire’s thinking on free speech issues. According to Hall, she did not mean to imply that Voltaire used these words in this exact manner.

Instead, this concocted quote can be understood as a manifestation of what is called “free speech absolutism” (FSA). This nature of free speech is largely popular among libertarians who passionately defend the ‘right’ of a person to say or publish anything no matter how offensive or disruptive. Libertarianism stands for maximum political freedoms and minimum state intervention. However, recently, FSA has also been adopted by far-right groups in Europe and the United States.

This is rather ironic because far-right dispositions are often not very enthusiastic towards even right-wing variants of libertarianism. Nor are they in tune with various aspects of liberal democracy, of which free speech is an important part. Yet, when far-right leaders and right-wing populists in Europe and the US are called out or booked for inciting violence through racist and xenophobic rhetoric, or through the proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories, they throw up their arms and claim that their right to speak freely is being undermined by an authoritarian elite.

They taunt liberals for contradicting a freedom that is at the heart of liberalism. They accuse them of being ‘fake liberals’ who use authoritarian tactics to silence opposing voices and views. They say this, despite the fact that historically, the far-right has often expressed support for some of the most severe forms of censorship against those who challenge it. Indeed, this has also been the case with the far-left.

In fact, FSA has been understood as a far-left idea that was ‘hijacked’ by the far-right. But this is a recent belief. As an idea, FSA originally appeared in the US in the early-and-mid-20th century during discourses on the First Amendment in the American Constitution. The Amendment decrees that the Congress could not pass any law that ‘abridges’ free speech. FSA thus surfaced as a radical-democratic interpretation of the Amendment. But it found more critics than supporters. FSA’s critics today are mostly centrist/moderate liberals. They emphasise the importance of free speech, but one that is granted after keeping in mind factors which may require the imposition of certain limits. The absolutist idea of free speech, of course, refuses to encircle free speech with any restraints.

According to the US Supreme Court, free speech can only be protected if it falls outside of obscenity, child pornography, defamation, incitement to violence and true threats of violence. Advocates of FSA consider such considerations as a violation of the democratic right of free speech. In various European countries, there are specific laws against speech which may incite racial or religious commotion. Yet, there is continuing disagreement between intellectuals and within the judiciary about exactly how to interpret free speech as a democratic right.
As the French state moved to somewhat modify its interpretation of free speech, far-right groups criticised the move as a way to appease French-Muslims, especially immigrants, and curb free speech. Again, it was not a secular critique because most major far-right outfits in France perceive modern France as a continuation of the region’s Christian heritage

For example, there are no laws in the US and most European countries against satirising or criticising religion. This is slotted under constitutional decrees that allow people the freedom to practice religion, or not. The thinking in this context is that if people are allowed to practice their faith, then those who don’t, have the freedom not to. This, however, may also mean that such people are also free to criticise religion, even though those who practice religion are also free to criticise those who don’t practice religion — as long as the two are not creating discord in the society.

But what if the criticism, granted by free speech to both the camps, leads to violence?

The infamous Charlie Hebdo episode in France triggered an intriguing debate. Charlie Hebdo is a popular French magazine known for its cutting satire. In its September 2012 issue, it published controversial cartoons of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH). But this was not an open-and-shut case in which those satirising religion would face a counter-argument or criticism from those who were offended by the cartoons. It was naive to believe that the engagement between the two would trigger a healthy debate on the matter of free speech and expression.

Charlie Hebdo had clearly crossed a red line. Not because it had no right to satirise a sacred figure, but because the right had been exercised without comprehending the impact it could have in the society and in an environment in which actions of Islamist militants had already punched the Muslim community into a tight corner in Europe. A majority in this community were opposed to Islamist militancy. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were a way to satirise/criticise Islamist militancy, but the cartoons expressed this by mocking a 7th-century sacred figure whose teachings, most Muslims believe, were the anti-thesis of the beliefs held by militant Islamists.

Secondly, Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the sacred figure was derived from the manner in which many ancient Christian theologians had painted the sacred figure centuries ago. There was thus nothing secular about the cartoons, as such. They were not a critique of militant Islamism, but an outright mocking of a sacred figure who is even revered by secular Muslims. In fact, such Muslims have been some of the most severe critics of militant Islamism. They are also in the line of fire of militants who demonise and attack them as being token Muslims and even anti-Islam.

France is perhaps the most staunchly secular country. Yet, the then French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reminded the magazine that free speech could cause violence if not regulated by certain principles born from an awareness about ground realities. Fabius said that in France there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined. But he then added that in the present context, when there was already an anti-West sentiment brewing in Muslim countries, “was it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”

A statement from US President Obama’s spokesperson criticised the magazine and stated that, “the US government has questions about the judgment of publishing something like this.” Three years later in 2015, two Islamists barged into Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and shot dead 12 people.

A mural in Paris with images of those killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office

This is when the idea of FSA or unregulated rights of free speech slipped from the hands of radical-democrats into those of far-right groups. As the French state moved to somewhat modify its interpretation of free speech, far-right groups criticised the move as a way to appease French-Muslims, especially immigrants, and curb free speech. Again, it was not a secular critique because most major far-right outfits in France perceive modern France as a continuation of the region’s Christian heritage. They understand French secularism as a reformed variant of this heritage which was under threat from Muslim migrants.

The French on the left disagree. Whereas they defend the state’s right to regulate the idea of free speech so that it does not threaten the freedom of its citizens to practice and protect their individual faiths, they also support the need to continue expunging overt exhibitions of religion in the public sphere. To them this is a mindful formulation of the idea of free speech and of secularism.


I have visited the Netherlands on numerous occasions. It is often considered to be one of Europe’s most liberal countries. During my last visit to the Netherlands in 2010, I held a lengthy discussion with a professor of political science in Amsterdam. He told me that over the decades, the Dutch state was successful in instilling a realisation among the country’s citizens. The realisation was that the continuation of the freedoms that the Dutch people enjoy is entirely dependent on how responsibly they exercise these freedoms.

For example, the sale and recreational usage of marijuana/hashish in the Netherlands was tolerated decades before the usage and sale of such drugs became decriminalised in some other European countries, Canada and in some US states. There are cafes in Amsterdam where one can hangout with friends and laptops, or play a game of chess over a cup of coffee. Customers can also order ‘joints’ filled with their favourite ‘brand’ of marijuana or hashish. One can only smoke them inside the cafe, but it is not uncommon to see some folks lighting a joint in a park or on the streets. It is believed that this freedom has aided the Netherlands to spend more money and effort in addressing and resolving issues caused by deadlier drugs such as heroin, cocaine and meth which remain banned.

The professor told me that the country’s tolerant attitude towards the usage and sale of softer drugs depends on how those using or selling them behave. During my last visit there, I came across TV debates in which elected representatives from some smaller cities were arguing the need to close down the cafes on moralistic grounds. Such opinions were casually dismissed because they were not grounded in ‘factual’ or ‘rational’ arguments. However, there were also those who were ‘rationally’ arguing the closure of the cafes. Their arguments were, however, being heard attentively.

For example, they argued that cafes were not behaving responsibly by allowing ‘football hooligans’ (especially from the UK) to behave rashly inside the cafes, and also for violating the laws by smoking marijuana in public. As the debate evolved, in 2022 the mayor of Amsterdam pushed for a law that would stop cafes from selling marijuana/hashish to tourists. According to a recent report on tourism in the Netherlands, approximately 5 million tourists visit the country every year. 23.4% of these visit it for its cafes that serve and sell soft drugs. The profitability of these cafes is thus largely dependent on tourists. If a ban to serve tourists at the cafes is imposed, many of the cafes would go out of business.
Over the decades, the Dutch state was successful in instilling a realisation among the country’s citizens: that the continuation of the freedoms that they enjoy is entirely dependent on how responsibly they exercise these freedoms

Back in 2009, the professor that was I talking to in Amsterdam was already contemplating a similar scenario. He told me that the meaning of such a ban will have nothing to do with morality. Instead, it will be a signal from the government to those flaunting a freedom that was dependent on how they used it. If the government perceives the behaviour to be irresponsible and callous, it will begin to impose restrictions around the freedom and even punish the perpetrators by subsequently triggering the closure of cafes.

Using freedom 'responsibly': a couple enjoying a smoke at a cafe in Amsterdam

Free speech advocates who oppose FSA want the right of free speech to be regulated in a similar manner. The idea of free speech and expression should be framed in the context of individual responsibility. This responsibility should constitute an awareness of contemporary realities; and in what manner can a piece of speech impact these realities. Will it contribute towards developing a healthy debate that can resolve issues within the realities, or will it only end up causing disruption and further compound the problems plaguing the realities? Policies on free speech should thus be formulated on empirical evidence of how responsibly people use it and on how it is impacting society as a whole. It should not be a call based on abstract notions of morality, but on arguments substantiated by on-ground facts.

Recently in Pakistan, there has been increasing chatter about free speech. When a case of inciting violence against certain state institutions was lodged against the former PM Imran Khan, many of his supporters and also various centrist and liberal media personnel decried that the action was against Khan’s right to free speech. Khan, ever since he was ousted last April through a no confidence vote, has been rather vocal in his criticism of state institutions such as the military which actually nourished him and aided his rise to power in 2018.

Khan is now behaving like a jilted lover who was left in a lurch by a former partner. The partner had had enough of his regime’s incompetence, and also the manner in which he was isolating the country by degrading Pakistan’s relations with European Union countries, the United States and Saudi Arabia. His party has a strong presence on social media, which it effectively uses to undermine his opponents, and frame his ouster as a diabolical conspiracy by the military, his political opponents, the EU and the US.

I will not dwell much upon the particular case he now faces in the courts. Instead, I will try to explore the whole free speech ‘debate’ that this case has triggered in the country. Especially the fact that the notion of free speech is now also being wagged by those who had once applauded curbs imposed on Khan’s opponents and were perfectly okay with Khan’s regime aiding the intelligence agencies and the judiciary to impose these curbs. They have suddenly discovered the importance of free speech, even though many of them still carry an admiration for authoritarian ideas and figures.

What does free speech really mean in the context of a country such as Pakistan? Columns are being written about it, tweets are being posted and TV talk shows are discussing it. Yet, my investigation of the debate that is raging in the mainstream and on social media these days suggests that the idea of free speech is largely being discussed in a rather rhetorical manner.

Angry: Imran Khan

Even if a right-wing supporter of Khan declares that free speech is the democratic right of every citizen, no left-wing or liberal democrat would disagree. Indeed, the latter two can and do remind the newly-shaped advocates of free speech of their recent past as cheerleaders of authoritarian actions and ideas, but they eventually empathise with the fact that free speech for all is a fundamental right in a democracy and one should not be booked for it. But both the camps, right and left, seem to be talking about FSA and not about how free speech is regulated by even the most established democracies.

Pakistan’s debate in this context has to be differently framed than the debates on free speech taking place in developed democracies.

The difference is that we are still what is called an ‘illiberal democracy.’ Pakistan’s constitution provides the right of free speech, but regulates it on moral and even theological grounds. For example, the constitution grants every citizen to practice his or her religion. Yet, only that segment which is recognised by the state as Muslim can call itself Muslim. In 1944, when the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah was being pressurised by some of his party men to declare the Ahmadiyya community as non-Muslim, Jinnah had replied, “what right have I to declare a person non-Muslim, when he claims to be a Muslim?”

But in 1974, the Ahmadiyya were constitutionally declared as non-Muslim, even though they continued to claim they were a Muslim sect. Then, in 1984, they were entirely barred from calling themselves Muslim. They were also not allowed to read or quote from the Muslim holy scriptures, or call their places of worship, mosques. They also can’t use verses from the holy book on their gravestones! They can be arrested and punished for doing all this. So, what happened to free speech?

There is thus an inherent absurdity present in a Pakistani demanding free speech. Many of us are almost entirely okay with the fact that Muslims in a so-called ‘Islamic Republic’ are more equal than the Republic’s non-Muslim citizens. Then there are also those who think that Muslims in this republic belonging to a majority sect are more equal than Muslims from minority sects. Many free speech advocates are also known to understand the need of self-censorship when it comes to airing views on religious matters in public which may not go down well with majoritarian ideas of the faith.

In other words, one should be free to debate politics even if one uses offensive and provocative language against their opponents, but it is ‘prudent’ to not have any debate whatsoever on matters of faith. Free speech much? During the 2013 election campaign, when militant Islamists were killing members of the PPP, ANP and MQM through suicide attacks and assassinations, political parties such as the PML-N and Khan’s PTI remained silent about the attacks. But they were very vocal in calling the attacked parties as corrupt and for serving western agendas. Such rhetoric further endangered the lives of members of the attacked parties. Can one defend this as freedom of speech?

On the other hand, the two parties chose not to exercise this freedom to condemn the Islamists, even though men such as Nawaz Sharif wanted to but were advised not to. Khan though, continued to frame the militants as expressions against corruption and colonialism, albeit ‘misguided.’ Free speech was fully exercised in becoming an Islamist apologist and an ‘anti-colonial’ crusader, but the right to speak freely was curbed by the self to denounce militant violence. Instead a ‘middle-road’ was taken by explaining the militants as ‘misguided brothers.’ Brothers who just happened to slaughter thousands of Pakistanis in the most brutal manner.

If being prudent and extremely mindful while talking about religious matters in a country such as Pakistan is a way to regulate free speech, then why can’t the same mindfulness and prudence be exhibited when criticising political opponents or state institutions? How is the former perceived as thoughtful caution, but the latter as free speech? If not regulating free speech in religious matters can unleash violence and commotion in this country, so can unregulated free speech in political matters.

When Khan threatened a female magistrate and a senior police officer in public, he put their lives in danger because Khan enjoys a following that is impulsive and emotionally invested in him. His supporters can take his rhetoric as a signal to attack those who he was threatening. His party mostly launches attacks on ‘enemies’ on the social media by dehumanising, demonising and soiling their reputations. But media personnel identified by Khan as being anti-PTI have often been physically attacked by his supporters.

Those on the left or the right who are going out of their way these days to defend Khan’s right of free speech or the whole idea of free speech must first explore what nature of free speech are they trying to encourage. Is it FSA? If so, then FSA has struggled to sustain itself even in the most established liberal democracies due to reasons already discussed. Demanding FSA in an illiberal democracy is an outright absurdity and acutely naive.

Even if it is not FSA that is being demanded, then free speech advocates in this country must clarify why they understand the need to regulate free speech regarding certain matters, but not in other matters. After all, as I have tried to demonstrate here, unregulated free speech in both matters can create commotion and violence in the society.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.