“If I had hair to tear out, I would,” says Anshuman Mondal when asked about the debate following last month’s terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
The recent publication of his monograph Islam and Controversy, which explores freedom of speech and the Muslim faith, has put Mondal, a reader in English literature at Brunel University London, in the midst of public discourse on the subject in the UK.
But, says Mondal, “I think the debate has been very impoverished and very disappointing.”
Of the edition of Charlie Hebdo published immediately after Islamist terrorists killed its editor and 11 others, he adds: “I don’t think the cover [depicting a weeping Muhammad] helped, though of course they had every right to publish it. The response among Muslims was just: ‘There you go again; did you have to do it that way?’”
Drawing on case studies ranging from cartoon images of Muhammad published in a Danish magazine to reactions to Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, Mondal argues forcibly in Islam and Controversy that the right to freedom of speech comes with responsibilities.
“The hard question is not whether you have the right to do that – of course you do – but is that the right thing to do?” he argues.
“It’s not always wrong to be offensive. Sometimes you need to be offensive, especially if you’re attacking powerful figures, and some of these terrorists really need attacking and they need offending,” says Mondal.
“This is why Chris Morris’ [film] Four Lions was such a good satire, because it managed to make these jihadists seem absolutely ridiculous. Not just in the eyes of Western people, but in the eyes of Muslim people who’ve been longing for them to get some form of satiric treatment. I’ve never seen Charlie Hebdo take that level of care over it.”
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings and related deadly attacks, the political agenda quickly shifted from restating fundamental liberal values to calls to boost security measures to prevent such atrocities happening again.
David Cameron has promised the security services tough new surveillance powers if the Conservatives win the May general election, and he has met with US President Barack Obama to discuss the potential outlawing of encrypted online communication.
But along with several other academics quoted in Times Higher Education in recent weeks, Mondal argues that this approach is inconsistent. “We seem prepared to sacrifice important rights – privacy, association – for the defence of this self-centred attitude to free speech,” he notes.
Born to a Hindu mother and a Muslim father, Mondal is used to living with a range of identities.
Despite his love of cricket and English literature, he confesses to never feeling truly comfortable with being British. At the same time, he deplores what he views as a growing anti-Semitism within the British Muslim community.
Asked if the central tenet of his book is the idea that people should just be nicer to each other, he says “yes”. His parents’ relationship was, he notes, “a living, breathing riposte to the idea that respect can’t transcend cultural boundaries”.