In defense of freedom of expression

By Farhang Jahanpour

The Wednesday edition of Charlie Hebdo (a week after the barbaric attack by two deranged terrorists on its premises) carried a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad, with a caption “Je Suis Charlie”, with a tear drop on his face announcing, “all is forgiven”. It is not clear who is forgiven and for what, but if it refers to the terrorists it certainly is not appropriate.

This time the magazine did not publish only 60,000 copies as it usually does, but three million copies, thanks to the generous help that it has received from various sources and also with the help of cartoonists from all over the world.

Richard Malka, a Sephardic Jew, who saw ten colleagues and four of his co-religionists massacred on that dreadful day, was one of the first to call for the magazine to continue functioning. When asked whether they would publish more cartoons of Muhammad, he replied in an interview with France Info radio on Monday: “Naturally. We will not give in, otherwise all this won’t have meant anything.”

Free speech tops all other considerations

This is as it should be, because in the final analysis freedom of expression tops all other considerations, as it is at the root of all other liberties and the quality of life that we enjoy in democratic societies.

More than three million people demonstrated in Paris and other French cities on Sunday, carrying the sign “Je Suis Charlie”. This did not mean that they agreed with everything that Charlie Hebdo stood for, but they wished to uphold the right of that satirical magazine to express itself freely.

Only a few days before the attacks in Paris, Pen America published a disturbing report on “Global Chilling. The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers”, showing that mass surveillance by the United States and other governments had produced a very negative effect on free expression, leading to self-censorship. It further showed that concern about surveillance was almost as high among writers living in democracies (75%) as it was among those living in non-democratic states (80%). It would be tragic if the killing of a few journalists in Paris were allowed to result in greater self-censorship and to curtail freedom of expression.

The terrorists and those who wish to limit freedom of expression by violent means should learn that far from forcing others to silence, their acts will backfire and will have the opposite effect. If the terrorists intended to help the cause of Muslims in the world, it has had precisely the opposite effect and has intensified a climate of suspicion and cultural clash between Islam and the West.

It should be added that the terrorist outrage was not an Islamic act against Christians, Jews and secularists. It was the act of two terrorists against Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of no faith.

That vile act had nothing to do with Islam

In fact, after the carnage and the resulting anger, it is important to remember that one of the staffers killed at Charlie Hebdo premises was a Muslim copy-editor who was highly respected for the breadth of his learning. One of the police officers gunned down during the attack, Ahmed Merabet, was also a Muslim of Algerian descent, like his murderers. Speaking for a group of relatives gathered in Paris, Ahmed’s brother Malek said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims… Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

At a kosher grocery store in Paris, where four people were killed, a quick-thinking Muslim employee, Lassana Bathily, a young immigrant from Mali, hid several Jewish shoppers in the basement before sneaking out to brief police on the hostage-taker upstairs. Initially confused by the police for the attacker, he was forced to the ground and handcuffed. Once the police realized their mistake, he provided them with the key they needed to open the supermarket’s metal blinds and mount their assault.

It is important to remember these facts in order to realize that although the two terrorists acted in the name of Islam their vile act had nothing to do with Islam and was an indiscriminate act of barbarism. It was not an act of piety, but of rage by a group of semi-literate militants and petty criminals, with very little knowledge of Islam, who had visited a number of trouble spots in the Middle East, Iraq, Syria and Yemen and who had been radicalized due to what they saw as Western attacks on their fellow Muslims.

Arm-in-arm for free speech – hypocritical but so too Charlie Hebdo

Seeing the many heads of states walking arm-in-arm in support of free speech in Paris, one of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo accused them of hypocrisy, because many of them had in the past taken the paper to court for alleged insult. The crowd included representatives of Saudi Arabia, where in addition to many other violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging; from Turkey, which has the largest number of journalists in jail; from Israel, which in addition to its massacre of 2,300 innocent people, including at least 500 children, also killed 13 journalists, during the barbaric attack on Gaza last July.

It is also fair to point out that even Charlie Hebdo is not free from hypocrisy. One of its own journalists, Maurice Sinet, was fired for an allegedly “anti-Semitic” cartoon. When commenting on the engagement of the then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son to a Jewish woman amid rumors that the younger Sarkozy planned on converting to Judaism, under a picture of the son, Sinet wrote: “He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad.” Not only was that enough for him to be fired, he was subsequently taken to court by the Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme (LICRA), an organization that fights anti-Semitism.

So sadly, the defense of freedom both by the weekly and by most of those who suddenly became the champions of free speech has been quite selective.

Giving vent to anti-Islamic sentiments

Some people have used the recent events to give vent to their anti-Islamic sentiments. In an article on the DISSENT website, Michael Walzer, a professor emeritus at Princeton, criticized those who have refrained from criticizing Islam, fundamentalist Islam and jihadists, suggesting that they are closely connected.

A prominent columnist at The Times of London David Aaronovitch in an article under the headline “Our cowardice helped to allow this attack” wrote: “Decency towards Muslims – laced with certain fear – has made Britain reluctant to satirise their religion openly”, and called for more use of satire. Yet, he has always been one of the most outspoken defenders of Israel and very liberal with the use of the term “anti-Semitism” against those who have criticized Israel’s oppressive policies. He has even accused fellow Jews of being anti-Semitic or “self-haters”. He was also one of the most ardent supporters of the Iraq War.

Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, in an interview with Channel 4 News, said the Paris attack was the result of a “fifth column” living in the West.
Robert Murdoch, the owner of one of the largest media empires including Fox News, held all Muslims responsible for the terrorist acts. He tweeted: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.”

A large number of people continue to associate Islam with violence. The Dutch right-wing agitator Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, describes the Koran as a “fascist book” and calls for it to be outlawed (as Mein Kampf is) in the Netherlands.

Soul searching

However, during the past week, the issue of freedom of expression versus the desire not to give offense has resulted in a great deal of soul searching.

More thoughtful writers have tried to balance freedom of expression with the responsibility not to offend. In his “thought for the day” on Radio 4, Dr. Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, argued that the terrorists committed their crime allegedly in support of a sacred idea, Prophet Muhammad, who according to them had been reviled in a most hurtful way in the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. However, while the concept of liberty is also sacred to many people, it is not something that one has to worship at any cost. Liberty can be elevated as an article of faith and worshipped as a god.

Referring to the French motto of liberty, equality and fraternity, he argued that the idea of liberty should be combined with the idea of fraternity. Sometimes the idea of liberty clashes with the concept of fraternity. We are not free to go to a crowded cinema and shout fire in order to prove freedom of expression. In the same way, if some elements of free expression clash with fraternity, it is important to pay at least some attention to the concept of fraternity as well. Truthfulness requires love. He argued that we have forgotten the third motto. It means that we must have some concern for the feelings of our fellowmen. The challenge is not whether to have freedom of expression but how to exercise this virtue that would increase love and would enable us to live together.

In a thoughtful article in The New Yorker, Teju Cole reminded us of the atrocities that were committed against “heretics” in Europe due to excess of zeal, but in the same way that they had nothing to do with Christianity the criminal acts of some modern Muslim radicals have nothing to do with Islam either. He pointed out that the most extreme criticisms and satires of Charlie Hebdo had been aimed at Muslims, and it had taken particular joy in flouting the Islamic ban on insulting the prophet. He added that the events of the past week took place against the backdrop of France’s ugly colonial history, especially against the independence movement in Algeria.

The following passage of his article must be quoted in full:

“Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.”

The day after the attack in Paris, when all of a sudden everybody wanted to associate himself or herself with Charlie Hebdo, David Brooks, a leading columnist in New York Times, wrote an article entitled “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo”. He argued that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo would not have been able to publish their articles and cartoons in the United States, as they would have been condemned as “hate speech”. He wrote: “As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists… Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.”

He went on to say that when you are 13, you might want to stick a finger in the eye of authority or to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs, but after a while that seems puerile: “Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.”

While it is important to be conscious of the hurtful nature of some comments and be aware of the feelings of others, personally I side with the excellent “thought for the day” delivered by Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies, New College, at the University of Edinburgh.

Pointing out that Muhammad said that he had no right to tell other people what to believe, she continued: “The defence of free speech is again at the forefront and while freedom of expression may never be absolute, let it set its own limits rather than be frightened into submission.” She made a very important point that while some people argue that one should not always say everything that one would like to say, “But it is free speech which gives minorities the right to practice their religion, groups to hold anti-war rallies and journalists to expose the tyrannies and hypocrisies of power. Freedom of expression with all its messy boundaries lies at the very core of liberal societies; if you lose this fundamental and hard fought privilege, you’ve lost the very soul of western freedom.”

Going against the dogma of our times

I would go further and say that had it not been for the courage and determination of some great thinkers, mystics and prophets to go against the views of the time and say what went against the accepted dogma of the time and was regarded as blasphemous our civilization would not have evolved.

Every new concept, every revolutionary idea is contrary to the accepted beliefs of the time. Christ was crucified for saying something that was against Jewish orthodoxy. Muhammad suffered humiliation, persecution and exile for denouncing the idolatry of the Arabs of his time. When he was advised by his kind uncle Abu-Talib to denounce what he had said or at least to remain silent in order to escape persecution and possible death, Muhammad wanted to please his elderly uncle who had taken care of him as an orphan. However, he is reported to have said, with tears in his eyes, “Where the sun to stand on my right shoulder and the moon on my left shoulder, I cannot keep silent and I must say what God has ordered me to say.”

Lack of freedom of expression led to the fanaticism and ignorance of the Dark Ages. Lack of freedom in contemporary Muslim societies means that Christians or even Shi’ites cannot build a church or a mosque in Saudi Arabia, and the large number of Sunnis in Tehran cannot build a new mosque in the capital. It means that Baha’is who constitute the largest religious minority in Iran cannot send their sons and daughters to universities, and even when they try to organize classes for them they are sent to jail. Lack of freedom of expression means that fanatics can attack a school in Pakistan and kill more than a hundred innocent pupils.

Satire exposes the stupidity of the fundamentalists in all religions. Fundamentalists are people who take everything too seriously, and who lack a sense of humor. The satirists expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and at their weird beliefs.

Sometimes, it is necessary to break the silence and give offense. As the Soviet dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko said: “When the truth is replaced by silence, the silence itself is a lie.” And as Martin Luther King said: “Nothing in the entire world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

If we wish to get rid of ignorance and stupidity, we must have the courage to speak out even at the risk of offending others.

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