Free Speech Religion

The Charlie Hebdo murders

Yesterday, twelve people died for blasphemy.

Be clear about at least one thing: regardless of your views on religion, or on the role that Islam (or monotheism more generally) might play in generating intolerance and violence, nothing justifies murdering people for expressing offensive views.

Be clear on a second thing also: the fact that one is able and allowed to express offensive views is a necessary element of any society that wishes to be considered free, and we should all stand in support of the right to express such views.

James Walmesley -
James Walmesley –

I’ve said before that satire and blasphemy can be “a reminder to members of an identifiable social or religious group to get your house in order, so that there is no longer any need to mock or ridicule.” It serves a valuable role, and a role we should cherish. Joe Randazzo, previously editor of The Onion, is right to say that:

Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.

Other issues are perhaps not as easy or unambiguous as we might prefer. For starters, the right to express a view doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea to do so. Take this Tweet from the President of American Atheists as an example:

He’s making a point, yes. I get that. He’s exercising his freedom to blaspheme, and he’s allowed to do so. But the blasphemy in that Tweet adopts a shotgun approach – it will offend all sorts of Muslims, from the ones who are inclined to kill people for blasphemy, all the way through to your next-door neighbour whose birthday party you might have attended a few days ago.

But as I’ve said many a time, these are strategic choices rather than issues of rights – he has the right, should have the right, and we should all defend the right to be as obnoxious as you like, even as we might not like what you say.

A final point, before handing over to a press statement I sent out yesterday in the name of the Free Society Institute. My first Tweet on the murders was to say this:

A predictable flurry of trolling resulted, with some even thinking that I was being an apologist for religious extremism. Apologies (not really) for complicating biases with these nuances, but my sentiment in no way denies that religion, and Islam, can play a causal role in generating violence such as this.

My point was that it’s a glib, and oftentimes lazy, inference to draw that it’s “religion” that causes these things. I would think it rare that religion per se makes you homicidal, but that instead, folk who are capable of such things will find religious inspiration for doing them.

If your religion allows you to be led to such barbarism, there’s barbarism in you to be exploited. That doesn’t mean that religion X (or ideology X) cannot be a causal factor in barbarism more often than religion or ideology Y.

To be clear: Islam should certainly bear some of the blame, in that if your religious texts or traditions are capable of inspiring people to do these barbaric things, they are in that respect toxic, and antithetical to liberty, flourishing and security.

The simple truth is that the gods could have been far clearer. Even if you’re religious, and want to assert that terrorists are misinterpreting the scriptures, you should be struck by the absurdity of your god not having chosen the simple path of saying: “hey there! While you’re having your arguments about what I want you to do and not do, remember that I don’t want you to kill, ever”.

Because she didn’t say that – or because she says things in a way that allows people to read her as saying the opposite, this is religion’s problem and religion’s fault, and people of faith can’t wash their hands of it.

And to a significant extent, they don’t. Which is why, as I said in the Tweet, the most important feature of yesterday’s killers is that they are killers, and not that they are Muslim.

The Free Society Institute stands with Charlie Hebdo and all defenders of free speech and civil liberty in condemning the murder of two police officers, three cartoonists, and eight journalists in Paris on January 7.

As offended as those of the Muslim faith might find blasphemy to be, that offence pales into insignificance compared to the brutality of Islamo-fascist terrorism such as this. Being offended does not grant one warrant for ending the lives of others.

The right to free speech does not, however, say anything about when it is wise to exercise that freedom or not.Neither does the fact that these terrorists were recorded as shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” during their attack tell us anything incontrovertible about Islam in general.

Tragedies such as these, that shock and confuse, can make easy answers attractive to us, in that they can lend themselves to stereotype and simplistic analysis. This is not the time for either of these.

Instead, this is the time for two simple things: to express our sympathy to all who are affected, and second, to recognise that we are all affected, in that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of civilised society, and is slightly more under threat to us all in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attack.

Jacques Rousseau
Chairperson – Free Society Institute

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

6 replies on “The Charlie Hebdo murders”

Hey, great blog and while I agree with most of it, I do disagree with you on one point and would like to give you my 2c worth. You say that Islam should certainly bear some of the blame, in that ‘if your religious texts or traditions are capable of inspiring people to do these barbaric things, they are in that respect toxic, and antithetical to liberty, flourishing and security’, however when last did you read the bible? Specifically Leviticus? There are some horrendous punishments for things we do every day in there. All kinds of things like stoning adulterers, and then really stupid things to do with mixing fabrics. My point is that those can be open to interpretation just the same, and there are cults within Christianity that have used them to excuse murder and other crimes, yet we forget those whilst we point fingers at Islam. What about the nuts that climb bell towers and shoot school children ‘because God told me to’? Instead of blaming Christianity for these horrendous crimes, we blame the perpetrator, and no mention is made of their religion.

We need to do the same in the case of people who have committed these acts of terror. People who happen to be Muslim and trying to excuse their homicidal actions by saying they are doing it for Islam.

History is littered with religion inspiring these kinds of acts, and sizeable groups* supporting the sentiments of the acts, if not the acts themselves. The room for doubt cast on this isn’t proportionate. The strong anti-blasphemy control that religion in general directly fosters is also ignored or left unhighlighted.

* The group support since the Danish cartoons seems to have died down so hopefully something’s going right.

I agree with your statement, however I do want to point out that, while you mention freedom of speech three times today, your post a few days ago endorsed the xkcd comic (“xkcd say pretty much what I’d want to”) which talks about how freedom of speech is only that the government can’t arrest you for what you say. You also expressly told people to read the mouseover text, which again states that citing freedom of speech as a defence is only saying that it’s not illegal to say what you are saying. In the light of those previous endorsements and the fact that this incident was not about the legality of anything, it’s odd that you bring up free speech.

It’s also strange that at the end you say this puts freedom of speech under threat when in your previous post you mentioned you were leaning in favour of restrictions such as when the corn dealer’s house is next door. If a restriction then seems wise, surely you would also support restricting free speech when that speech might incite Islamic radicals? It seems those situations are quite similar.

A sort of hyper-literalism seems to be getting in the way here. The xkcd cartoon was explicitly framed in the context of censorship, which, while related to free speech, is not the same thing. One can understand free speech (and most liberties) in terms of the positive/negative distinction Berlin articulates so well, and censorship would be a violation of the negative liberty. Creating a climate in which speech is disincentivised, as I say is the case here, is a violation of positive liberty.

And no, I didn’t express support for restricting free speech in cases where the corn dealer’s house is next door. I asked the question as to whether Mill’s analysis is compatible with a modern scenario, and if it is, what that might entail.

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