Although Voltaire did not necessarily say those exact words, his principal biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall fairly summarised his view on free speech with the now famous aphorism: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders some of the Jewish leaders in Paris have noted that Voltaire also expressed contempt for Jews which might suggest we should be cautious in automatically assuming his words represent a community ideal.
There is irony in the coincidence that it now is in the heart of Paris, where the Revolution birthed the Declaration of the Rights of Man which specifically affirmed the inalienable right of freedom of speech, that the defenders of free speech should now be facing one of its consequences.
Most societies would agree that there should be some form of limitation on free speech which has to do with restrictions on words that cause harm. Where the problem arises, is that what is required for a nation’s or community’s well-being, and what is perceived to be harm, is embedded in local history. What is harm to one community is not always understood to be harm by another. Even the owners of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo appear to have a convenient memory lapse in forgetting that they fired cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for having made an anti Semitic remark. What happened to their prized value of free speech?
We dont have to dig too deep to notice the perception of degree of harm is locally biased. It was the Paris murders of 12 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo which hit the world headlines while the substantial massacre in Nigeria the same date drew little response, just as a few years earlier the Twin Towers terrorism caused outrage while the much larger acts of genocide in the Congo hardly rated a mention.
It is clear that most in the West are appalled by the extremes of Islam, eg 11 Islamic States which retain capital punishment for homosexuality, yet little is said in the West to protest those Christian fundamentalist hardliners who claim that “fags” are hated by God or those who established an Muslim equivalent law in Uganda where capital punishment for homosexuality is based on a claimed interpretation of Christianity.
There is understandable revulsion in the West directed to extremists who attack pupils at a school where the terrorists claim basic Islamic values are compromised or those who claim violence should be directed to any deviation from teaching from the Koran. Yet remember too that many Islamic extremists who engage in terrorism, including attacks on civilian populations, claim to be doing so in revenge for what they consider unjustified attacks on what they consider sacred. We should pause for thought when we hear that one of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack had claimed to be motivated by the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Graib. It is also true that once radicalised, terrorists have little sympathy or understanding for an alternative viewpoint.
The 4.7 million Muslims in France (7.5% of the total French population) have good reason to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in their host country. The Muslim immigrants are disproportionately represented among the unemployed and in some areas this is four times the national average. More than 60% of the jail population are Muslim. The party campaigning against Muslim immigration, Front National gained the biggest party support in last year’s election. Polls such as the 2014 poll by Ipsos show a sizeable majority view Islam as an intolerant religion and in the few days following the Charlie Hebdo affair, 26 French Mosques were attacked with firebombs, gunfire, grenades and pigs’ heads.
Small wonder then that some Muslim schools in France reported a pupil protest (in one school 80% of the pupils) refusing to take part in the January 8 minute of silence called for by the Government.
It is all very well insisting on the right to free speech when the free speech advocates are saying the sorts of things that fit our views, but I for one am uneasy when I see a mass rally in Germany directed against Muslim immigrants. For me this conjures up disturbing memories of the early anti-Jewish rallies mounted by the Nazis before the Second World War.
A few years ago Noam Chomsky used the example of Stalin and Hitler to remind his readers that: “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like ……..If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”
Two days ago I heard a Jewish woman in Paris being interviewed for her understanding of the protests against the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. She explained she like many of the Jews living in Paris had joined in the protest and had shared her concerns with a group of protesters who were non-Jews. As soon as the other protestors had discovered she was a Jew, they cut off further conversation and left making it clear they wanted nothing more to do with her.
Our predisposition for deciding in advance who should be our enemies confuses our response to the inevitable crises. Certainly the line of world leaders in the French protests showed solidarity, yet in that line there were leaders who represented States like Russia, Turkey and Egypt where freedom of expression is actively discouraged. Assuming beheading is wrong seems entirely reasonable to me yet if it is wrong for ISIS to behead a small number of civilians it must be equally reprehensible for an official US ally (Saudi Arabia) to behead 40 plus civilians in one year particularly when a good number of the condemned were accused of crimes that in a Western setting would be claimed to be matters of conscience.
Assuming any group who attacks a school deserves collective punishment is only clear if a school in Gaza bombed as punishment by Israel matters as much as a military school attacked by terrorists seeking revenge in Pakistan. If we agree those who target civilians should feel the full weight of international condemnation, then we might ask if killing many thousands of civilians by invading a country such as Iraq on a pretext which turns out to be false, is equally reprehensible?
Like many in the West I was horrified when the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, having created the controversial cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban, was subject to hate mail and death threats. It is only more recently I have reflected on why I have come to think the instigators of hate mail may not be entitled to the same freedom of expression as the one who had trampled on their sensibilities! I hope some commentators have remembered the Danish newspaper – Jyllands-Posten – which published caricatures of the prophet in 2005, but rejected cartoons of Christ because they feared it would ‘provoke an outcry’.
One of the claimed moral advantages of Christianity is that Jesus had a simple moral code which is widely applicable in most human societies. At the centre of the code is the so called Golden Rule which in part is about showing love for neighbour (including neighbours who are traditional enemies) and by implication, demonstrating attitudes of forgiveness. While I am encouraged by the determination not to let violence drive us from values like freedom of expression, I am less confident that we are sufficiently caring for the feelings of our enemies to begin to understand the harm they see in the words and images we insist should be in the public domain.
Feedback on the above article would be greatly appreciated.