The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo committed a grave error when it chose to misuse the freedom it enjoys—which in the West has few limits, especially in France—by insulting more than 1.5 billion Muslims around the world under the guise of freedom of expression. Indeed it is a catastrophe when this freedom is considered more important than the feelings of such a considerable body of people, and when it is completely incompatible with whole nations and cultures. And so this conception of freedom of expression is distorted when it is used to insult people’s most cherished beliefs and their religion. Not only that, these people are then required to accept this unfair and unbalanced situation simply because the stronger side in this case has unilaterally decided where the limits to freedom of speech lie. Everyone else must now acknowledge, agree and adhere to this, and if they don’t, then as French President François Hollande said recently, they “don’t understand” freedom of speech.
Following the attacks in Paris the condemnation from world leaders was clear and unequivocal. But this condemnation can differ from one to another. It needn’t come from an angle which frames the issue as “an attack on freedom of speech,” but, rather, one can simply condemn the attacks because innocent people were killed. And there is no way can one make excuses for the attack, no matter what extreme incident provoked it.
But we are now back at square one. At this juncture, we can assert an essential value in Western societies: that of not treading on the freedoms of others. And so here we can see how the magazine, in publishing the insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, impeded on the freedoms of hundreds of millions of Muslims across the world. Speaking of his newspaper’s decision not to republish the cartoons, Dean Parquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, said the newspaper did not usually publish material that deliberately sought to offend religious sensibilities, and in light of the offense which drawings themselves of the Prophet Muhammad would cause to many Muslims, the paper decided not to republish the Charlie Hebdo covers.
The West is mistaken when it draws the contours of freedoms and freedom of speech solely around the standards of its own societies and cultures. The West itself built these freedoms around a set of essential and logical values that see freedom tied to individual and collective responsibilities and works within the historical and cultural framework of Western societies. The French, for example, regularly boast of how their freedoms are much wider than some of those of their Western counterparts. This is their right, so long as those freedoms conform to the sensibilities of their people and their society. But surely one cannot reasonably expect those who live in the villages of Niger, or the Pakistan countryside, or even the coasts of Indonesia to sympathize with this, especially when they consider such expression to be a blatant and deliberate attack on their religion and their most cherished symbols. Even in France itself there is currently a debate going on about the double standards regarding the uses freedom of speech is put to.
At the same time that the Pope took a strong line on the issue by saying that the essential right to freedom of speech does not legitimize insulting or ridiculing other people’s most cherished beliefs, President Hollande claimed that those who protested against the cartoons “don’t understand the attachment of the French people to freedom of speech,” and that it is among his country’s most important principles and values.
Pardon me, monsieur president; provoking and offending hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world as a response to the anger felt due to the actions of a handful of terrorists is not freedom of speech—it is an attack on it.