“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”
– President Barack Obama, speaking at the UN General Assembly in 2012.
So it’s happened again.
Another terrorist attack on Western soil. This time in France. According to intelligence site Stratorfor.com, the following took place on Wednesday:
Three suspected Islamist militants attacked the Paris office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with high-powered assault rifles, killing 12 people. Among the dead are the editor and cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier, who was on a hit list appearing in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine for “insulting the Prophet Mohammed.” Eyewitness said they heard the attackers shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed,” and chanting, “God is Great” in Arabic.
Here in Australia, where I’m writing from, we had our first post 9/11 terrorist attack just before Christmas last year. How unbearably sad to see this happening again, albeit overseas, and with such devastating and tragic consequences.
In this particular case, the issue concerned freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Charlie Hebdo made use of it’s freedom to publish images and words that many Muslims consider insulting to Muhammed. And as a result, they paid the ultimate price.
As I reflect on this awful situation, 2 points come to mind, both related to the issue that sparked this event: freedom of speech.
1) Freedom of speech, as traditionally understood here in the West, is not valued by Islam.
Whilst it must urgently be pointed out that vast sections of the Muslim community have condemned such terrorist acts, and do not support them in any way, shape, or form, the reality is that (traditional) western ideals of freedom of speech are not supported by Islam.
Writing in USA Today on Thursday, London based Islamic Cleric Anjem Choudary makes the following point:
Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.
He goes on to say why this is:
Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them.
Now, it must be stressed that the majority of Muslims in the West will NOT harm those whom they consider to have insulted Muhammad.
However, he is right to point out that Islam (unlike other religions like Christianity) is an “honour religion”: that is, Muslims are duty bound to protect the honour of their religion when they consider it to have been insulted. This can take many forms, and there is disagreement amongst Muslims of what ‘dishonouring’ and ‘honouring’ Islam might look like.
But when it comes to the issue of freedom of speech, the point is this: there are very few (if any) Muslims that would advocate for the freedom to publicly insult Muhammad. Or to put in Voltairian language, no devout Muslim would ever say: ‘I disagree with your insulting of the Prophet Muhammad, but I will defend to the death your right to insult him’.
And thus, we have a clash between the traditional Western ideal of freedom of expression, and traditional Islamic thought. In the West, freedom of speech traditionally meant that people were free to say things that others considered offensive (even religiously offensive). But as we saw above, Islam does not share this view. With sizable, growing, and vocal Muslim minorities in many Western countries, there will inevitably be much disagreement about what freedom of speech entails, and what its limits are to be.
And, as we saw this week in France, when you throw a few radical Muslims into that mix, the results can be tragic.
This brings us to our second point:
2) Freedom of speech, as traditionally understood here in the West, is becoming less important to many educated secular people.
It’s not just Islam that is at odds with the traditional western understanding of freedom of speech. Atheist Greg Lukianoff has worked for many years defending free speech in one of the most secularised and educated environments in the world: the American secular university system.
Watch this short video about his experiences, and prepare to be profoundly disturbed:
In case you missed it, this erosion of freedom of speech on American secular college campuses runs in a very biased direction. If you’re on the ‘wrong’ side of the cultural divide, you’re a target. In his book ‘Unlearning Liberty’, Lukianoff writes:
‘If you told me twelve years ago that I, a liberal atheist, would devote a sizable portion of my career to defending Christian groups [on secular university campuses], I might have been surprised. But almost from my first day at FIRE, I was shocked to realize how badly Christian groups are often treated.’
– Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty (p. 163)
Of course, the most disturbing part about this is that what happens on the university campus, doesn’t stay on the university campus.Writing about how feminist students barred a debate on abortion at Oxford university, pro-abortion advocate Brendan O’Neill complains about how modern western students now hold to ‘the right to be comfortable’:
‘At precisely the time they should be leaping brain-first into the rough and tumble of grown-up, testy discussion, students are cushioning themselves from anything that has the whiff of controversy…This is a disaster, for it means our universities are becoming breeding grounds of dogmatism. As John Stuart Mill said, if we don’t allow our opinion to be ‘fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed’, then that opinion will be ‘held as a dead dogma, not a living truth’.
One day, these… students…will be running the country. And then it won’t only be those of us who occasionally have cause to visit a campus who have to suffer their dead dogmas.
We see this ‘right to be comfortable’ (i.e. right not to be offended) attitude rearing it’s head in western society already. As I’ve blogged about earlier, we’re living through a new sexual revolution that is happening at warp speed, before our very eyes: gay marriage is now seen as the norm, at least to many in the western world. And the reality is, whoever happens to publicly dissent from this revolution (that is, offend someone) will be culturally, and at times legally, penalised.
We don’t need militant Islam to threaten our freedom of speech: many educated secularists are doing a fine job of that already.
It is fitting to finish off with some words from someone whose life was threatened by militant Islam because of his speech: Salman Rushdie.
Writing about freedom of speech, Rushdie says:
‘But if an individual in a free society no longer has the right to say that he prefers one book to another, then that society no longer has the right to call itself free…Citizens have the right to complain about discrimination against themselves, but not about dissent, even strongly worded, impolite dissent, from their thoughts. There cannot be fences erected around ideas, philosophies, attitudes, or beliefs.’
May this view of freedom continue to prevail here in the West.