A slightly shorter version of this is published in the Observer, 18 October 2020.
The details are still emerging, but the horror is clear – the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, in Paris, apparently in response to his using Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a classroom discussion on free speech.
There are always calls after such attacks to moderate attitudes to free speech, claims that “free speech isn’t worth it”. Hardly had news begun filtering out about the original Charlie Hebdo murders in 2015, than there were those suggesting that the cartoonists had brought it on themselves. The same will no doubt happen again.
In such moments, we need to do the opposite: to reaffirm commitments to free speech and the freedom to offend.
What is called “offence to a community” is usually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and in Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms.
It’s the unwillingness of liberals to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray progressives within minority communities, that nurtures reactionaries, both within Muslim communities and outside it. The more that society gives licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. And the more deadly they will become in expressing their outrage.
Liberal pusillanimity also helps nurture anti-Muslim sentiment, feeding the racist idea that all Muslims are reactionary, that Muslim immigration should be stemmed, and Muslim communities more harshly policed.
We must reject both kinds of bigots. In a plural society, much of what we say, others will find offensive. If we want a plural society, we need to defend the freedom to offend.
The irony is that those who most suffer from a culture of censorship are minority communities themselves. To ridicule religion and to defend free expression is not to attack minority communities. On the contrary: without doing both it is impossible to defend the freedoms of Muslims or of any one else.