Pandaemonium

TO DEFEND THE FREEDOM TO OFFEND

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. 

3 comments

  1. You say that ‘it’s a racist idea that all Muslims are reactionary, that Muslim immigration should be stemmed, and Muslim communities more harshly policed. You add that ‘We must reject both kinds of bigots.’ I agree that bigots should be fought no matter what side of the divide they belong. But I can’t help worrying that (something I read elsewhere) ‘The terrorists are winning, step by step. France, and this is the sad truth, is perhaps not recoverable. It’s too late. Metastasis is not curable. ‘

  2. You are surely right to say that not all muslims are reactionariesor terrorists. But I am not so sure that th majority of those non-reactionary muslims will stand on our side and not on that of their reactionary coreligionists when things ar getting tough.

    Their normal reaction ist saying “this has nothing to do with islam” or “this is not real islam”. I would like them to give information to the police or to throw terrorists out of their mosques or to call on their women to take off their headscarf when working as a school teacher.Didn´t see anything like that yet.

  3. Jordon Brown

    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.

    1. Could you quote any racist saying “all Muslims are reactionary”?

    2. How does liberal pusillanimity in the west explain the worse situation for free speech in Muslim nations (politicians assassinated for advocating reform of blasphemy laws, atheists chopped up, etc)?

    You surely remember the extensive series of articles you wrote on the horrible plight of the Christian “blasphemer” Asia Bibi in Pakistan, which were instrumental in securing her release from entirely unjust imprisonment.

    Or perhaps you don’t remember. Because perhaps you don’t really care about free speech or speaking the truth about it.

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