Free speech is under renewed attack after the Charlie Hebdo murders that claimed 12 lives earlier this year. Around the world, some Muslims protested—not to defend the right of free speech but to attack those who, in their view, insulted Islam. For example, in late January, protestors killed five people and set fire to eight Christian Churches in Niger. French President Francois Hollande responded that France was committed to “freedom of expression,” and that commitment is “non-negotiable.”
A month before the Charlie Hebdo violence, a French appellate court overturned the conviction of Christine Tasin, a retired schoolteacher of Classics. In 2013, she had publicly criticized Islam’s Eid-ul-Adha (“Festival of the Sacrifice”), as unsanitary and cruel to animals. The trial court sentenced her to a €3,000 fine (half of which it suspended) and a three month prison sentence, also suspended. Earlier, a Muslim man threatened her with death. The court fined that man only €800. The judge apparently decided that objecting to cruelty to animals is five times more offensive than threatening a retired schoolteacher with death.
Tasin rejoiced in the overturning of her conviction. “Last Thursday was a great day for freedom of expression in France,” she said. She added:
The [appeal] court in Besançon has now acknowledged that one has the right to express opinions and I did not encourage hatred against Muslims, and I can think and say that Islam is a threat to France, that it is a freedom of expression. [Those who] fear that freedom of expression is disappearing, and that blasphemy has become a crime again are relieved. Yes, I am an Islamophobe, so what? It’s Normal! . . . I don’t find it normal to torture animals; I don’t find it normal to veil women. I’m talking about a serious problem.
Others take away a different lesson and encourage self-censorship—be careful what you say. On January 21, Stevie Wonder advised, “we should make laws against people criticizing religion,” a most in-apropos comment (it was part of his eulogy of André Crouch). In 2012, the President’s Press Secretary, Jay Carney, in the course of a press conference, said, “We are aware that a French magazine [referring to Charlie Hebdo] published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the prophet Muhammad, and obviously we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this.”
After the 2015 murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff, Carney reaffirmed his view that Charlie Hebdo should have pulled back with its satire. Carney, of course, made clear that he did not justify violence. Yet, as Washington Post columnist Charles Lane advised, “mixed messages unavoidably implied that the rioters had a valid point, which is never something you want to imply—at least not if you understand how dangerous it is to give violent extremists a veto over what your citizens can and cannot say.”
Carney’s successor as White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, speaking shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack, embraced that mixed message. The violence is terrible, of course, yet, when a reporter asked Josh Earnest, “Does the White House stand by that questioning [in 2012] of the judgment of the publication of that cartoon in light of recent events?”—Earnest’s response was yes, after long, convoluted remarks. He reaffirmed that Charlie Hebdo exercised poor judgment; however, satire “could put Americans abroad at risk,” so the President “will not now be shy about expressing a view or taking the steps that are necessary to try to advocate for the safety and security of our men and women in uniform.”
This response appeared to be a non sequitur so the reporter said that protecting “American service personnel is different than criticizing or raising questions about the judgment underlying any satirical expression, be it to mock Islam or Christianity or Judaism, or anything else.” Consequently, the reporter asked, “Where do you draw the line?” Earnest’s answer, “I think it depends on the scenario.” What does that mean? Don’t mock Islam but Episcopalians are fair game?
It is difficult for you to support free speech if you simultaneously express reservations about what the speaker is saying and then warn that you will “not now be shy” about “taking steps” to discourage the speaker from speaking because that is exercising “poor judgment.”
Jonathan Chait, a commentator for New York Magazine and former senior editor at the New Republic, saw right through this decidedly ambiguous message. What the White House Press Secretary is saying, Chait says, is, “They do not believe religious extremists should be able to impose censorship by issuing threats, but given the existence of those threats, the rest of us should have the good sense not to risk triggering them.” That is not a defense of free speech but rather a call for self-censorship:
“The line separating these two positions is perilously thin. . . . The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.”
The Washington Post republished the Charlie Hebdo cartoon cover circulated after the attack, but the New York Times did not, noting, “most Muslims consider any depiction of their prophet to be blasphemous.” That certainly appears like self-censorship. (It also shows that the editor of that article does not travel much, at least not to Istanbul, where one could tour the famous Topkapi Palace Museum, which displays many images of Mohammed. That’s another problem with self-censorship; it leads to over-self-censorship, if you are scared enough.)
In December 2004, I gave a speech at the University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands about America and the Gulf War. A month earlier, a 26-year-old Dutch-born Muslim murdered Theo van Gogh, while cycling to work. My speech was public and a Muslim woman spoke up in the back of the room before I began. She was accompanied by several large men and videotaping equipment. She wanted to videotape my speech. I asked the audience if they objected and they did. The audience was obviously scared and I asked her if she had any reaction to that. She refused to speak.
I told her that the audience was scared of her because of the murder of Theo van Gogh and that ought to concern her. She just stared at me in utter silence. I said she could condemn the murder of Theo van Gogh; that might make the audience less frightened. Again, nothing. I finally told her that she could videotape me but the camera must focus only on me. She could not make any record of anyone in the audience. She agreed, and the audience felt better. Then I began my speech by saying that it is important that we not be afraid to speak. After I finished the presentation and answered questions, she and her entourage left. At that moment, I did not need the White House Press Secretary to tell me to exercise “better judgment,” i.e., self-censorship.
Each generation must learn and relearn the lessons of free speech. Those who say we can speak, but should not be rude or offensive do not understand that inoffensive speech has no need of protection. The White House Press Secretary should not be telling us to censor ourselves; he should be telling the world that the cure for speech we do not like is more speech, contrary speech, not violence or self-censorship. If you disagree, respond with words, not force.
Those who worry about inciting those Muslims who preach and act out hate think that appeasement will stop the terrorist attacks. Sadly, appeasement in the past has been about as effective as throwing some blood in the water to appease sharks.
Listen to an Egyptian cleric, Muhammad Hussein Yaqub, speaking in 2009, on Egyptian Television. He told his viewers:
If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not. We will never love them…They are enemies not because they occupied Palestine. They would have been enemies even if they did not occupy a thing…You must believe that we will fight, defeat and annihilate them until not a single Jew remains on the face of the earth.
The Quran tells us that if God had wanted one community, He would have made one community. Instead, we are many communities so that we can compete with each other in good works (Quran verse 5:480). The murderers of Charlie Hebdo worry about sacrilege, but they are the ones who are sacrilegious, because they actually think that Almighty God needs those puny men to effectuate His will.