Like many people over the last few days I’ve been pondering whether free speech really should extend to insulting people’s deeply held beliefs. Would it be possible to achieve all the benefits of free speech while stopping short of being offensive? If it were then self-censorship might be the moral choice.
Free speech is not an end in itself, we value it because we use it to examine and criticize influential ideas. There are many good ideas: democracy and human rights, for example, and plenty of bad ones, such as fascism and totalitarian communism. We can only sort the good from the bad if we can debate their merits, and we can only overthrow the bad if we can advocate against it. That’s why all totalitarian regimes control and repress speech. Satirical cartoons are a time-honoured and effective means of challenging ideas and prompting people to think.
The Islamic ban on drawing Mohammed is a theological taboo. The whole point is to place Mohammed, and thus Islam, above human criticism. Drawing Mohammed is seen as disrespectful because it involves the drawer thinking for themselves about Mohammed and possibly coming to un-Islamic conclusions. Islam, which means “submission”, is a matter of accepting the Koran and Mohammed’s words and example as perfect and unquestionable.
Thus Muslims find drawing Mohammed offensive because the lack of unquestioning respect, the lack of total acceptance, is akin to a lack of belief, to apostasy. Muslims are brought up steeped in the notion that apostasy is the worst of crimes, and all major schools of Islamic jurisprudence regard apostasy as meriting a death sentence.
Thus, the Islamic taboo on drawing Mohammed is part of a totalitarian attempt to control thought. It is the same as sentencing a Mauritanian blogger to death for apostasy. It is the same as sentencing Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for the “crime” of hosting a website that questioned Islam.
Many of us see Islam as a hugely harmful idea system which represses thought and development to the extent that Islamic countries are nearly all politically, economically and scientifically backwards. In the era when Christianity was totalitarian and repressive, Islamic centres of learning led the world, but today there is not one university from an Islamic country in the world’s top 200.
The only way in which we can know whether Islam is good or bad is by asking the question and examining Islam’s merits and demerits. Yet, even doing that is “offensive” to any Muslim who regards unquestioning acceptance of Islam as the highest obligation to God.
I take the opposite line, and consider that we have a moral duty to examine ideas in order to sort out the good from the bad, and so seek the betterment of human society. That means we have a moral duty to question Islam, and that means a moral duty to flout the Islamic taboos that are there precisely to prevent us doing that.
So, no, we cannot gain the benefits of free speech without offending devout Muslims. The whole idea of using free speech to question Islam conflicts with their deeply held religious tenets, and thus offends them. It is not only cartoons, the scholarly examination of the roots by Islam by Tom Holland also drew death threats.
The cartoons drawn by Charlie Hebdo are not offensive by any proper standard — they are mild compared to those directed routinely at Western politicians — they are offensive only by the standards of a taboo that is there to protect Islam from scrutiny.
We simply cannot accept this taboo, since it conflicts with the basic principles that have raised the free West to the highest standards of economic prosperity, political freedom, and quality of life that the world has ever known. It is not permissible to try to impose one’s own religious rules onto other people by means of taking “offense”, since that is to subject others to one’s own religion, which is exactly what Islam would like to do.
The only good counter-argument is that these cartoons “target” marginalised immigrant populations of Europe, and that ridiculing a powerless minority is not cool. Yet, we need to keep clear the distinction between targeting ideas and targeting people. We can criticise Islam without rejecting people who have been brought up in the Islamic faith.
There is another group who are even more a minority. These are the Raif Badawis. These are the ex-Muslim apostates. These are the people who were brought up in Islamic societies and now recognise its faults. These are the moderate Muslims who want to reform Islam and make it open and tolerant.
If we in the West accept Islamic taboos, and acquiesce to Islamic strictures, then how can the Raif Badawis be expected to challenge Islam? To refuse to publish Mohammed cartoons is to say that the reformers are in the wrong! Surely we should stand in support of those who want to reform Islamic society from the inside?
A refusal to re-publish Mohammed cartoons is not a concession to marginalised minorities, it is a handing of power to the Imams and the self-appointed Islamic “community leaders” who wish to keep the Islamic communities under their thumb and under the control of unreformed Islam.
Maajid Nawaz is a Muslim and former Jihadist who now wants reform. He re-tweeted a Mohammed cartoon saying that his God was above being offended by it. That got him death threats. In response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre he has tweeted:
Dear Muslims, now is not the time for defensive posturing. Now is not time for mere condemnation of `terrorism’. We must go further. No idea, not even our religion, is above scrutiny. This principle is non-negotiable because free speech forms the basis for progress. We Muslims know full well that blasphemy taboos exist within our communities. If we applaud non-Muslims who speak out against racism and anti-Muslim hate, then likewise we Muslims must also show solidarity & join wider society to challenge Islamist extremism & reform the blasphemy taboos entrenched among us. Kill blasphemy taboos. Don’t kill people. @MaajidNawaz
This is why Je Suis Charlie. This is why British newspapers that declare Nous Sommes Charlie are being hypocritical if they subject themselves to Islamic blasphemy taboos, giving the impression that compliance is normal and appropriate, at the same time as calling for reform in the Islamic world. We need to contribute to breaking the taboos of the totalitarians by publishing Mohammed cartoons in support of all those from Islamic communities who want to either reform their religion or to leave it entirely. L’humanité est Charlie.