Nigel Biggar is wrong on Charlie Hebdo and free speech

The conflict between Free Speech and Islam is surely going to be a defining battle of the 21st Century. Worryingly, many in the West consider that the best way to defuse the battle is to make concessions to Islam. For example, take the article just published in The Times by Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford (non-paywall article version).

Biggar writes:

By its nature, satire is unfair and uncharitable. It exaggerates faults, blowing them out of all proportion into caricature. It doesn’t criticise; it ridicules. It doesn’t invite a vigorous exchange of views; it humiliates without moderation or mercy. It’s not designed to communicate; it’s designed to alienate.

He continues that:

[Satire] should be used sparingly as a weapon of last and rare resort. And that raises moral doubts about newspapers for which satire is a way of life, a Moloch that needs weekly feeding.

Nigel Biggar

He then accuses Charlie Hebdo of “holding up to ridicule what every Muslim holds most sacred”, which “amounts to culpable negligence in avoiding pointless offence”, and concludes:

Charlie’s journalists certainly didn’t deserve to die for that but they still shouldn’t have done it. They knew and flaunted their legal right to offend; they neglected their moral duty not to.

Now, “newspapers for which satire is a way of life” include the one Biggar was writing in, and indeed most mainstream newspapers. All of them regularly publish satirical cartoons about politicians and others in the news. Is Biggar raising “moral doubts” about this, or are the moral doubts only if the subject of the satire is Islam?

Surprisingly, Biggar doesn’t address this issue, nor explain whether or why satirical cartoons about political leaders are acceptable but those about a religion are not. This cannot be due to the degree that they are “unfair and uncharitable” and “exaggerate faults”, since political cartoons are routinely far more cutting and scathing than the — by any objective standard — relatively innocuous Danish Cartoons and Charlie Hebdo covers. Indeed, the Islamic complaint is not so much that Mohammed has been portrayed in a particularly vicious way, but rather that he has been portrayed at all.

Since Biggar hasn’t explained why he failed to condemn the routine satirical cartoons in the very paper in which he was writing, I’m going to have to guess as to his likely reply. He might point to the politicians being powerful and influential, and might present satirical cartoons as a necessary balance and check to prevent governments becoming over-powerful. He might also suggest that politicians, by getting involved in politics, have consented to the game.

Charlie Hebdo anniversary cover

One year on: “The assassin [God/religion] is still out there”.

I would agree entirely with such replies. The right to dissent from and openly criticise the government and other powerful institutions is the very basis of a free, healthy and democratic society. What I don’t see is why we would then exempt Islam from the same treatment.

Worldwide, Islam is a hugely powerful force, controlling many whole countries and upwards of a billion people. For a large swathe of the world’s population, Islam is the idea system dominating their lives. Any justification for any satirical political cartoons must surely apply a fortiori to Islam.

While it could be argued that, in the West, the Muslim citizens are relatively powerless, it would be wrong to see such populations as homogenous. From the point of view of, say, an adolescent in an Islamic community, Islam is still a hugely powerful force in their lives. Whereas a teenager growing up in a rich stockbroker-belt community could espouse full-blown socialism without anyone much caring, a teenager growing up in Islamic communities has no such freedom to reject Islam. Doing so would often be met with opprobrium and ostracisation, or even worse.

The reason Islam prohibits the depiction of Mohammed is precisely to place Islam beyond human questioning and off-limits to criticism. It is part and parcel of their apostasy laws, their blasphemy laws, and their stifling orthodoxy that says you must only question within the strictly defined limits allowed by Islamic authorities. Islam means “submission”, the antithesis of the West’s primary instruction to “question”.

Islam wants political power, but it also wants to outlaw criticism of itself, and does so with legal force in nations where it can. It would also like to do so worldwide, and repeatedly asks the UN to implement blasphemy laws which would outlaw the sort of criticisms of religion that are routine in the West.

Biggar wants to allow Islam this veto. He phrases this as avoiding unnecessary offence. But the offence is, at root, that someone has rejected Islamic rules rather than submit to them. Yes, depicting Mohammed is offensive to Muslims, but so is apostasy, and so is criticising Islam (which they call blasphemy).

We can only avoid offence to Islam by adopting for ourselves such Islamic rules. And, you can be sure that if some demands are acceded to, then more demands will follow. That is plain from the restrictions in place in nations where Islam is powerful enough to impose itself.

Isn’t it obvious that we cannot allow this? If criticising Islam, including the drawing of satirical cartoons, gives offence then the offence is entirely necessary. We can no more exempt Islam from criticism than we can exempt capitalism or communism or free trade or “American imperialism” or anything else from criticism.

If a Prime Minister’s mother stated that she was highly offended that her son featured in satirical cartoons we would just shrug and suggest that she not read newspapers if she felt that way. We would not allow the taking of offence to act as a veto; no free society can accept that principle.

Islam wants to impose that principle because it does not want a free society, it wants an Islamic one. Islam teaches its adherents to take offence at depictions of Mohammed precisely as a means of enforcing such a veto.

Biggar is missing the big picture if he thinks he can resolve this tension by simply “avoiding pointless offence”. I would invite him to cut out the political cartoons routinely published by newspapers and place them side by side with the Danish Cartoons and Charlie Hebdo covers, and ask himself whether the latter are — by any normal and sensible standard — actually beyond the pale, or whether he is merely submitting to the Islamic request for a veto on free speech.

Of course many Muslims take a more liberal attitude and do not agree with the totalitarian nature of mainstream Islam.

I would like to salute Muhammad al-Hussaini, a senior research fellow in Islamic studies at the Westminster Institute, who defended the right of Christian preacher James McConnell to describe Islam as “Satanic”, saying:

It is therefore a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we discharge our common duty steadfastly to defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs — restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others.

Many Muslims want to reform Islam and would welcome a more open and pluralistic religion that accepted criticism. Surely any beneficial idea-system can only be improved by criticism, and only harmful idea-systems would want to stifle it?

The Islamic reformers want open discussion of Islam and an over-turning of the stifling censorship typical of mainstream Islam. That is perhaps the biggest flaw in Biggar’s proposal. It sides with the reactionary and most regressive elements in the Islamic world by meekly implying that their demands are fair and reasonable, and by doing that it undercuts the reformers.

How are reformers in Islamic communities supposed to openly challenge Islamic strictures if the reactionaries can reply: “Look, even the infidel West realises that such a line that should not be crossed”, and back this up by quoting the authority of no less a person than the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Britain’s leading university?

7 thoughts on “Nigel Biggar is wrong on Charlie Hebdo and free speech

  1. Paul Braterman

    “The reason Islam prohibits the depiction of Mohammed is precisely to place Islam beyond human questioning and off-limits to criticism.” That indeed is how it now works. Ironically, I read somewhere (sorry, no source; can anyone verify or rebut this?), the prohibition on depicting Mohammed was meant to prevent him from being worshiped.

    1. Coel Post author

      I think that’s right: prevention of idolatry was a big part of it (similar to the bits about graven images and “no other gods” in the Ten Commandments).

    2. Roo Bookaroo

      The prohibition was meant not to prevent Mohammed being worshipped, but his IMAGES being worshipped. Which was already the case in Judaism, This was a rule that the early Christians also followed, but over the centuries, they couldn’t resist competing with the other, non-Christian, cults and religions, and started fabricating images and statues all over the place, creating a frenzy of Christian magic.
      See for instance the amazing “Black Nazarene” statue venerated in Manila, Philippines, on Jan. 9 (two days ago) in an immense procession lasting 22 hours and drawing millions of Filipino believers in the magical powers of the black wooden statue of a Christ carrying his cross. The Protestant Reformers tried to combat the trend, but eventually gave in to the irresistible seduction of artistic creations.

  2. Hadrian Jones

    You misunderstand both Islam and Prof Biggar’s argument, and as a result have constructed a straw man. There is no inherent ‘conflict’ between free speech and Islam. The conflict is between free speech and intolerant adherence to any ideology resulting in use of violence in the pursuit of power – whether by Muslims, Christians, extreme US libertarians and so on. The mischaracterisation of Islam as being generally defined by this kind of violent intolerance is one of the great errors and tragedies in the public debate about these issues.

    As a result this is a criticism of a chimera: ‘The right to dissent from and openly criticise the government and other powerful institutions is the very basis of a free, healthy and democratic society. What I don’t see is why we would then exempt Islam from the same treatment.’

    Who is arguing with that in this debate, to your mind?

    1. Coel Post author

      There is no inherent ‘conflict’ between free speech and Islam.

      Then why is free speech and criticising Islam criminal in much of the Islamic world? Why do many Islamic nations have laws against blasphemy and apostasy? Why do the Islamic nations condemn the Satanic Verses and the Danish Cartoons and Charlie Hebdo, and repeatedly ask the UN to outlaw that sort of speech?

    2. Roo Bookaroo

      “There is no inherent ‘conflict’ between free speech and Islam.”
      This remarkable sentence is worthy of an anthology, it is so extraordinary that many people may believe it has been artificially constructed. But no, we can read it here clearly, unexpunged. Yes, thanks to the power of unlimited imagination, the human mind is capable of believing ANYTHING.

  3. Ron Murphy

    A defence of a more extreme religion is often a sign that a theist (I don’t know what Biggar’s beliefs are) is sustaining a buffer that protects his own religion from criticism. Biggar seems to be defending religious belief generally, by defending Islam, which conveniently is detracting attention from Christianity. There must be much in Islam for Christians to criticise, but better not focus on that lest those criticisms lay bare the faults of Christianity.


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