February 12, 2015
The murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo was an embarrassment to all Muslims and the strong condemnation of the attack by Muslims around the world is a reflection of the fact most Muslims realize this. Freedom of speech is not incompatible with Islamic values, and I am a believing Muslim who does not compromise on this point. Unfortunately, one aspect of the expressions of sympathy with the victims of that attack, the drive to pretend that sympathy for the victims of violence requires one to embrace their bigoted and hateful cause actually undermines the right of free speech. This point is extremely important, so I feel it is my duty to spell out the issues and clear up the confusion.
That we must share, or even find acceptable, the views of those whom others would silence is fallacious and actually undermines the whole point of free expression. An implacable champion of free speech H.L. Mencken correctly observed, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.” When the ACLU defended the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, a town in which many Holocaust survivors resided, they felt no need to defend the bigotry of the marchers, even as they defended their right to display their bigotry. As to those who have accused news outlets with too much good taste to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of cowardice, I would point out that a right to offend does not of necessity translate in to a duty to offend.
The irony of the misdirected commentary on this attack on freedom of speech has been the pretense that France has freedom of speech. France has no First Amendment. On the contrary, many types of speech are prohibited in France and can lead to jail time. The commitment to freedom of expression France is one-sided: against religion, but not for it. Charlie Hebdo is an opponent of all forms of organised religion, but has no interest in opposing French secular fundamentalism that prohibits women from wearing a niqab. Charlie Hebdo has a right to freely express its venom but should have the honesty to admit that it has no interest in the freedom of expression of Muslims.
Freedom of speech, as enshrined in America’s First Amendment, is not about whether or not fighting words may inspire a violent reaction from the offended party but about the fact that a legislature may pass no law abridging the freedom of speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the only time that may be done is when the government has “a compelling interest” and that even then it must be done in the least restrictive means possible.” I side with those who say government has no right to prior restraint. Contrary to popular understanding of metaphor used by Oliver Wendell Holmes, you can shout fire in a crowded theater, although you will suffer the consequences if your act causes a stampede. (I attended a Broadway production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which an actor shouted “Fire!” to the audience and after a beat observed, “Not a muscle!”) In France not only can one be imprisoned for denying the Holocaust, but Roger Garaudy, a veteran of the French resistance, was sentenced to a fine and imprisonment for merely questioning the precise numbers killed in the Holocaust.
The French government is tone deaf on the issue of freedom speech, arresting 54 persons for “hate speech” shortly after delegates from all over the world demonstrated in Paris for Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech. Among the detained was the controversial comic Dieudonné M’bala, who posted “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” on his Facebook account. In an open letter to the Minister of the Interior Dieudonné charged, “You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly [murderer of shoppers in a Kosher supermarket] when I am not any different from Charlie.” In France the key distinction between “hate speech” and “free speech” is its target.
Except when advancing its own leftist agenda, Charlie Hebdo only knocks down icons that are unpopular in France. It’s hatred of Muslim extremists was strong enough to brave death, but its love of free expression is not so strong as to brave the imprisonment that would come from defending such scoundrels as anti-Semites. The newspaper fired a columnist who refused to apologize when accused of provoking “prejudice about Jews and social success.”
Muslim extremists are wrong to persecute those who disrespect Islam. The blasphemy laws in Islam, although rooted in some weak hadith [reports from the early Muslims], are contradicted by the Qur’an [which Muslims accept as God’s word]. Yet, most Muslims are not hypocritical, at least, and oppose mockery of any religion. I recall having to explain to a nonreligious acquaintance who proposed that Muslims should respond to the burning of Qur’ans by desecrating a Bible why no self-respecting Muslim would ever consider such a shameful act.
Those who charge that the problem is that Muslims lack the Christian and Jewish indifference to attacks on their religious symbols miss the point. Believing Christians and Jews are not indifferent, but merely resigned in the face of a society where the sacred cows are not religious but political. Zionists do not protest attacks on Moses or Abraham, but they get very upset by attacks on Netanyahu. As Voltaire put it: “To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?”
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute