Charlie Hebdo

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

In May, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff – eight of whom were murdered at the start of the year – were rebuffed by more than 200 prominent US authors. After issuing cursory remarks about the validity of protecting free speech, the writers went on to explain why they were boycotting a gala event hosted by the free-speech organisation PEN intended to honour the magazine. The writers characterised Charlie Hebdo’s rude critique of religion and its figureheads as “gratuitous”, implying that such childish nonsense serves no vital social ends.

Their claim, however, is based on mistaken assumptions about the nature of offence, particularly when it comes to minority groups in society. First, religious groups are by no means homogeneous in belief, practice or sentiment. The same remark or image that one member of the religious community experiences as deeply offensive, another may experience as cathartic, liberating or profoundly healing.To think otherwise is to generalise about all members of a religious culture.

To assume that all Muslims will be equally or similarly “offended” by a particular cartoon, joke or instance of speech is based on the naïve theory that there is only one way to be Muslim. Few Muslims’ identities are defined only by their religion, just as few atheists’ identities are defined solely by the lack of belief in God.

Censoring religious insult will not so much protect a minority culture from the outside host culture as it will prevent free choice within the minority sub-culture and suppress diversity of opinion within it. If we adopt a catch-all ban on “religious offence” it is difficult to see how liberal or pluralist Muslims will then exercise their right to criticise Islamist authoritarians who would otherwise make all Muslims conform to fundamentalist laws and “respect” (i.e. obey) its taboos. Free speech benefits all types of Muslims, whereas censorship would only benefit extremists.

Muslims as a group are sometimes misrepresented as “terrorists”, which maligns those who aren’t, but a blanket law – or taboo – on giving offence would not protect this moderate majority. They are already robustly protected within secular states where free speech is de rigueur. By definition, only the intolerant could wish to use violence or legal coercion to suppress public criticism of their beliefs. The rest of us – including many Muslims – use argument, art, comedy and satire to make our case and challenge our opponents. A permanent ban on freedom of expression is not a worthwhile price to pay in exchange for protection from the temporary discomfort of insulting words.

This gets to the crux of the issue: religion has seldom been about private belief and personal conviction. All too often, it is about others and how they ought to live. Religious moderates by definition do not take offence at ­disagreement and criticism, because they do not demand that others agree with them or live according to their ­chosen way of life.

Religion has seldom been limited to an individual’s private beliefs and life choices, which is why it must remain open to public scrutiny and ridicule. Where permitted, intolerant religious ideologies dictate social taboos and define harmless behaviours as “immoral”. This is the case in many societies and cultures around the globe.

This is why I cannot agree with the critics of Charlie Hebdo who think that offending religion is an “irresponsible” children’s game. The very freedoms these grown-ups now take for granted in their cocooned Western milieu (so much so that they are prepared to cast them off without a second thought) were bought for them by “childish” martyrs who paid for them with their lives.

Political liberalism is based on the belief that no human being is infallible, thus none is in a position to censor the free expression of any idea, no matter how offensive or unpopular it may be. This sets up a single standard for all, so that ideas can be “tested” against the merits of other views.

This is not a “Western ideology” but a fair framework within which any ideology can be freely discussed and pursued, as well as criticised and rejected. By contrast, ­censoring dissent forecloses debate and limits opportunities to learn from new evidence, and allows only personal self-righteousness and cultural stagnation. The “respect” it garners for the status quo is more akin to fear than to ­esteem. The prevailing beliefs are not held because they have won the competition with alternatives, but because alternatives have been silenced.