National Security & Defense

We Need to Defend the Right to Offend

And if we don’t . . . Observations on the anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Today marks the 26th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The horrible events in Paris on January 7 serve as a brutal reminder that the obscurantist spirit of the fatwa lives on. Modern societies must therefore grapple with the meaning and consequences of the irreconcilable differences between those who demand protection for religious feelings and those who insist that nothing in public discourse should be sacred.

One narrative insists that, while violence is never acceptable, free speech should not be “abused” to insult the religious convictions of minorities. In his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, President Obama said that “modern, complicated, diverse societies” require “civility and restraint and judgment” and that, when “we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.”

The concern for minorities represents important progress in human rights. Without empathy for those whose religion or skin color differs from that of the majority, we would be in danger of repeating some of the worst injustices of the past, from slavery and segregation to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust. However, regarding the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the attempt to view it through the lens of a conflict between an oppressive majority and a beleaguered minority reveals a deeply ethnocentric and misguided view of what is at stake.

A recent demonstration in London (appropriately gender-segregated, of course) by more than a thousand British Muslims protesting the Charlie Hebdo cartoons showed very clearly that just because a person can claim minority status does not necessarily mean he favors tolerance. While the protesting British Muslims were perfectly happy to exercise their right to free speech and association, their core message was that those very rights should be denied to those with whom they disagree, and that insult to religious feelings is a kind of extremism not too dissimilar from that of the murder of cartoonists. Standing “shoulder to shoulder” with these demonstrators and “condemning” Charlie Hebdo would be a shameful act of intolerance no matter how good their intentions.   

From a broader perspective, we see that the Charlie Hebdo incident was but the latest in a global battle of values over the relationship between free speech and religion. In this conflict, cartoonists, writers, and bloggers in many parts of the world are routinely threatened, imprisoned, and even killed for offending religious dogma. Ultimately, this conflict is about whether individuals have the right to follow and express their conscience in matters of religion and politics. Despite the massacre in Paris, the slaughter of Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, and the countless threats against cartoonists and editors in Denmark, those who are most adversely affected by the attack against freedom of expression are not Westerners. They are in fact vulnerable minorities in non-free societies where restrictions on freedom of speech pose a grave threat to these embattled groups and are a weapon in the hands of their intolerant oppressors. If Western liberals are serious about defending this freedom for vulnerable Christians in Pakistan, atheists in Palestine, liberal Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and feminists in Russia, they must also defend the right of white European cartoonists to offend minorities in the West. 

Monotheistic religions have always had an uneasy relationship with freedom of thought and speech. The longstanding conflict was given new life on February 14, 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie. It was addressed to “all brave Muslims of the world,” not merely the Muslims of Britain or Europe. Khomeini was not concerned with the well-being of a beleaguered minority but with shielding from criticism the religion that formed the basis and legitimacy of his power.

The worst incident of the Rushdie affair took place not in London or Paris, but in the Turkish town of Sivas. In July 1993, some 35 intellectuals, most of whom belonged to Turkey’s Alevi minority, were burned to death by an angry mob of Sunni extremists who torched the hotel where the Turkish publisher of the Satanic Verses was attending a conference. The murderous mob, quite unconcerned whether their victims were minorities, acted solely to defend their religious identity against the offense they took. 

Pakistan may be the best example of how restrictions on free speech are much more likely to harm minorities than to defend their religious sensibilities. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, a remnant from colonial times, were expanded in the 1980s. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than a 1,000 people have been charged with blasphemy since 1987. While most of those charged have been Muslims, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims are overrepresented. The inequity of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is highlighted by the fate of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who was accused of blasphemy by her Muslim neighbors; her death sentence was upheld last year. Such sentences have not appeased Pakistani extremists but only fanned their intolerance. Last year a mob of several hundred persons tortured and burned to death a Christian couple for allegedly desecrating a Koran.

When Pakistani politicians summon the courage to speak out against this state of affairs, they pay the highest price. In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister of minority affairs, was murdered for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, as was Salmaan Taseer, a prominent provincial governor. Taseer was killed by one of his bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri, who when tried in court was showered with rose petals by supporters, and a mosque has been constructed in his honor.

Several hundred miles to the east of Pakistan lies Bangladesh, where n 1994 author Taslima Nasreen was met with death threats and criminal proceedings after publication of his book LajjaAfter calling for a reinterpretation of the Koran to strengthen women’s rights, she encountered vehement hostility and fled the country. In 2013, Bangladeshi extremists directed their ire at the country’s small group of atheist bloggers who criticized religion and religious parties. One blogger was stabbed, and when four bloggers were arrested on charges of blasphemy, more than 100,000 Islamists took to the streets of Dacca, demanding that the atheists be hanged.

Atheists have been imprisoned also in EgyptPalestine, and Indonesia, sometimes for as little as declaring their atheism publicly. In Saudi Arabia, liberal Muslim Raif Badawi has received the first 50 of the 1,000 lashes to which he has been sentenced while serving ten years in prison for “insulting Islam” by criticizing the Saudi religious authorities. 

So it should not have come as a surprise that, a mere week after half the staff of Charlie Hebdo was massacred, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, representing 56 nations and based in Wahabist Saudi Arabia, threatened the magazine with legal action. 

Outside Islamic states, the pope, religious leader of 1.2 billion Catholic Christians, reacted to the Charlie Hebdo affair by stressing that “you cannot insult the faith of others.” Prominent figures from the Russian, Georgian, and Greek Orthodox Churches have condemned Charlie Hebdo’s most recent cover as an insult to religion generally. In Russia, the Duma recently adopted a new law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious feelings.” When the members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in 2012, it was for committing “hooliganism” motivated by “religious hatred.”

These examples demonstrate that the idea that free speech must be restricted to preserve the public and secure the well-being of minorities is both false and dangerous. In fact, freedom of conscience and of expression constitute the necessary precondition for peaceful coexistence in diverse and pluralist societies, where minorities would otherwise risk discrimination and abuse. Would President Obama really insist that we “condemn” the artists, editors, and writers who have insulted the religious feelings of many of their neighbors? If we allow the freedoms of conscience and expression to be taken hostage by identity politics, allowing solidarity to be limited by the religion or skin color of those liable to be offended by frank though non-violent expression, we undermine the basis for peaceful co-existence. 

Note that, while Christians, Muslims, atheists, liberals, and feminists are brutally persecuted in countries where these freedoms are denied, they are able to live peacefully with each other in liberal democracies where these rights are guaranteed. Western politicians and intellectual elites commit a tragic error when they retreat from defending the freedoms that sustain the pluralism and tolerance whose importance they so vociferously proclaim.

— Jacob Mchangama is the founder and executive director of Justitia, a Copenhagen-based think tank focusing on human rights and the rule of law. He tweets @jmchangama.

Jacob Mchangama — Mr. Mchangama is head of legal affairs at the Danish Center for Political Studies, lecturer on international human-rights law at the University of Copenhagen, and co-founder of Fri Debat, a Danish-based network committed to the protection of freedom of expression.


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