Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Speech an Absolute Right?

The dramatic scenes played out in Paris and the ensuing carnage resulting from the savage and brutal killing of the employees in the offices of the Charlie Hebdo publishing house by French jihadists earlier this month brought with it a clear reminder that the threat of terror is very much alive in Western Europe.

We may ask ourselves the questions were the actions of the Kouachi brothers a proportionate response to the publishing of the rather distasteful cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) (PBUH)?  This article shall examine the notion of freedom of speech and more crucially the right to offend religions. 

Since the arrival of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula in 611 AD and in the following 1400 years we have seen several attempts made by European personalities such as Dante Aligheri, Pedro Pascual and Salman Rushdie to depict the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) (PBUH) in rather a distasteful fashion. 

Western Europe to all intents and purposes for many centuries has had a Christian ethos and therefore it is unsurprising to find that Christianity was very much at heart of Western civilisation. 

Therefore, with the advent of Islam with its missionary ethos at the heart of its ideology it was unsurprising to find that Christianity saw it as a direct threat to its own survival hence the decision to target the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a variety of genres ranging from the arts to literature. European history for the last millennium in essence depicts a rather frosty relationship between Islam and Christianity coupled with the ideals of the European enlightenment project which has been in existence since the 1600ís.

France as nation which after the execution of Louis XVI and the ensuing French Revolution saw the birth of libertarianism and consequently became the bastion of secularism . The sacred Trinitarian principle of La Republique namely, Fraternity, Liberty and Equality is the cover that the Charlie Hebdo systematically utilised to lampoon and caricature revered personalities of the great religions of the world. Indeed the irony of the tragic events of Paris came full circle when the founder of the publication when Henri Roussel warned the editor Stephane Charbonnier that he was taking a big risk by continually fanning the flames of provocation through the construction of these ghastly and offensive images depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in rather a crude manner.

However, Charbonnier before his untimely demise vowed to defend his right to freedom of speech granted to him by the founding principles of the staunchly avowed French republic. The Charlie Hebdo editor famously claimed that as he was not bound by the blasphemy laws of Islam on the premise that he was not a Muslim. That may be the case but the campaign launched by Charbonnier over a number of years have ultimately offended billions of  Muslims, Christians and Jews through a rather crude, crass, and one might add a  satirical  campaign against the great religions of the world.

This in recent weeks has created the debate centring upon whether freedom of speech is an absolute right for all or is there an urgent need to limit it.  Even his holiness Pope Francis waded into the debate and made a passionate argument against the right to absolute freedom of expression by stating that he would punch anyone if they insulted his mother! The strong remarks by the Pope demonstrate the utter disgust felt by people of faith right around the world especially when blasphemous images and remarks are made and widely disseminated for public consumption.

 In addition to this it is a shame that those who are staunchly opposed to Islam continue to claim that Islam as a faith is inherently linked to terrorism. 
Any historian worth their salt will tell you that Islam like its contemporaries is not stuck in the quagmire of terrorism.

The passionate and intense debate and discussion in the last month has brought one question to the fore that if freedom of speech was to be limited then who ultimately has the right to decide and it is the latter that becomes to all intents and purposes the much vaunted elephant in the room.

There is no doubt that this debate will continue for years to come and others will come to the fore who will once again attempt to defame the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and as a consequence one fears that Muslim sensitivities will be tested on a regularly basis.  Muslims in Western Europe face the perfect storm in that their loyalty to their faith will come under intense scrutiny in light of the cherished right to freedom of expression in the years to come.

However, a number of Muslims in recently have argued that there is utter rank hypocrisy over the cherished right to freedom of expression.

For example, a select number of Muslims in recent times have been hauled before the courts charged with offences relating to comments made on social media and as a result been prosecuted. But when Islam and Muslims find themselves under attack from the Neoconservative right and those engrossed in Islamophobic tendencies then the bandwagon of freedom of expression steamrolls all those who come before it.  
Muslim communities around the world face testing times ahead where their devotion to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is going to be scrutinised in light of the cherished sacred rights of Western European civilisation. 

Muslims it seems will remain very uneasy until the charges of double standards and rank hypocrisy are addressed by vested bodies right around the world.

By Dr Abdul B Shaikh
Lecturer in Arabic Studies