28 May, 2022


Charlie Hebdo And Free Speech

By Charles Sarvan

Charles Sarvan

Charles Sarvan

Now that the election is over, I take it readers will once again be able to move from an exclusive and narrow focus on Sri Lanka to current international issues. Besides, freedom of expression is no less important a subject to Sri Lankans than it is to others.

The storm presently raging over a pictorial depiction of the Prophet Mohammed led me to wonder whether the doctrine or principle of double effect will be useful here. The doctrine is associated with Thomas Aquinas(1225-1274) who, following Aristotle, held that the universie is so organised that everything has a goal or purpose. The double-effect principle posits that an action (provided it is morally good or neutral) which causes serious harm may be permissible if it is a side effect of promoting some end that is good. It would not be permissible to cause the same harm as a means to a good end – but only as a side or double effect. Intentionality is paramount; one may foresee the possibility of harm but not intend it. What was the intention of Charlie Hebdo in publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed? What good did they set out to achieve? What possible harm did they foresee but not intend? Pope Francis used an analogy: if you deliberately, rather than unintentionally, grossly insult something the other holds sacred or very dear and precious, it is reasonable to anticipate a violent reaction.

Those with a cynical mind might say the main ‘good‘ Charlie Hebdo aimed at was financial profit. Their sales, it is reported, were down to 60,000 and an option on the table was to cease publication. If so, violent Moslem reaction has not only saved Charlie Hebdo but boosted sales which now soar to something in the region of six million with people scurrying around trying to secure a copy as if it were some kind of trophy to be displayed and bequeathed.

Those with a Machiavellian mindset may see Charlie Hebdo‘s real and deliberate intention as that of provocation: Charlie Hebdo is aware that in some respects the Prophet is to Moslems what the Virgin Mary is to devout Roman Catholics; they know there are some Moslems who are quick to take offense and to react wildly, violently and disproportionately, thereby bringing discredit to the religion they think they are defending. This in turn would confirm negative notions of Islam and Moslems in general; excite and deepen division. (Interestingly, there haven’t been so far any righteous demonstrations in Saudi Arabia and in the other oil-rich states. It appears that when it comes to business, and even more to tacit or overt political alliances with the West which ensure continued survival, the Prophet ceases to have priority. Besides, these dictatorships fear that demonstrations for God and His Prophet can be turned easily into demands for democracy.)

John Milton, 1608–1674, in the sonnet ‘On his Blindness‘ wrote that God does not need human praise. His state is “kingly“, and He has thousands of heavenly beings who at his command speed over land and sea. If God does not need human praise can He, on the other hand, feel insulted by the words and actions of mere humans? Isn’t God beyond mortal besmirching? Won’t He take revenge in His own time and manner? (As Aristotle comments in his ‘Politics‘ (Book 1), just as we imagine gods in our human shape, so we also imagine their way of life to be like that of ours.) Then, if God is beyond both praise and insult, is the fury at insult to ‘our‘ God or gods at root but human and personal? In other words, does “Our God (or Prophet) has been insulted“ really translate into “We have been insulted“?

Apart from cynical and Machiavellian readings, the most charitable explanation is that Charlie Hebdo was demonstrating the right to, and the value of, free-speech: a cartoon is speech in visual, rather than in audible, form. But freedom of expression, like other forms of freedom, is not license and has its limits. If freedom is seen as the right or ability to do something, then we have several freedoms which we choose not to exercise. A man may have the freedom (here, power or ability) to beat his wife because he is physically stronger but most men don’t exercise that ‘freedom‘ because it is morally reprehensible and utterly contemptible. As for the limits of freedom, many countries prohibit what is termed ‘hate speech‘. In certain countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) disrespect of Islam can lead to severe punishment. It is an offense in Thailand to insult the royal family. In Germany, it is illegal to question the historical veracity of the Holocaust, not even in a paper published in an obscure recondite journal.

It is said that democracy is not an end in itself but a means, a state of affairs where individuals can freely discover and extend their human potential. Similarly, can one say that freedom of speech does not exist by and for itself but so that, through free expression and the exchange of thought, society works for the betterment of the common good? If so, the question must arise: Has Charlie Hebdo availing itself of freedom of speech led to a better state of affairs? Is the world a better and more ‘beautiful‘ place? Perhaps, an answer will be that, despite the loss of human life; despite the material damage and destruction; despite the increase in anger and the worsening of inter-faith and international relations, finally, perhaps in years to come, the world will be a better place where there is no physical reaction to verbal insult; a world of free-speech without any ‘off-limits‘? (Whether we would wish the last is another matter.) Did Charlie Hebdo foresee the present (and continuing if not, one fears, worsening) ‘evil‘ but not intend it? Or was its action cynical, callous and irresponsible?

I don’t know the thinking and motives of Charlie Hebdo: the above is merely shared speculation and not assertion.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Islamic radicalism as practised by some Islamist extremists enjoying freedom of speech in the countries of their adoption with impunity must be contra distinguished from genuine Jihardism as practised by true Muslims. This, however does not mean there is genuine democracy, and freedom and equality for women in Islamic countries although they may aspire to them. Bensen

  • 10

    I think at any cost it is despicable to create cartoons of the Gods, Deities, Prophets as it can hurt the feelings of the devoted / believers. Freedom of speech is definitely not this kind of thing. For the french it appears normal as it is a country undergoing moral decay, whose current president is a unmarried philanderer fathering many children from a whole host of unwed mothers.

    • 2

      All religions should be mocked. They prey on people’s feelings. That’s why I choose none.

  • 8

    We may not be muslim, we may not believe what muslims say.

    Yet, we should respect Islam because it is the religion of those who believe it.

    It is not freedom of expression when you make fun of some one else’s religious leader.

    It is simply lack of respectability of those people who do it. IF you respect what is yours then you would respect what is others too.

    • 5

      A change of heart towards Muslims.

      In certain parts of Europe denying the holocaust is a CRIMINAL OFFENCE yet drawing evil cartoons and making a mockery of the Prophets (pbuh) of Allah is freedom of speech.

      We are totally AGAINST freedom to offend / mock / disrespect people.

      • 2

        What good is any Religion if the followers can’t handle a little mocking? It means the that religion has failed and it should be mocked some more.
        I gave up religion, now I pity the fools.

    • 3

      Just because others don’t respect their religious leaders the same way we Muslims do, it does not mean Muslims must lower the bar to be on par with the rest. Pope Francis, widely acknowledged as one of the most progressive popes in recent times, appears to have joined the “condemn, but” brigade in the context of the Charlie Hebdo killings by so called Islamic fundamentalists in Paris.

      He seemed to suggest three things: that those offended have the right to respond, with violence, if need be, that freedom of speech has limits, and that religion or faith must not be attacked or insulted. The most widespread statement attributed to him. “If my good friend Doctor (Alberto) Gasparri (who organises the Pope’s trips and was standing beside him) speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot poke fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”

      So the worldwide head of the Catholic faith landed three papal punches in a few lines: one on freedom of speech, one (implicitly) justifying violence if provoked, and the third against those who harm faith of other having different set of beliefs.

      The French have special closeness and affinity towards Jews, and Israel asked all Jews living in France to return to their homeland in Israel, where they will be afforded the best protection. Even the Jews who died at the hands of Coolabalie’s hostage taking (all who killed were French citizens) were removed to Israel for burial.

      • 0

        In Israel they will be invited as ‘Honourable Guests’, and live a life as ‘Third Class Citizens’ like the Falashas, and the Assamese Bani Menashe.

  • 1

    It’s a concocted drama, a seasonal oil change for the hegemonic America & the Europeans. If you can read from the dramatized version of the events, Charlie Hebdo killers met their fate in a ‘Printing Press’. Apparently, the hostage takings too happended in ‘Carcher’ (what they always spell in English News as “Kocher” to paint it Semitic.

    (DYK: The word “Semitic” is related to Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic and other ancient languages such as Phoenician and Akkadian).

  • 3

    Terrorism/Jihardism/Government terror – call what you may, all this results in the same ending. See what happened in Sri Lanka. The Muslims were hounded by hate speeches, sporadic attacks island wide, inciting the majority against the minority etc etc. Provocation in full force. It was with the utmost difficulty that the young blood and the hardcore Muslims were kept at bay. With what? Peace. Peace and patience. Pray and only pray against the oppressors and nothing more. Do not retaliate that’s what the Muslims were told. Finally what happened? the oppressors, the inciters, the backers, the hate spreaders – all had to pay their price on the 8th of January. The Almighty has a way of turning round things though lots of people get hurt and killed in the process. Oppressors everywhere, just be patient do not retaliate. There is a D day for everything and everyone.

  • 1

    Very timely, and very much in the news is almost all of the Western nations.

    Freedom of speech is the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment. “Speech” is not limited to public speaking and is generally taken to include other forms of expression. The right is preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is granted formal recognition by the laws of most nations.

    Nonetheless the degree to which the right is upheld in practice varies greatly from one nation to another. In many nations, particularly those with relatively authoritarian forms of government, overt government censorship is enforced. Censorship has also been claimed to occur in other forms and there are different approaches to issues such as hate speech, obscenity, and defamation laws even in countries seen as liberal democracies.

    The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, provides in Article 19, that:

    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

    That said however, Freedom of speech and expression must be both protected and limited by a section in any country’s Bill of Rights, recommended as follows:

    (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes-

    (a) freedom of the press and other media;
    (b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
    (c) freedom of artistic creativity; and
    (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

    (2) The right in subsection (1) must not extend to-

    (a) propaganda for war;
    (b) incitement of imminent violence; or
    (c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion,
    and that which constitutes incitement to cause harm.

    In some countries such as in India, Freedom of Speech rights are limited so as not cause to affect:

    (1) The integrity of the country;
    (2) The security of the State;
    (3) Friendly relations with foreign States;
    (4) Public order;
    (5) Decency or morality;
    (6) Contempt of Court;
    (7) Defamation or an incitement to commit an offense

    In the French case of the Charlie Hebdo attack, they simply provoked the attacks onto themselves after several previous warnings and court cases. As pointed out correctly by this writer, they were out for some form of publicity to increase sales when they were on the verge of closing shop, and they got it, from 60,000 copies to 5 million with another provocative cartoon of the Prophet, but at what expense. Twelve of their Senior staff paid the ultimate price. This newspaper pokes fun at others to make money, but they went too far this time. They were the only newspaper in the whole of Europe to continue with carricatures of the Prophet, after the incident of the Danish cartoons first appeared.

  • 4

    In the US and some Western nations, one can put up anti Islamic posters, attack it’s Prophet, tarnish all Muslim with the same brush as the one used on extremists, draw insulting posters, and it is okay, and called freedom of speech.
    At the same time, if one criticizes Israel, speak of it’s atrocities against civilians, draw a cartoon of a man with a big nose watching Gaza being bombed, is a HUGE no-no, and there is no freedom of speech. The Western media dare not refer to the war crimes, or mention that Palestinians are dying daily because of the brutality of their armed forces, these issues not even being religious. Recently Jim Clancy had been let go after 34 years at CNN because he dared to tweet about Israeli agents to spread false propaganda in websites.

    Yes, there is free speech in Western nations, until it comes to Israel, then it becomes “anti-semitism” and criticism is silenced.

  • 2

    Freedom of speech is a great concept and one of the great privileges we enjoy in a democracy. But as has been said, it is not an absolute freedom. It is, to repeat a common saying, not the freedom of the wild ass.

    If I was living on a desert island, all by myself, I can express myself without any restraint whatever. It would not matter whether I said the most outrageous and irreverent and defamatory things about anyone or any religion or those whom people hold sacred, because there is no one (apart from myself) I will be capable of offending. The situation is different, however, when I live among other people and as part of society. Here, I must necessarily be mindful of the beliefs of others and their sensitivities when I exercise my freedom of speech. Good order is a vital ingredient of a good society and you cannot achieve that if people are allowed to gratuitously offend other people.

    There is little argument about the fact that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were offensive to a number of Muslims; indeed, even as a non-Muslim, I find them deeply offensive. I also find them in extremely poor taste and totally devoid of any artistic or positive merit. In my own mind, they should not have been published.

    I find it totally silly and inconsistent of those like the British PM, David Cameron, who joined the protests in Paris, ostensibly in defence of freedom of speech. I believe that the UK had legislation which makes racial vilification a punishable offence. If you call a black man a nigger, you’d probably find yourself in court. So, if it is not acceptable to offend people of other races, on the basis of their race, why should it not also be an offence to offend other people on the basis of their religious beliefs? What I find surprising is that conduct that offends the religious beliefs of people and lampoons and makes fun of the things they hold to be sacred, is not considered unacceptable and there are no laws to deal with such actions.

    There is then also the matter of the maintenance of the peace in the community. I seem to recall that people used to be hauled up before the courts for causing a breach of the peace or engaging in conduct that could reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace. Now, any reasonable man will know that the sort of cartoons that Charlie Bebdo published would undoubtedly cause immense distress and provoke anger among the Muslim community. Any reasonable man would also know that some Muslims would react violently, and that a breach of the peace was not just possible but probable. So, why should not Charlie Bebdo be held accountable for provoking that? (In saying this, I am not trying to justify the attack on the Charlie Bebdo offices and the killings there. That was outrageous and criminal – a clear and unjustified over-reaction)

    I am dismayed to see so called intellectuals and academics trying to defend Charile Bebdo on the basis of abstract and arcane arguments. These people cannot be living in the real world. Ordinary men and women don’t think like these fellows, they respond and react on the basis of ordinary feelings. They are hurt when the things they hold sacred are attacked.

    And, finally, what about being civilised? I cannot call myself civilised if I believe I can utter anything and everything regardless of whether that offends my friends (of other faiths) my neighbours or anyone else.

    I believe that our speech, like the sounds of Caliban’s Island, should ‘give delight and hurt not’.

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