“Defending free speech means defending knuckleheads and visionaries alike.” — David Carr, New York Times media commentator.
Human beings seem to have evolved into two species: the irreligious, who can thrive in a godless universe, and the religious, who cannot.
These differences are irreconcilable. Neither can prove the other wrong, so most of us manage a civil co-existence. But not religious terrorists. Consumed by grievance, they worship at the altar of cruelty and promise death to disbelievers.
In the Middle East, Islamic terrorists behead people on camera in pitiful attempts to project power they don’t possess. In Africa, they deploy 10-year-old girls as suicide bombers, and kidnap and enslave hundreds of schoolgirls to keep them ignorant. In Paris, they kill satirical cartoonists who depict forbidden images of Muhammad, all in the name of religion.
Before its cartoonists were massacred, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo printed 60,000 copies per issue. After the massacre, 5 million copies were published in 16 languages. Thanks to the terrorists’ ill-considered strategy, this previously marginal publication now has a global audience.
Is this an unalloyed victory for free speech? Or is it just flipping off Muslims, as their ensuing worldwide rioting suggests? Insulted people — particularly literalists who ascribe magical powers to symbols and view them as the actual things the symbols stand for — are unlikely to be enlightened by more insults.
Here’s what we’re up against: Building a snowman recently was forbidden as idolatry by an Islamic cleric in Saudi Arabia. In Israel, fundamentalist Jewish newspaper editors busied themselves erasing German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and other women from photos of world leaders marching, post-cartoonist massacre, arm-in-arm for free speech in Paris. Women, it seems, cannot be visible, even if verifiable reality must be symbolically altered.
Even the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Gerard Biard, berating editors who declined to republish the offending cartoons, succumbed to similarly confused, magical thinking when he demanded that other editors agree that a Charlie Hebdo cartoon is imbued with sacred powers: “It’s the symbol of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, of democracy and secularism … When they refuse to publish this cartoon, they blur out democracy.” Oh, dear. Aren’t the French supposed to be the masters of irony?
The terrorists claimed to be avenging forbidden depictions of the prophet Muhammad by the magazine, which to its credit exists to challenge over-reaching religious and political authority. The cartoonists quite rightly want religion out of political life. They protest French government speech limitations by printing deliberately provocative, blasphemous, scatological images of “holy” persons and politicians.
Their point is that free speech cannot be limited by concerns about who it offends. Right again. I may deplore their cartoons, but not their right to publish them.
Pope Francis disagrees. Free speech, said he, has limits. “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
Actually, Your Holiness, we can. The real question is: when, and how, should we?
The right to hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment to our constitution. It doesn’t require us to trouble ourselves about whether we affront anyone’s dignity, hurt someone’s feelings or insult religious beliefs. Speech can be stupid, counter-productive or evil; it’s still protected. If speech is to be free, this cannot be otherwise.
“However, hate-crime laws often redefine hateful expressions as a criminal act,” warns Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University. Oops. If hateful speech is constitutionally protected, why then are we prosecuting people for it? Hello? Just asking.
“One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion — that is, in the name of God,” added Pope Francis. Pity this man missed the crusades.
“Freedom cannot exist without obnoxious expressions of opinion, no matter who is offended,” says my former Seattle Post-Intelligencer colleague, Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist David Horsey on his website. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were “crudely drawn, crass and juvenile,” adds Horsey. But editor Stephane Charbonnier “kept publishing depictions of Muhammad mostly because people kept insisting he had no right to do it.”
Nowhere does the Koran call for punishment of blasphemy, but the Christian Bible does (Leviticus 24:16), writes Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria. He adds: “The idea that Islam requires that insults against the prophet Muhammad be met with violence is a creation of politicians and clerics to serve a political agenda.”
Laws against blasphemy languish on the books in many European countries, but France has no blasphemy laws. However, the slain cartoonists were resisting efforts “to redefine criticism of religion as hate speech or defamation,” says Turley.
That barbaric religious terrorism is being spawned in the Middle East, once so brilliantly in the vanguard of human learning, is an unspeakable tragedy. But it’s no surprise that it flourishes in failing societies ruled by ossified authoritarian regimes propped up by fundamentalist clerics hostile to secular education.
Meanwhile, the right to laugh, in print, at power remains a non-negotiable human right. Satire is a defense against religious and political authorities everywhere, who so rarely prove able to withstand the temptation to infantilize others.
All Americans are licensed to carry the weapon of free speech. We reserve the right to fire — and reprint cartoons — at will. But there’s a time for mockery and a time for silence. Legally free to speak, we’re never morally free of responsibility for what we’ve said.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.