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Freedom to speak or freedom to insult?

Why don’t we start off with a couple of definitions?

Murder: the premeditated, unlawful taking of human life.

Freedom: the ability to do or say a thing without let or hindrance.

These are my personal definitions, not taken from a dictionary.


What took place in Paris, both in the magazine office and in the delicatessen, was murder. They were crimes. No matter what the provocation—perceived or actual—they were crimes. Interestingly, from my perspective at least, more fuss has been made over the murder of the journalists than over the murder of the people in the delicatessen. On the one hand perceived—in some quarters—defenders of the freedom of speech were ruthlessly gunned down and on the other hand some Jews were shot. Perhaps the Jews are thought of as ‘having it coming’ or deserving of it? I have my own opinion but this piece is about freedom of speech.


I am a fan of early twentieth century novels. Ripping yarns, that sort of thing. In my opinion nobody wrote them better than the authors of the Richard Hannay or Bulldog Drummond stories. There was an obscure author called Agatha Christie who could spin a decent yarn as well—perhaps you might have heard of her? The point is, some of the language used in those novels—language used in both polite and not so polite society at the time—would not pass muster today. Foreigners are spoken of disparagingly. People from the African continent are frequently referred to by a word beginning with ‘N’, Asians are partly defined by the colour of their skin and partly by their ophthalmic folds and yes, common stereotypes about Jews are frequently mentioned as well. The point is that none of the above are considered ‘suitable’ today and would not appear in print—or at least would not appear without much adverse comment. Today we are careful not to be either downright insulting or to use expressions which might give offense. We talk and write about learning difficulties, people with restricted mobility, ethnic minorities etc etc. We have become inclusive societies—respectful of peoples’ ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds—in theory, anyway. Depending on your point of view, this is either political correctness gone mad or finally coming to terms with the fact that no one group of people is better/smarter/worth more than any other. Does this stifle free speech? Not really. It certainly stifles the freedom to be gratuitously offensive. It makes people—some people—think about what they are about to say and in doing so makes them sometimes think about not only the form of words but also the ideas behind the words.


I rather liked the comment made by a Pakistan government minister on the radio. She—she was a she which in itself is a comment on some stereotypical opinions held about Muslim societies—condemned the events in Paris in forthright terms. This did not altogether suit the interviewer who pressed her on her opinion of freedom of speech whilst in the background a chanting mob could be heard. How could approving of people being murdered—as the mob/demonstrators were—equate with support for freedom of speech? They are free to express their opinions, was the reply. They are not free to kill people but they are enjoying the same freedom of speech as the journalists in Paris were. Point well-made and if it upsets some readers then compare your feelings of outrage at the murders with some Muslims’ feeling of outrage at the insult to their religion. All things being equal, if there had been no murders then if you had seen the cartoons in question, you might also have found them unnecessarily offensive.


There was another interview on the early-morning BBC that was interesting. A female Muslim doctor, working in the UK but a frequent visitor back to her—not mentioned by name but by inference a middle-eastern– home country. Interesting because she was saying very clearly ‘not in my name’ and interesting because here was another ‘bloody foreigner scrounging off the British taxpayer’—ah, hang on, isn’t she  yet another foreigner working in the NHS and helping it keep going? There goes another stereotype. She valued the personal freedom that living in this country gave her but said that in her home country things were improving for women. Her life was better than her mother’s and her mother’s had been better than her mother’s before her. All well and good, as was her assertion that all right thinking Muslims were horrified by the murders committed in the name of Islam.


I have no doubt that she is correct and that most Muslims do abhor crimes committed in the name of some warped interpretation of their religion. I empathise with her her when she said that family and friends had counselled her not to speak out but she felt that somebody had to. I quite take the point of the government minister who pointed out that freedom of speech works both ways. The trouble is, if all this is true and I am certain that it is, why are religious leaders not saying it loud and clear? In Niger churches have been burned during protests against the cartoons. Have any religious leaders in the Muslim world gone on record condemning that?


The above paragraph probably sums up what many people in the West think but I want to add this—the concept of freedom of speech is based on the notion that it is morally right to speak out against injustice, to shine a light into dark corners where perhaps some would prefer there to be no light. It might be a case of corruption in high places, it might be a cover-up of one sort or another—no matter what the subject, freedom of speech must be allowed so that those responsible can be held to account.

I am not so sure that that freedom of speech implies the right to insult a religion or culture. There are two debates that urgently need to take place before matters get out of hand. One in the Western liberal world and one in the Muslim world.





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