Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as well as associated riots, threats, and fury in response to cartoons deemed to be insulting to the prophet, peace be unto him, a lot of nonsense has been talked. Many said the killings were terrible, but that the satirists had been insulting. The Pope deplored the violence but said if someone insulted his mother (and presumably by extrapolation, Holy Mother Church) he’d be inclined to punch them in the nose.
This was a popular caveat, but it is a very slippery slope. Yes, the satirists were insulting, but that’s their job. If they are advised not to be insulting or heterodox, then speech is no longer free and everyone will be forced to self-censor for the sake of amity. The Pope, whose church has a long bloody history of enforcing orthodoxy by inquisition, crusade and the like, may believe that’s a good idea, but most of the West professes to believe otherwise.
In practice we do not always live up to our ideals. In this country, and indeed in its government and on its school boards there are people who think speech should be free when they like it but regulated when they don’t. Such First Amendment deniers keep the ACLU busy.
Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about being marked for death because he chose to practice free speech, responded that there is no “but” in free speech. “Some believed speech should be free but should not upset anyone or go too far. Freedom is indivisible. You can’t slice it, otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo…But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”
Rushdie might have added explicitly what is implicit in his remarks. That the critics of Charlie Hebdo have the same right as its writers, that is, to speak their minds. The avenue for redress in a liberal society that embraces freedom of speech is to speak back. I state my opinion. You state yours. When you go beyond that to exchanging blows or gunfire you are not just a foe of the utterance itself but of free speech, Western values and the society built upon them.
Another bracingly tart and direct voice of reason was also heard on this issue, the mayor of the great Dutch port city of Rotterdam. He is Ahmed Aboutaleb who came to the Netherlands from Morocco at the age of fifteen. His fellow mayor, Boris Johnson of London, called Aboutaleb his hero for his remarks on the subject. I too am willing to nominate him for the pantheon of secular saints.
Given his high position, Aboutaleb has apparently assimilated successfully and has little patience for his fellow Muslims who are disaffected from the western culture they have chosen to inhabit. He said that “those who don’t appreciate the way of life in western civilization can fuck off.”
He went further suggesting that if you “do not like freedom you can pack your bags and leave. Vanish from the Netherlands if you cannot find your place here.” And he bemoaned the fact that people like himself who have embraced western values will be tarred with the terrorist brush. “All those well-meaning Muslims will be stared at.” And distrusted and marginalized and regarded as potentially disloyal.
The central absurdity of the entire episode is the apparent assumption behind the actions of the Muslim zealots, that they should be able to dictate what people say or write or think in France or Denmark or the United States or any other country not under the sway of an intolerant theocratic rule.
In Islamic countries the people may favor the idea of a religious thought police running free, flogging, torturing and beheading infidels, apostates and blasphemers. Visitors to barbarous paces must expect to encounter barbarous behavior and would be well-advised to respect the local mores or face the consequences. But Islamist bully boys can’t expect to export their zealotry. We don’t share their view and have constructed our society at immense cost and effort on a different set of values.
If the shoe were on the other foot, how would the Saudis or Iranians or Egyptians feel if sectarian death squads started killing anyone in their countries who said something nasty about Moses, Christ, Shiva or more to the point Madison, Jefferson or George Wyeth? They would probably feel these people were trying to impose their alien values where they aren’t welcome and doing so not through an exchange of views or the art of persuasion but by force. They’d regard such behavior as intolerable and they’d be right.