Why France’s Free Speech Defense of Charlie Hebdo is Untenable

freedomofspeechBecause people judge before reading, let me start by saying that I do not condone the terrible acts of violence perpetuated against Charlie Hebdo. The teachings of Islam do not support or justify such actions. There are numerous versus in the Quran in which Allah command Muhammad to withstand ridicule and what others say against him. Allah clearly states that he will punish them, and Islam prescribes no human punishment for expressions of opinions which mock the Prophet and Islam. The Hadith also contain many traditions expressing Islam’s protection of peoples’ rights to fully express themselves, and many traditions which command Muslims to be kind in their responses to hateful speech and to restrain from violence. When it comes to speech Islam prohibits only slanderous speech and blasphemy. The blasphemy prohibition is only applicable to Muslims under Shari’ah and nobody else. But, the purpose of this post is not to explain Islam’s view on freedom of speech. You can read the Quran and Hadith for yourself. As a Muslim, I have always condemned all Muslim violence and terrorism committed against anyone, and I invite other Muslims to do the same.

That all being said, this post is intended to comment on the hypocrisy in the discourse around this tragedy. The media, and Western governments, paint a picture of Europe as a bastion of freedom of speech and expression which is being opposed by the restrictive religion of Islam. While terrorist acts committed by Muslims reinforce this narrative, it is actually far from the truth. France is one of the most restrictive societies in the world when it comes to freedom of religious expression. Religious symbols, included the Hijab, are forbidden to be displayed in public. There are restrictions around practice of religion in public and expressions of one’s personal beliefs. Denying the holocaust is forbidden in many countries in Europe, and the EU is the first body in the world to adopt a right to be forgotten which restricts digital freedom of speech. The justification for all these restrictions is that such speech is harmful to people. Religious expression in public incites dissent and tension among people. It has no place in the public sphere. Yet, somehow, completely obscene cartoons intended only to insult particular religions have a protected place in the public discourse. Expression protections in Europe are incredibly hypocritical. They are informed by each country’s history, and often at the arbitrary preferences of the government. Either freedom of speech is absolute or not. A country cannot restrict people’s freedoms with one justification and allow others to express their opinions when the same justification applies.

I don’t necessarily know what types of speech should be protected and what shouldn’t. I don’t know that any country in the world has come up with a system that works for everyone, nor do I know if such a system could exist. But the point is that any policy has to be fair and consistent. Condemning religious expression as hateful while protecting obviously hateful media expression is not consistent. It is a hypocritical policy. The narrative sounds great, and it sells news. It light a fire in people because they cling to the mantra of freedom of speech. I invite you to distance yourself from the narrative you find in the media and examine the truth before making judgments.

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