On blasphemy and the Charlie Hebdo shootings

David Tollerton

I prefer my coincidences less gruesome. On Wednesday morning a group of my undergraduate students handed in essays focused on blasphemy, freedom of expression and social cohesion. Approximately one hour after the deadline, gunmen shot twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the reason widely held to be the magazine’s dissemination of cartoons depicting Muhammad. As I write this, media outlets across Europe are now exploring the same core issues that my students grappled with. Every lecturer likes to feel that their subject area has contemporary relevance, but the extremity and violence of recent events renders such sentiment profoundly uncomfortable.

Some commentators have stressed that the Charlie Hebdo shootings should be viewed as unprecedented. Amidst the outpourings of reflection and emotion that have followed the event, I imagine a few of my students might wish they could re-edit their essays in light of what has happened. But I suggest here that immediate re-evaluation is troublesome. The fixed points and ambiguities are essentially no different now than they were prior to Wednesday morning’s violent acts. Murder was wrong then and it is now. The ethics of offence were complex and debatable before and they are complex and debatable now.

One core question is the following: is there ever a place for self-restraint when dealing with those things held sacred by some members of our community? After the Charlie Hebdo shootings our instinct is to cry out ‘No! We will not give in to what the killers want!’ But I wish to argue that the more thoroughgoing defiance is to say instead ‘Who cares what they want! They’re murderous extremists’. The most difficult task is not protesting against the gunmen, but preventing them from shaping the agenda of debate.

That in principle we should never censor materials out of fear is clear. To suppress materials for such reasons only encourages more violence to be threatened. But there are other reasons why someone might argue in favour of self-censorship: basic politeness being the most straightforward. I have little interest in being polite to violent extremists, but frankly I do not meet them very often. Yet I do frequently meet non-violent, law-abiding religious people for whom reverence toward that which they deem sacred structures their daily lives and frames their core self-understandings.

Debate about what kind of public discourse we want in society should be between the non-violent members of our community. If, amidst the horror of recent events, we are able to somehow bracket out the opinions of extremists the questions about how we weigh up freedom of expression and social cohesion still lie in front of us. Here are three much-discussed possibilities:

1. Create legal barriers against publishing religiously offensive materials.

2. Leave aside legal measures but encourage a climate of self-restraint for the sake of social cohesion.

3. Encourage freedom of expression regardless of offence.

All three have problems. You do not have to spend long surveying the history of blasphemy laws to realise that they are impractical (how, in a court of law, do we define what is or is not offensive?) and can easily lead to oppression and resentment. A climate of voluntary restraint is also a slippery slope. In 2006, several major British newspapers declared that they could publish Danish cartoons of Muhammad, but had decided that they would not do so. Perhaps that argument works once, maybe twice, but if repeated over and again we could legitimately wonder whether a de facto climate of fear holds sway. For many people option 3 has profound appeal, and certainly vocal assertions of the right to free expression have dominated immediate responses to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. But to take that line requires a conscious acceptance that people are repeatedly going to seek out the weak spots of other members of society around them (namely, that which the latter deem sacred), and they will exploit these weak spots for all sorts of reasons, some commendable and others less so. They may do so to assert the principle of free speech, to critique aspects of doctrine and practice, to score political points, to diminish the standing of particular communities, as an outpouring of their own religious extremism, or maybe because it’s just fun to watch people’s discomfort.

Unless an era dawns in which we all belong to the same religion, or collectively agree to abandon religion altogether (neither scenario is currently looking likely), we’re going to have to make some sort of choice among the kind of options laid out above. Where do I personally stand on this? When pushed it’s a critical sympathy for option 3, moments of empathy for option 2, and little or no real time for option 1. The motivations underlying ‘blasphemous’ expressions may themselves be sometimes worthy of critique, but I venture that in the long run social cohesion is better served by giving free expression as much breathing room as we can possibly endure.

But as I face a stack of unmarked essays before me I have no idea what my students will have written. In truth I’m happiest when they vividly disagree with one another, and rarely do they disappoint. But my message to them right now is this: stand by whatever you handed in on Wednesday morning. Don’t let the murderers change your views.