Freedom of expression: With or without insult?
Do the cartoons published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo fall within the scope of freedom of expression? This is the critical question raised by the Paris massacre on Jan. 7, which serves as an opportunity for each of us to face up to the reality.
The front cover of the first edition of the magazine since last week’s attack is a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad, shedding a tear and holding up a sign saying “I am Charlie.”
The mainstream American and British newspapers did not reproduce this cover. The Guardian published the cartoon, but with the warning that it “contains an image that some may find offensive.” The Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, on the other hand, inflamed the discussion in Turkey by publishing excerpts from the last edition.
Now, we are all trying to find the answer to the following question: Does the religiously sacred constitute the boundary of freedom of expression?
This discussion has three main aspects. One of them is related to the West, the other one is related to the Islamic world, and the third to the relation between the two.
Let’s start with the Islamic world. Charlie Hebdo has mocked the sacred figures of not only Islam, but also of Judaism and Christianity. Yet it is only Muslims who have shown such a brutal reaction.
Therefore, the Paris massacre has forced Muslims to face the fact that they need to express their reaction via civil and legal means, rather than violence. Today, the argument about whether Islam needs to go through a “reformation” is widely being raised.
Jan. 7 has also set off an important discussion within the West. The fact that mainstream American and British newspapers censored the last cover revealed a disagreement among Western societies. French President Francois Hollande has revived this issue by saying that “any anti-Muslim act must be severely punished, just like any anti-Semitic acts.”
Pope Francis gave the same message on Thursday, saying that “there are limits to freedom of expression and one cannot make fun of faith.”
Voltaire, who is one of the most important figures of the French Enlightenment and the pioneer of liberalism, is well known for his work mocking and criticizing all religions, including Islam. Today, Western societies are revisiting Voltaire’s liberalism, despite having changed dramatically since the era of Voltaire, the 18th century. They have become multi-cultural and multi-religious, which brings the sensitivities of different faiths to the forefront. This is why the West is now trying to set up a new balance between these sensitivities and freedom of expression.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights has been the main reference point in this discussion, as it specifies the law enforcement in the event of any breach or abuse of freedom of expression. In previous cases against Charlie Hebdo, court rulings acknowledged, (by referring to Article 10 of the convention), that “the exercise of freedom of expression is not absolute; rather, such exercise entails duties and responsibilities and may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties provided for by law.” It is also added that “freedom of expression may be restricted if it is gratuitously offensive to others.”
The third discussion is taking place between the two worlds: The West and Islam. That the Paris massacre was executed by Muslims who were born and raised in France symbolizes the following fact: These two worlds have not been able to coexist at all. Now is time for setting up the new rules and a new base of a healthy coexistence. They have to form a new social contract by trying to understand each other and avoiding destructive rhetoric and action.
After all, this is the only antidote to extremism, which is aggressively spreading across the two worlds. German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined this fact on Thursday: “Islam now belongs to Germany. As chancellor I will protect the Muslims in our country. The best defense is to shake up the democratic principles of society.”
There are big questions ahead of us waiting to be answered. Their answers will be found only in time, by trial and error, and unfortunately after more suffering. Yet what matters most is the fact there is hope. The questions have already been raised.