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Charlie Hebdo and the Justification of Free Speech


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This article was first appeared on SpokaneFAVS on Jan. 17.

By Shannon Dunn

A number of thoughtful editorial pieces have been published since the killing of 17 persons in Paris by al-Qaida- affiliated militants. Some of these articles stressed the importance of distinguishing radical Islam from more moderate manifestations of Islam, and pieces that stress solidarity and unity across religious and ethnic groups. Importantly, some authors (see Gary Younge’s piece in the Guardian) called attention to the xenophobia faced by Muslims in France and elsewhere in Europe, as well as to the enduring psychological trauma caused by the war on terror and by the corresponding radical Islamist responses. Indeed, there is much work to be done to repair a fragile civic trust—both national and global in scope—that continues to be fractured by violence on many levels.

One thing to consider is the role rhetoric around freedom of speech has played in these recent events. The killings, and the global context of which they are a part, provide an opportunity to reflect critically on the uses of, and justifications for, free speech. Those who invoke the Western philosophical tradition in order to justify free expression often ignore a critical tension in their intellectual heritage which is generated by two competing moral-social commitments: autonomy of the individual, on the one hand, and the ideology of nationalism, on the other.

Autonomy entails recognizing the dignity inherent in all persons. According to 19th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant, autonomy includes the ability to make moral decisions for oneself, independent of what one desires and without the coercion of external authority. Kant privileged reason, arguing that religious traditions and institutions could no longer exert authority over the moral decision-making of individuals — instead, individuals had to make choices for themselves, following the autonomous moral law that applied universally to all persons, about the correct course of action.

Our valuing of free speech in the United States as a constitutional right reflects in part this Enlightenment commitment to autonomy. This is particularly evident in the way that we entrust the individual to make decisions and to express her convictions about what is morally right. Many European countries, like France, share this commitment to the individual’s right to express her views even if they conflict with the views expounded by external authorities (whether religious institutions or the secular state).

Thus, on the one hand, those who maintain they have a right to publish offensive speech — such as cartoons mocking religious figures — may legitimize their claims by appealing to an intellectual tradition in which the individual is free to make decisions about what is appropriate, and in which no external institutional body may be treated as holding unquestionable political and moral authority. Given the possibility of unjust, and/or untruthful political authority, free speech is necessary for the health of a democratic society.

The controversial cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo, and those published earlier by a Danish newspaper in 2006, indicate something beyond a desire to question powerful authorities and to encourage people to make their own decisions about morality and religion, however. In other words, it may be more difficult to justify the publication of such pieces as authentic expressions of moral autonomy.

This is where we must reckon with another intellectual inheritance in the West, that of Romanticism and one of its most enduring legacies, nationalism. Romantic theorists of the nineteenth century invested themselves in the study of language, civic community, and folk culture to correct the Enlightenment’s overemphasis on the rights of the individual.  With the creation of modern nations, European countries like France relied on ideas of a specific people, e.g., “The French,” in creating a collective identity that did not rely on prior religious or other pre-modern forms of identity and community.

Nationalism is not harmful in and of itself, but historically it has served the purposes of powerful political elites, both within the nation itself and increasingly, in a globalized world. Uncritical national allegiance can be an effective way of demarcating “us” and “them,” of designating insiders and outsiders. One need only think of Nazi Germany’s use of an imagined German folk culture in their quest for world power and the genocidal reality that accompanied it to understand the danger posed by nationalist ideology.

To the degree that the offensive cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo and the discourse they generate assert a dominant French or European identity in opposition to an imagined, caricatured Muslim collectivity in France, such cartoons appear to be in the service of nationalist ideology. This ideology privileges “Frenchness” (or “Westerness”) and associates it with symbols of freedom — freedom of speech in particular — and places itself into stark opposition with “Islam,” but a caricatured version of Islam that is opposed to various types of freedom such as religious freedom, freedom of speech. This creates a dualism: to be French/European is good/free; to be Muslim is bad/unfree.

This assertion of nationalist ideology is qualitatively distinct from the commitment to the autonomy of all human beings. Thus while the cartoons, and the offensive cartoons that came before them, have been labeled symbols of “freedom,” this freedom is not universal and it is, upon close examination, restricted to a particular identity. In both cases, the central identity at stake — that the cartoonists want to preserve and protect — is a European identity grounded in opposition to a Muslim immigrant identity.

Those who are committed to the protection and promotion of free expression should first attend carefully to the ways that autonomy has been frequently, and erroneously, confused with nationalist ideology in recent free speech rhetoric. To place an emphasis on autonomy in justifying free speech is to argue that no one should be hunted down and killed for the essays or books they write or the cartoons they draw. But as autonomy requires recognition of the full human dignity of all persons, it means we can and should criticize the use of freedom of speech to pursue questionable ends, such as the promotion of harmful nationalist ideologies. The events of the last week should strengthen our resolve to preserve the autonomy of all human beings, and not to use speech as a thin disguise for xenophobia, racism, and insecurity about national identity.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a discussion on Religion and Freedom of Speech at its next Coffee Talk at 10 a.m., March 7 at Indaba Coffee/The Book Parlor. Dunn is a panelist.


Shannon Dunn
Shannon Dunn
Shannon Dunn teaches in the area of religious ethics at Gonzaga University. Her special interests include religion and violence, gender and human rights, and comparative Islamic and Christian traditions.




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Nick Damscus
Nick Damscus
9 years ago


“””But as autonomy requires recognition of the full human dignity of all persons, it means we can and should criticize the use of freedom of speech to pursue questionable ends, such as the promotion of harmful nationalist ideologies. The events of the last week should strengthen our resolve to preserve the autonomy of all human beings, and not to use
speech as a thin disguise for xenophobia, racism, and insecurity about national identity.””

WOW…Insightful perception

Tom Schmidt
Tom Schmidt
8 years ago
Reply to  Nick Damscus

Yes. I.m not Charlie and thing they were bordering on shouting “Fire!!!!” in a crowdes theater. Insighting in that situation. But that’s the risk we must all face. Use better judgement and non-violent speech that honors us.

Eric Blauer
Eric Blauer
9 years ago

Islamic Caliphate pursuits represent the closest example of Nazi horror seen since WW2 not French or western values of freedom of speech.

Sharia as handled by caliphate pursuers represents the most dangerous version of nationalism based on a religious axis. Such a global religious vision unites extremists and moderate sympathizers.

The list of islamic countries where freedom of speech or worship is practiced on the streets speaks louder than your advocacy and charges of xenophobia, racism and national insecurity.

Tom Schmidt
Tom Schmidt
8 years ago
Reply to  Eric Blauer

Eric, that is not Islamic, but due to deeper cultural issues. In many ways we aren’t free, either. Just turn black and go to Ferguson.

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