Je suis Charlie.
This statement would have meant nothing to anyone not called Charlie until recently. Indeed, few in this country would ever have heard of Charlie Hebdo. Yet now the French satirical magazine stands at the centre of a growing debate on where the limits to the right of freedom of speech should stand.
And the Charlie Hebdo affair may yet come to a court somewhere. The Saudi Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is reportedly planning to sue the magazine following its publication of a front cover depicting the Prophet Mohamed.
There are, of course, already limits to freedom of speech. Not just the theoretical one about refraining from shouting fire in a crowded theatre either. Libel and slander laws limit what can be said or written about another person. The Official Secrets Act bans the passing of classified or sensitive materials. Obscenity laws outlaw the use of certain words or phrases. And hate speech, such as racism or sexism, is illegal too.
But what about speech that may be legal yet others may find offensive? That’s the heart of the current issue: should a cartoon be banned if some find it offensive? Or does the right to freedom of speech take precedence?
Freedom of religious belief and practice, or of the absence of religious belief, are fundamentals in free societies. Anyone can choose to believe whatever they want, whether others agree with it or not. Worship a single god or multiple deities. Believe that Adam and Eve populated the world or that we were all brought to earth on a fleet of alien spaceships. Argue that the world is flat or a large disc resting on the backs of four giant elephants supported by a giant turtle. That’s your right.
(OK, that last one comes from Terry Pratchett’s books rather than a religion, but you get my drift …)
But no idea or belief system should stand above criticism. Freedom of expression is also a basic right. And so all opinions, ideologies and theologies, whether views are social, political or religious, can and should be challenged. The alternative is totalitarianism, where the rulers decide what is truth and no one dares to disagree.
Many, but not all, Muslims believe that showing a depiction of Mohammed is forbidden. That’s their right. And all followers of the particular parts of Islam with that belief will probably refrain. But surely the rest of us are not to be forced to follow the rules of one religion? Surely non Muslims have the right to make up our own minds?
This is the area where freedoms conflict and theoretical niceties can become complex in the shades of grey that exist in the real world. Where one freedom may be argued to conflict with another’s right.
Yet I would argue that taking away the right to offend would in fact curb and not widen religious freedom. Imagine if no religion was able to publish anything that another group of people might find offensive. Every area where there is a theological disagreement with any other religion would be off limits for a start. And would that leave anything at all that was uncontroversial enough to be published?
“Jesus isn’t the son of god, but he is a prophet,” says the Muslin, offending the Christian. ”Transubstantiation is symbolic not real,” says the Protestant offending the Roman Catholic. “There are no gods at all,” says the atheist, offending all of the theists.
Should these statements be banned because they might cause offence to some? Well, if you start banning cartoons like the Charlie Hebdo one then that’s where you end up. Any statement that might offend followers of any religion would be censored.
Freedom of speech is a right we take for granted here in the UK. We should think ourselves lucky because it doesn’t exist in every society. Look what happened to the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – flogged for daring to challenge the religious leaders in his country.
And so we should think very carefully before we set any more limits on what can be said or published.