15 January 2015, The Tablet

The Pope and I agree – freedom of speech needs limits

by Mustafa Baig

"One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith," Pope Francis said today. He condemned killing in the name of religion and said religious liberty and liberty of expression were "fundamental human rights." But he added: "There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity."

I agree – people need to be aware of the sensibilities of others, including of their religious beliefs. Informed critical discourse is one thing but outright ridicule and vulgarity is another.

After Charlie Hebdo attacks in ParisIt is easy to see the attacks in Paris as terrorist Muslims killing non-Muslims in the name of Islam, or Muslims acting violently to curtail freedom of speech. But many European Muslims are asking: why is such unabated “freedom” allowed to contribute to their demonisation?

Two European Parliament resolutions stress that freedom of expression must be exercised within the limits of the law, and should coexist with personal responsibility and respect for human rights, religious feelings and beliefs.

If cartoons or stories that failed to do this were made about Jews, blacks or homosexuals, they would never be tolerated. The French comedian Dieudonné is facing trial for comments on Facebook appearing to sympathise with one of the attackers. A Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, Siné, was fired in 2008 after he was accused of anti-Semitism. Limits on freedom of speech are routinely drawn, even in France.

The issue for many Muslims goes beyond tolerating criticism – it is about vulgar depictions of their prophet. Isn’t satire supposed to attack the powerful and hold them to account? Who benefits if the powerful mock the beliefs of minorities? While Muslim leaders condemned the Charlie Hebdo murders, they also see that the magazine’s content is inflammatory.

At times like these, imams come under pressure to condemn terrorist acts and do what they can to prevent Muslims, especially youth, from turning towards violent extremism. They often cite three problems that increase the lure of radical ideology: Islamophobia in the West, foreign wars in Muslim countries (most notably the Iraq War) and unfettered support for Israel.

Unjust policies or a failure to address these issues makes the work of imams and mainstream Muslim organisations more difficult, and makes it easier for radical groups to find recruits. Mainstream imams continue to promote legal, diplomatic and other non-violent means to tackle these issues. So the UK Government voting against the recent UN resolution to end the Israeli occupation effectively gave a boost to the extremists’ slogan that violence is the only answer and peaceful diplomatic means are fruitless.

While most Muslims feel angry about these issues, only a tiny minority will carry out violence or join extremist groups.

However, Muslim anger has another dimension in France. Many French Muslims feel alienated and disenfranchised, and complain of institutional racism. France’s aggressive secularism (laïcité) that seeks to relegate religion to its most private level, rankles with those who see religion as their most important identity. A shared narrative that incorporates and values the diversity and identity of all of France’s inhabitants is clearly missing.

In addition, there’s the question of context: French colonialism in North Africa, especially Algeria – where two of the gunmen’s family was from – and the Algerian war of independence, in which 1.5 million Arab Muslims were killed. I would also argue for journalists better to trace and explain the different doctrinal strands in Islam that might motivate such violence, and the personal background of individuals. The dots are seldom joined.

Neither is it often articulated that incomparably more Muslims have been killed than non-Muslims by Islamist groups, a fact that challenges those who see terrorism as a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West, a theory perpetuated by constant negativity and “othering” of Muslims by the media.

The Paris attacks will further contribute to a stereotype of Muslims as violent and threatening. Anti-Muslim reprisals and protests have already begun, and right-wing groups and political parties have turned up anti-Muslim rhetoric (and it is unlikely that these attacks will make the headlines). Politicians and the media need to be mindful of the potential consequences of the language they use. An “us versus them” narrative is driven by both extremist Muslim fringes and malicious media reporting.

The point is that there are major concerns for all: for Muslims, Jews and rest of the European population, and indeed the wider world. Hence these common issues require collective solutions.

Dr Mustafa Baig is a research fellow on the Islamic Reformulations programme at Exeter University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, and co-chair of the International Abrahamic Forum

What do you think?


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User comments (15)

Comment by: Mary
Posted: 24/01/2015 03:38:44

Excuse me, I do not mean to offend, just expressing my opinion.. But, if someone doesn't like the system of the country they live in, they can leave. 
It is also interesting that Muslims are fleeing their countries in their tens of thousands and going to the West. Western democracry and secularism Which appears to be incompatible with Islam. Go figure. I do worry about the future of the world. What with radicalisation rearing its ugly head.
Conversely, Jews are leaving France/Europe because life is not safe with the rise of anti Semitism. If they don't like it, they leave.

Comment by: Hugh Oxford
Posted: 21/01/2015 11:07:44

This is nonsensical. It may offend Muslims to draw pictures of Mohammed, but it doesn't incite hatred against them. They do that by responding violently. When they say that drawing pictures of Mohammed incites violence against them, they just look like idiots.

Oh,and it's not news that Muslims kill other Muslims. I just don't know why we should have to get involved, or why it should concern us.

Comment by: Hugh
Posted: 20/01/2015 23:39:59

Succinct and comprehensive rebuttal, Bob. Will Dr Baig respond?

Comment by: bob vian
Posted: 19/01/2015 10:47:10

I find this article offensive. I don't need to give a reason. I am simply very offended by it, which is be sufficient to have it withdrawn.

Comment by: Hugh
Posted: 18/01/2015 19:42:56

In this case nearly everybody refrains from offending religious sensibilities, but that has not been enough. The Muslim anger described by Dr Baig can clearly be avoided only by universal restraint - in other words it would take either an unconstitutional legal prohibition or, as has indeed happened, exemplary retribution ...


France worked with others to elevate secular respect for truth and for equality under law, and she did so in the face of determined religious opposition. That's a fight we may need to have again if people in numbers are going to claim access to revealed superior values. There are no superior values. I value everybody's right to believe what they like. What some like to believe is that this value of mine should be suppressed, and they weigh murder with blasphemy when their co-religionists are found to press the point with kalashnikovs. Where does that take us? To war, I think, and not one of our making. Will Dr Baig help his community address this paradox and its associated danger? Inaction sets an existential trap for Western society. We have to fight this repudiation of our values. The alternative is subjugation - indexes of banned books, executions and lashings for blasphemy. We can't go there.


Comment by: Hugh
Posted: 18/01/2015 19:41:33

Exactly so, Jill. My own faith in enlightenment values and considerate social behaviour also attracts mockery and insult. I don't like it but I lump it, because one of those values is the freedom to scrutinise other people's professions of opinion and belief. I can't consistently claim that right only for myself!

I've no wish to give offence to anyone but I can't give guarantees. Remember we're talking about the claim that images, even innocuous images, of somebody's prophet should not be published, even in societies where that is neither the law nor the consensus view. Democracy is about achieving and accepting consensus on what laws we'll have. It;s also about respecting the rights of everybody to behave as they please within the law even when that behaviour is calculated to offend.

In this case nearly everybody refrains from offending religious sensibilities, but that has not been enough. The Muslim anger described by Dr Baig can clearly be avoided only by universal restraint - in other words it would take either an unconstitutional legal prohibition or, as has indeed happened, exemplary retribution.

(para to follow)

Comment by: raybnyc
Posted: 18/01/2015 15:07:32

The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states that "[e]veryone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice". Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals"

Comment by: Dom
Posted: 18/01/2015 08:59:38

Thank you for your interesting article. I regret your argument is not very convincing. Charlie Hedbo is a cartoon magazine and I doubt the average person takes its “insults” that seriously. If you do a web search for their previous covers you will find that they don’t seem to spare anyone including the Pope and Jesus. But we did not see Christians going into their offices and shooting everyone.

Putting conditions on the freedom of expression is just a slippery road to autocracy. Today it’s cartoons; tomorrow it could be something else that someone finds offensive. A diversity of views is essential for a well functioning democracy as is the tolerance of a diversity of views, no matter how offensive. As it is, there is a lot of self-censorship going on. I understand that British newspapers have been going through a ridiculous debate about whether or not to carry the cover of Charlie Hedbo in their papers – it really does not matter since it’s all over the web anyways.

Answering verbal abuse with violence is not the answer and in fact this is not condoned in democratic countries. So with all due respect to the Holy Father, if he punched someone because they insulted his mother; in the first instance the law would go after Papa Francesco for assault ...

Comment by: Peterhousehold
Posted: 17/01/2015 20:57:43

Is it ok to make fun of socialism? If so how is that ok but not making fun of religion? I don't as it happens make fun of religion but this is through my own choice. The article gives persuasive reasons for not making fun of Islam in France, but do those same reasons apply to Catholicism in France, or indeed to Islam in Saudi Arabia?

Comment by: kautilya17
Posted: 17/01/2015 20:39:13

Who torments a reptile risking his own safety is a just an brainless clown, but when he does it provoking life of the inocent is commiting a crime.

Comment by: Bernard
Posted: 16/01/2015 20:13:22

Is it not orthodox Catholics who are now subject to the most virulent attacks by P.C. liberalism?
If we oppose abortion we are labelled 'anti-democratic' - oppose gay marriage and we are labelled 'homophobes'.
The words 'right-wing' and 'Catholic' are used are presently hurled as huge insults.
In common, Christians recite the Lord' Prayer, which includes the petition that God's 'will be done on earth as it is in heaven'. Sadly most Christian politicians and Christian electors, when voting now follow the party line, instead of following through on the actual meaning of the words they say publically in church, and privately. If the orthodox Catholics say this is hypocrisy, then we are told we are 'narrow-minded bigots'

Comment by: Charlie S
Posted: 16/01/2015 16:38:43

I imagine the UK is pretty much like the US in "self-censoring" offensive words and actions. Some like to refer to that as being "politically correct"
We don't use –
the "N" word (don't even spell it out)
we avoid calling Italians "D...os"
or Mexicans "Sp...cs"
etc. etc.

One of our Congressmen is under fire for giving a speech at a David Duke (KKK leader) rally.

Bishops rather routinely prohibit people from speaking at a Catholic venue in their Diocese. Most recent was trying to get a Norbitine College from alowing Gloria Steinham to speak. Sometimes they prohibit even respected Catholic Theologians who the bishop disagres with.

Censorship and self censorship is just something that is done all the time.

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 16/01/2015 13:22:09

Thank you for this very helpful blog.

My own fear is that so many who have flocked to the Charlie slogan are being counted as proponents of a free speech that is limitless regardless of the intended or not intended hurt it causes others. I doubt if these proponents would argue in favour of institutional bullying yet that is what they are prepared to accept as a price for their unlimited freedom of expression without responsibility.

Last weekend in Ireland's Sunday Independent Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey wrote an article entitled "Harassment is not comedy, so stop targeting our First Citizen...Lampooning of our President is nothing short of toxic bullying." This article really made me sit up and examine my own conscience about the way I have laughed as I listened to a barrage of toxic bullying.

I believe that Charlie encouraged a form of toxic bullying of Muslims and many others besides. None of this deserves to be punished by death, which we all totally deplore.

Perhaps Pope Francis has taught us that we have every right to feel aggrieved and upset when those dear to us are lampooned and ridiculed. In. Ireland those of us who question the notion of Same Sex Marriage are bullied by name calling of a vicious kind.

What we need is RESPECT, RESPECT, RESPECT. As school principal in assemblies I stressed these words time and again and I stick by them today.

Comment by: Truth seeker
Posted: 15/01/2015 22:40:34

Excellent article by Dr Mustafa Baig. It seems there are double standards in operation when it involves Muslims and freedom of expression. There will always be limitations, if not, we will have a society that insults other religions and groups.

Comment by: Jill
Posted: 15/01/2015 20:47:24

Of course you can make fun of other faiths. Here's a hilarious Christian example:

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