Skip to site content

How Do We Best Honor Our Right to Freedom of Speech?

The terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine came as yet another shocking example of the impact of Islamic fundamentalism on today’s world.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, that offends us justifies murder. Admittedly that is a Western value, but it is one we would defend at all costs.

Whether it’s New York, Bali, Nairobi, London, Mumbai, Boston, Sydney or any other location where attacks have taken place, nothing justifies the murder of innocent people.

But as I’ve watched the news, not for the first time, a deep unease has come over me.

In September 2012, after Charlie Hebdo published cartoons that were inflammatory and offensive to millions of Muslims, I wrote about the limits of freedom of speech.

I stand by what I wrote. Back then I believed innocent men and women would die because of their publications. What I didn’t anticipate was that the victims would be the publishers themselves.

I deplore that they have been killed and the world is a poorer place because evil has again manifested itself. They had the right to publish, but freedom of speech has limits.

Some of this is enshrined in law. I don’t have the right to be hateful, racist, sexist, libelous or homophobic. Nor can I disclose state secrets.

And apart from these legal limitations, there have to be self-imposed limitations. I can’t speak offensively to my next-door neighbor and expect them to remain friends, to be there when I need help, or for them to greet me cheerfully the following morning.

If I deliberately provoke my neighbor in ways that may not be illegal but are deeply offensive, and eventually they snap, is it not permissible to ask whether my actions were right?

Further, what kind of neighbor does that make me? Am I a shining example of someone building up my community?

More than once I have heard it said that these cartoons were aimed at satirizing radical Islam.

Maybe so, but they offended millions of “ordinary” Muslims too, many of whom cannot now say they are offensive because first they have to line up and be heard to condemn the killers.

If they even attempt to ask whether there are limits to free speech, they risk being branded as the enemy within.

Muslims are caught in “no man’s land” between allegiance to their faith, and their desire to live in Western society.

Of course they need to make accommodations for that, and they do. But is it not part of what it means to be a civilized society to do what we can to help them live here in peace.

The question I posed in 2012, and pose now in the wake of the Paris murders, is whether the freedom of speech that we claim we value is best honored simply by being offensive?

I would rather we use our freedom of speech to challenge the tyranny of all that condemns millions to poverty, that constructs systems embodying injustice that blight the lives of whole generations, that prevents multitudes of people from accessing medical care and education and the freedom to live in peace.

But too often we in the West are complicit in these injustices and so we look elsewhere for easier targets.

We are living in a generation when a cancerous corruption of Islam has emerged in the guise of fundamentalist or radical Islam.

I want no accommodation to this vile perversion of so-called faith that has shown itself capable of no more than depraved violence.

But I believe we have been handed a most wonderful gift – it’s called freedom of speech.

It’s ours. It’s yours. Here, take it. Use it. But use it well for it is truly a precious thing.

David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidKerrigan3.