Discussing freedom of expression, tolerance, and secularism

Discussing freedom of expression, tolerance, and secularism
Comment: President Macron's defence of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons raises important questions around secularism and free speech in a global climate of increasing intolerance, writes Dr. Azmi Bishara.
15 min read
01 Nov, 2020
Mockery of the prophets in the public sphere is only a provocation [Getty]
In these difficult times, it is hard to have a useful conversation about certain topics, especially in light of the inflammatory way in which politicians, playing the demagogue, exploit such topics as mere cliches and slogans in their speeches; which furthermore, in a public atmosphere fraught with emotion and tensions, only lends itself to the further spread of yet more demagoguery. Whether this is due to electoral competition between the centre-right and the far-right parties of France, or instead due to wider international struggles, particularly those around the Mediterranean - that small sea which simultaneously connects and separates Muslims from Europe - this is the context for any enquiry into such concepts as freedom of expression, diversity, secularism, and blasphemy at this current moment.

The murder of Samuel Paty on October 16 by Chechen migrant Abdullah Anzurov is not the first incident to spark this debate in an atmosphere which hinders meaningful dialogue. But it has taken on new dimensions this time due to the direct involvement of French President Emmanuel Macron in the matter, beginning with his speech on the 2nd of October, some two weeks before the murder took place; in it he referred to "a religion in crisis all over the world", in a misuse of terminology.

Such misuse occurred many times – he was acting the pontificating intellectual, as if this were a prerequisite of the French leadership. In truth he is like most politicians, attempting to master power games and seize opportunities.

In a bid to win votes against the far-right, Macron spoke carelessly, conflating criticisms of extremism with criticism of Islam and the crisis of certain Muslims with a crisis of Islam. Indeed, he addressed the people of France, but Muslims were listening at the same time, and they did not appreciate this juxtaposition, nor the arrogant preaching, nor his entire stance. He is the head of a state, and his job is not to evaluate Islam, nor Christianity, nor any religion. 

The complex relations around the Mediterranean have produced a phenomenon ever more common in recent decades: a passion for a distorted kind of secularism, for demonstrating freedom of expression by insulting the Prophet of Islam, or seeking fame by provoking others.

This obsession with the personality of the Arab Prophet, with slandering him or reporting ‘facts’ about him totally outside their cultural and historical context, has a long but marginal history in European culture – not so much a secularist history as one that built up over centuries of conflict and war. But in the context of social media and populist culture, these ideas are circulated far wider and faster than any misleading publication with limited readership ever could.

There is no doubt that freedom of expression is one of the pillars of liberal democracy, which is based on an acceptance of pluralism. Liberal theorists such as John Rawls trace the origins of pluralism – mistakenly, in my view – to religious tolerance and the lessons learned from religious wars. In fact, although this is the origin of the modern state and its willingness to accept a degree of religious pluralism, it is not the origin of true democratic pluralism.

Even if this is correct from the point of view of its historical origin, it is not based on the logic of present democracy (i.e. the logic of its self-justification and its self-reproduction), but rather on the same foundations upon which contemporary liberal democracy is based.

Macron's defence of freedom of expression is selective, and if only he would stop, because this supposed defence of democracy is in fact quite the opposite, for he is merely fighting political battles

Firstly, the moral equality between citizens as subjects capable of forming judgments about good and bad, and about their interests. Secondly, the right to participate in self-determination via free elections, which cannot be exercised without guaranteeing freedom of expression. Thirdly, the limiting of the arbitrariness of power, which is also not possible without freedom of expression and freedom of criticism, in addition to the main role of the mutual cooperation of the authorities.

In any case, regardless of the many opinions in this area, there is a difference between democratic pluralism, in its ideal form, and tolerance derived from a specific religious heritage. This is a topic which cannot be discussed without going into some detail, but we will see later an aspect of this distinction, which is that democratic pluralism is no substitute for tolerance, religious or otherwise, which consists not of merely respecting the opinions of others, but in respecting the dignity of others too, without the act of tolerance being imposed or prohibited by law.

Democratic pluralism not only tolerates pluralities of opinions, tastes, ideological trends, religions, and political parties, but also protects the right to public self-expression and considers itself neutral between all parties. But democracy is not due to its own principles, but liberal democracies place limits on freedom of expression, despite this neutrality. This often accounts for what is called defamation, that is false speech which unjustly inflicts harm and perceived offence upon others. I will not go into the definition of defamation here, as it differs between legal systems. Democracies also distinguish between permissible and prohibited when it comes to inciting violence or inciting murder. Some countries with a history of racial discrimination do not tolerate racial incitement; that is, making negative generalisations about an entire demographic group. Yet, this often does not include generalisations about Islam and Muslims.

In France, it is forbidden to express Holocaust denial by force of law. Intellectuals, and even researchers, were punished, not because they denied this terrible event, that was truly a crime against humanity, but because they dared to discuss the matter only. Most recently, Macron, in a speech on February 19, 2020 (in the Katsnayim Cemetery in eastern France), tried to equate between hostility to Zionism and anti-Semitism as a prelude to delegitimising the legitimate concern that many Jews have against a colonial nationalist movement that engages in racist practices, and which colonized and depopulated the inhabitants of Palestine.

Macron's defence of freedom of expression is selective, and if only he would stop, because this supposed defence of democracy is in fact quite the opposite, for he is merely fighting political battles. This is clearly visible in foreign relations, as the French president played the role of an analyst for the dictator Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and acted as a bridge for him to Europe. Macron can claim that his mission is to defend democracy in France, yet this is not the case in Egypt, so his enthusiasm to grant international legitimacy to a dictator who suppresses any dissenting voice does not indicate a keen interest in freedom of expression in Muslim societies.

Democratic pluralism not only tolerates pluralities of opinions, tastes, ideological trends, religions, and political parties, but also protects the right to public self-expression and considers itself neutral between all parties

There are limits to freedom of expression that are defined by French democracy. Different forces and currents of thought differ around these boundaries. Harming others' religious sanctities is often possible in liberal democracies, which do not recognise the boundaries of harming feelings, because these are extremely difficult to define. Accusations of blasphemy may be used arbitrarily to prevent legitimate thoughts under the pretext of harming religious feelings. In any case, even if democracy does not prohibit insulting a prophet who is the founder of a religion followed by more than a billion and a half people, who revere and value him, and consider him a symbol of good conduct to be emulated, this attack is not an ordinary example of freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression may allow it in a liberal democracy, even though it affects the feelings of millions of its citizens, and many non-citizens, but only as an abhorred practice of extremists. It does not allocate public space for such abuse, which would equate acceptance and tolerance for it, resulting in normalisation. It is not an ordinary or accepted opinion; it is an opinion of a minority and it is treated as unacceptable. It is true that French democracy does not prevent blasphemy, but this does not relieve France of the responsibility to educate against this practice, and to treat it in the media as a negative phenomenon, alongside the justification for not preventing it under the pretext of avoiding the suppression of freedom, which can be expanded in the future.

However, this does not excuse taking pride in or enjoy blasphemous behaviour. For this is neither from secularism nor from the Enlightenment. The French Enlightenment, the ideas of which many of us will have studied, was not often hostile to religion itself, but rather was hostile to the religious establishment, its interference in politics and its overlap with the monarchy. It was against the clergy who spread myths to control the minds of the peasantry, according to the philosophers of the eighteenth century. However, the direct anti-religious movement was marginal in the enlightenment movement, and it did not adopt mockery of Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad. Discussion of religion, beliefs, religious people, and the clergy is one of the foundations of the Enlightenment movement and its critical and rational approach.

The direct anti-religious movement was marginal in the enlightenment movement, and it did not adopt mockery of Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad

Mockery of the prophets in the public sphere is only a provocation. In addition to that, the intended provocation may be considered acceptable in art and literature in a particular country's culture, but in this case, literary and artistic works often ridicule the sanctities of their own culture, whereas the mockery of the sanctities of others, and the imposing of acceptable and unacceptable standards of one culture upon another culture, can provoke sensitivities because they clash with the issues of identity, dignity, and so on, especially when the historical relationship between people of two different cultures is a complex one which includes a past of mobile relationships between power and superiority.

Those who I am asking to show understanding in these matters have the right to expect that the followers of the culture they must respect will also show respect for other religions – that insulting them from the pulpits will be unacceptable. This is one of many forms of tolerance. It is, in my opinion, a different matter from pluralism and freedom of expression. Tolerance sometimes requires that a person must not always express, but rather to withhold his expression without being forced by anyone, even if the principle of freedom of expression does allow such speech.

Furthermore, even though secularism took an extreme and inflexible form in France after the Third Republic, in terms of its position on the emergence of religion and its role in the public sphere, it shares a fundamental characteristic with the rest of secularism. That is the refusal by the state and its institutions to impose a specific religion, or to impose a certain belief or its statutes, as well as forbidding the state's interference in matters of belief, and everything related to conscience. The essence of the state’s secularism is its neutrality in religious matters.

In France there is a debate about whether religion should be allowed to appear in the public sphere. For me the answer is clearly that they should be allowed – it is, at the very least, a form of freedom of expression, and because to prevent it would be a contradiction of the values of secularism. Otherwise, secularism becomes an ideology imposed from above by the state, as an alternative to religion. Religion cannot be prohibited in the public sphere, and it is not just to do so. Most democratic countries do not do this, but still manage to prohibit the use of religion by political organisations to intimidate and shame those deemed irreligious, or to impose religious conduct upon them. The state must be strengthened and neutralised against both the imposition of certain religious ideas and also the prohibition of other religions or beliefs. The religious movements and sects that disagree with this position are already anti-democratic movements, and they demand of democracy that which it cannot accept in principle. However, this is another topic, and the majority of Muslims are integrated into the life of the democratic countries to which they have emigrated: the devout among them practise their religion, and they work and contribute to the societies in which they live, living their earthly existence as do all others.

French democracy and other democracies have the right, and indeed the duty of any state, to defend and protect society from those who commit criminal acts in the name of religion or any secular or religious ideology. Researchers may conclude that extremist groups who commit crimes against civilians in the name of religion are in crisis, or that their societies are in crisis. But it is not the job of a head of state to determine if Islam, Judaism or Christianity is in crisis. I do not remember any Muslim head of state, regardless of the nature of his regime, stating in a speech that Confucianism is in crisis because of the crimes committed in China against the Uyghurs; that Buddhism is in crisis after it was proven that a policy of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity was being pursued against the Rohingya; or that Judaism is in crisis as a result of practices in Palestine carried out by Israel in the name of the Jewish religion based upon biblical promises. What would people say if the Palestinians and Arabs, and specifically government officials among them, attacked Judaism or the Torah, verses from which are used to justify the oppression of the Palestinians? The logic of the French president’s behaviour when he spoke of a crisis in Islam was not a secular logic. Muslim societies may experience a crisis, even crises, like other societies, but this is not a justification for a head of state to diagnose the condition of Islam. 

French democracy and other democracies have the right, and indeed the duty of any state, to defend and protect society from those who commit criminal acts in the name of religion or any secular or religious ideology

Islam is a world religion, followed by more than a billion and half people, and represents a very diverse civilisation. It is simply not right for a head of state to try and win the votes of the extreme right by targeting it in such a superficial and generalising speech.

There is no doubt that the murder of teacher Samuel Paty was a heinous crime. In fact, we do not know much about his ideas, nor why he wanted to present this example of freedom of speech to his students, but his murder remains a crime and must be condemned, not timidly, and without a "but". The disclaimer of "but" is often followed by justifications for the crime. The conditions of Muslims anywhere in the world and what they are going through are not responsible for the behaviour of the young man who decided to kill this teacher. It is not permissible to justify a killing by what Muslims are subjected to in other places in the world or in other times. A young man's background, social conditions, and ideas can be studied, but he alone is responsible for his crime as long as he is conscious of what he did and is not unconscious. He did not consult the "Muslims" about what he had done, and "Islam" was not responsible for it. Islam is definitely innocent. 

The response to speech is to speak, and to mockery one should respond with mockery, whether in the public or private sphere. Some of those confident in their beliefs may even choose to simply not respond, as not all words deserve a response, and it is my view that even those caricatures of the prophet of Islam which were printed in a Danish newspaper need not occupy a whole society. The prophet deserves a defence, but the painter does not deserve demonstrations. There are many other reasons for protesting in the Islamic world other than pictures drawn by an unknown painter (I will not mention his name). Without these demonstrations, no one outside of his immediate readership would ever have known his name. Meaning that, those who commit such acts as to disrespect the sanctities of religion, do not deserve the crowds and attention, but rather, they deserve merely to be ignored. This is how the people of a stable civilisation should behave if they are truly confident in their own identities. Rather than to respond to an obsessive provocateur by taking to the streets in their thousands and turning him into a "star".

We may remember the hysterical American preacher, who I shall also not name, who threatened to burn the Qur’an, provoking a media sit-in front of his house, seemingly awaiting the act itself. But crucially, it is the duty of the government of a given state to educate against and denounce these acts, just as it is its duty to educate against and condemn racism as opposed to merely pointing out that it is freedom of expression. It is not true that a democratic state is neutral in everything related to freedom of expression, if such freedom is even available.

The murder of teacher Samuel Paty was a heinous crime that must be condemned, not timidly, and without a 'but'

However, what was said after the heinous murder of Samuel Paty went beyond neutrality. He exploited solidarity with the victim to display the offensive images as a template for and to enshrine free expression. In a malicious move, the inflammatory pictures migrated from a closed classroom to the walls of government buildings. Regardless of the intentions, the result of this stunt was to transform such images from an anomaly into something normalised; which enraged the entire Islamic world.

Surely even proud secularists must be able to understand that the foundational symbols of religion represent the basis of civilisational identity for religious and even non-religious throughout the world, and the vast majority of these do not condone extremism, nor murder in response to offensive speech, condemnation of others, or political violence in general.

However, they cannot comprehend the premeditated insult of their sacred religious symbols and consider this a deliberate attack upon their dignity. Surely even those of limited intelligence must realise that to broadcast this form of "expression" upon the walls of government buildings will unleash a series of actions and responses which cannot lead to any good. It is imperative to break this cycle of evil as quickly as possible.

Dr Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer.

Follow him on Twitter: @AzmiBishara

The original Arabic article can be found here.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.