A Friendly Reminder That French Secularism Is Not to Blame for Religious Terrorism

It all began with the murder of Samuel Paty, a French teacher who showed his students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, including those that inspired the 2015 terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Then, on October 29, the country suffered yet another terrorist attack when a 21-year-old Tunisian man stabbed and killed three people at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice. 

In pockets of the Islamic world, French President Emmanuel Macron has come under fire for his responses to the attacks. More specifically, his refusal to publicly denounce the cartoons has infuriated Muslims around the globe. Numerous Islamic nations are calling for a boycott of French goods, and protests have been breaking out in cities and countries all throughout the Middle East and Asia, including Jerusalem, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan went straight into victim-blaming mode when he characterized Macron’s defense of the cartoons as an “attack on Islam” and deliberate provocation against Muslims. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi echoed those remarks when he suggested that freedom of expression should not include the freedom to hurt the feelings of Muslims. 

Even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has insinuated that free speech may deserve some of the blame for the attacks in France. "We will always defend freedom of expression," he told reporters last Friday. "But freedom of expression is not without limits. We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.”

To call those comments troubling would be a bit of an understatement. Trudeau is implying, albeit unintentionally, that satirical depictions of revered religious figures may constitute harm against religious believers, lending credence to the idea that the Prophet Muhammad cartoons are at least partly to blame for France’s current predicament.

They are not, and Trudeau was wrong to suggest otherwise.

That being said, the scrutiny and criticism directed at Macron isn’t entirely unhealthy. Terrorism routinely provokes overreactions that threaten to undermine the rights of law-abiding citizens. Macron must keep this in mind as he seeks to protect both his people and his country’s secular values from the threat of radical Islam. Innocent French Muslims must be allowed to live their faith without fear of being persecuted by their own government. 

Freedom of religion is and should always be regarded as sacrosanct. No society can claim to cherish the liberty of its citizenry if it does not respect the right of the individual to live an authentically spiritual life. At the same time, freedom of expression is, or at least should be, regarded as no less sacrosanct than freedom of religion. Simply put, you cannot claim to support the latter if you don’t also support the former.

Now as an American, I believe that freedom of speech should include the right to express negative opinions about anything or anyone you want for any reason you can imagine—not because I necessarily agree with those opinions, mind you, but because I believe the power to censor offensive speech is a power too great to trust in the hands of any human being or human institution. I have however come to terms with the fact that many Europeans disagree with that conclusion. 

In many European nations, hate speech laws are explicitly meant to punish citizens for expressing hateful and bigoted views about people of different genders, sexual orientations, and ethnic identities. I believe such laws are ripe for abuse and should not exist, but I do at least understand the logic behind them. No one chooses to be gay or straight, black or white, or a man or woman. To hate someone for the immutable characteristics they possess is to hate them for that which is entirely out of their control, and such hatred has been appropriately stigmatized as utterly irrational and indicative of poor character.

Islam, on the other hand, is not an immutable characteristic. It is, like virtually every other religion in the world, a philosophy of ideas, and ideas must be considered fair game for every conceivable manner of criticism, from respectful academic analyses of their legitimacy to merciless mockery of their most ludicrous implications.

But we shouldn’t protect offensive speech, you say? Nonsense. If we were to remove legal protections for offensive speech, duplicitous actors from all walks of life would seize the opportunity to insincerely allege that any speech they don’t like or agree with is “offensive,” thereby opening the door to the prohibition of said speech. This isn’t a slippery slope we’re talking about here; it’s a steep, waterlogged mountainside full of jagged rocks and deadly sinkholes. 

Macron is right to steer his country away from that mountainside. If his critics believe some of his anti-terrorism strategies are hypocritical or excessive, they are free to challenge those strategies and perhaps even propose alternative solutions. If they believe that some of his rhetoric has been unnecessarily divisive, they can and should voice their objections to it and advise him to adopt a more moderate and respectful tone. But trying to paint his commitment to free expression as an affront to Muslims and an invitation for more violence and bloodshed is neither fair nor defensible. Cartoons did not kill Samuel Paty or the victims of the attack in Nice; religious terrorism did that, and it can’t be excused or legitimized by pointing to Macron’s spirited defense of the secular values upon which French society has been built. 

Macron certainly isn’t beyond reproach. His rhetoric has at times been questionable, and some of his proposals for combatting religious extremism may indeed prove unwise, ineffective, or even unethical. But on the issue of free expression specifically, he deserves immense credit for refusing to cede any ground to his critics. The right of the French people to communicate their thoughts and opinions about any religion, be it in the form of offensive satirical cartoons or through any other medium suited for the task, must be protected at all costs. 

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