Cartoons and freedom of expression

This photo, taken on Oct. 20 during the “Marche Blanche” in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris, shows a sign reading, “I am Samuel. Long live freedom of expression” in solidarity after a teacher was beheaded for showing pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. His murder in a Paris suburb on Oct. 16 shocked the country and brought back memories of a wave of Islamist violence in 2015. Samuel Paty, 47, was attacked on Oct. 16 on his way home from the junior high school where he taught by 18-year-old Chechen man Abdullakh Anzorov, who was shot dead by police. Following the attack, tens of thousands of people took part in rallies countrywide to honour Paty and defend freedom of expression. (Bertrand Guay/Getty Images)

BERTRAND GUAY / AFP via Getty Images

Amongst so many bad happenings in the world, there is the horrendous recent killing of innocent individuals in France by someone who is “offended.” This person is a Muslim, and the offence to his sensibilities were the satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad republished recently in France. He is so offended that his solution is to indiscriminately murder innocent people.

The actions of this individual have had widespread negative repercussions for people in other countries and drawn condemnation from world leaders. Instead of sorrow at the killings in France of innocent individuals, many Muslims have demonstrated their own outrage at the insult to the Prophet. Little do they understand that their actions further damage the religion of Islam.

It is important to note that the murderer was a 21-year-old man who was a recent arrival from Tunisia and was not from France. As far as it is known, he acted alone, but President Macron of France further inflamed the situation by identifying the killings as an “Islamist terrorist attack.” He decided that the “Attack was against the value of freedom.”

The reaction of some Muslim leaders, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, only made matters worse. He condemns France and the president rather than calming people. Surprisingly, another conservative Muslim organization, the Muslim World League, stated that the “cartoons cannot hurt nor offend the Prophet for he is too great and holy to be offended.” Another group, the Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars said, “an insult to prophets cannot hurt them.”

It is worth remembering that a few years prior to the “Muhammad cartoon crisis” in 2005 and 2006, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten refused to publish drawings mocking Jesus Christ for fear of provoking an outcry among Danish Christians.

Does freedom of expression include the freedom to “offend?” Is this perspective shared in all cultures or is it only a western value? Do common courtesy and decency towards each other have a role in this discussion?

Freedom of expression is never absolute and has limits, such as any actions that incite hatred towards each other. One of the standards to limit freedom is based on some historical events. For example, one cannot deny the Holocaust.

But what about “decency” and “common courtesy” as standards of behaviour? A definition of a “civilized, decent” person is one who respects others and is therefore tolerant, gentle and courteous to others.

Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University professor, talks of freedom of speech in a world of diversity. His aim is to set some principles “on how we agree to disagree.”

He asks, “How to strike the balance between free speech and mutual respect in this mixed-up world both blessed and cursed with instant communication, so we can have civilized conflict in a world of neighbours?”

Who will lead this change? A major issue is that there are very few world leaders who are ethical and act with integrity. Their leadership demonstrates an overabundance of ego, arrogance and an inflated sense of their own abilities.

Keeping in mind one of the principles Ash sets out — that we should respect the individual believer but not necessarily the belief itself — what can we make of the cartoon’s uproar?

It is recognized that many European Muslims face pervasive racism and discrimination and are often treated with contempt by their fellow citizens. So, can we question the motivation to deliberately publish the cartoons that offends the sensitivities of their fellow citizens? Is this the best way of teaching Muslims the value of freedom of speech, and freedom to give offence?

Does freedom of expression include the freedom to “offend?” Is this perspective shared in all cultures or is it only a western value? Do common courtesy and decency towards each other have a role in this discussion?

In Canada, the press stated that they had the right to publish the cartoons but decided against this to show restraint and courtesy towards fellow citizens who were Muslims.

What do I feel and think as a Muslim? I do understand the feelings of hurt felt by other Muslims when disrespect is shown towards any prophets, but I try to follow the Qur’anic instructions given to the Prophet Muhammad: “Tell my servants that they should speak in the most kindly manner to those who do not share their beliefs.” And again: “Endure with patience, all that they who deny the truth may say, and do not grieve over them, and neither be distressed.”

A further note: As a brown Canadian, and the mother of a Canadian African son, I grapple with this complex issue of “accepting” being the recipient of someone’s offence. I strongly disagree with the adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Oh yes they will!

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