France is now facing the prospect of a violent backlash following the publication of controversial Prophet Mohammed cartoons by the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo showing the Prophet Mohammed naked. Trying to head off a firestorm not only in the Muslim world but also within the large Muslim population living in France, French officials condemned the publication. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, for example, said that while he respects the right of free expression he sees “no point in such a provocation.”
Mindful of the violence against U.S. embassies and consulates which has swept the Muslim world in the wake of the anti-Muslim video produced in the United States, the French government is taking no chances. It will close twenty of its embassies in Muslim countries this Friday, in case the Friday prayers turn into an orgy of violence whipped up by fanatical imams.
The French magazine’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, told reporters that the pictures will “shock those who will want to be shocked.” He is deliberately poking a stick at a rattlesnake, not worried about the venomous consequences that will inevitably ensue. He should be worried in light of the fact that the Paris offices of his magazine were firebombed last year after it lampooned the Prophet Mohammed on its front page.
However, the increasing calls for restrictions on free speech as a result of such offensive cartoons or videos are far more offensive than the speech itself. To be sure, there are limits. Speech that clearly crosses over the line from permissible provocative expression to direct incitement to imminent violence can be restricted. But the exceptions to the inalienable right of individuals in a free society to express their point of view, no matter how offensive, must not be allowed to swallow the right itself. Emotional pain or hurt feelings are too subjective a standard to use in regulating speech.
No group can become the arbiter of what is or what is not acceptable speech based on whether it hurts their feelings or shows disrespect for their faith and beliefs. Their threat of violence if they don’t get their way would give them a “heckler’s veto.” Instead, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis advised, in one of his famous opinions back in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
The real danger coming out of the recent episodes of Prophet Mohammed caricatures is to give the Islamists more ammunition in their campaign to clamp down on speech they claim “defames” their religion and constitutes Islamophobia. They demand tolerance and respect for Islam, but in many countries with Muslim majorities there is no tolerance or respect for other faiths. In some cases, churches, synagogues, Hindu temples etc. cannot even operate openly.
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