Islam, Freedom of Speech, and the Right to Offend

This week the world watched as a three day drama played out in France that began when Islamic militants slaughtered twelve people during an attack on the offices of the Paris based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The magazine was well known for its satirical attacks on Christians, Jews, and French politicians, but had recently become a source of controversy for publishing cartoonish images of the Prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims viewed as both forbidden and offensive.


A partial video of the Paris attack showed a particularly brutal moment when a wounded French police officer (a Muslim, no less), lying on the sidewalk, begged for his life as a terrorist coolly walked over to him and shot him in the head before they made their escape. A massive French manhunt began immediately afterwards, during which a supporter of the attackers took hostages at a Kosher market and threatened to kill them all if the police did not back off. Ultimately, it all ended in the killing of three militants, who refused to give up, and an ongoing hunt for the wife and accomplice of the hostage taker at the kosher market. By the time the terrorists were done, they had claimed the lives of at least sixteen French victims.

This followed in the wake of well-publicized Islamist attacks in western nations against police officers in New York City, soldiers in Canada, and café patrons in Australia. Dozens of other terrorist attacks took place around the world during the time of the French crisis, including, most notably, the slaughter of over 2000 people by the Islamist group Boko Haram in a series of deadly attacks on a Nigerian city and surrounding towns. Although this was far deadlier than the events that took place in France, it received relatively little attention in western media. In part, the reason for this was due to the unique reasons for the attack on Charlie Hebdo. While the militants of Boko Haram are trying, like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to establish an Islamic caliphate, the attacks in Paris, more specifically, are seen as an attack on the western ideal of freedom of speech.

While modern western Christian have long had to endure insults to their faith, their reactions have overwhelmingly been non-violent. Perhaps the most provocative and well known of examples in recent history was the production of the “Piss Christ,” as it became known, in 1987. It was a picture of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine that won the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition, which was sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.


Reactions were heated as many Christian groups denounced not only the offense of the image, but more specifically the fact that the artist, Andres Serrano, had received $20,000 in funding from the taxpayer funded National Endowment for the Arts. By rewarding the artist taxpayer money, many U.S. Christians were particularly offended by the idea that they were paying for art that insulted their faith. Defenders of the arts responded with claims, among others, that freedom of expression was at stake in the controversy. At various times, when the piece was displayed in various settings in Europe, offended Christians tried to destroy or deface the image, but ultimately there were no riots or killings over the matter. Since then most later offenses to Christian sensibilities have seemingly paled in comparison.

The “Piss Christ” was about as bad as it got and if Christians could endure the controversies associated with it, without resorting to physical violence, then later events would not bring violent responses either. More recently, for example, the popular play “The Book of Mormon,” which ridicules the Mormon faith in an often vulgar way that many devout Mormons find deeply offensive, resulted in only a mild and good humored statement by Mormon leadership which declared, “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” Moreover, there were no Mormon bombings of theaters hosting the play or attempted killings of the play’s producers.


The generally peaceful reactions of Christians in the modern era are representative of their ability to integrate the Christian faith with Enlightenment era values, which prized free speech and expression, regardless of who it offends. In this post-Enlightenment Christian context, violent reactions to insults to the Christian faith in the West would overwhelmingly be seen as “unchristian.”

But what about Islam?

Although some are claiming that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo had nothing to do with the Islamic faith, modern Muslims have not typically responded as well as Christians to similar offenses to their faith. Historically, as well, Muslims have long been concerned about images of the Prophet Muhammad and often reacted violently in such cases. While no Qur’anic verse specifically and explicitly forbids images of Muhammad, there are verses that strongly discourage idolatry. These are confirmed by several passages from the Hadith (which claims to be an authoritative record of the sayings and actions of Muhammad) that explicitly forbid Muslims from creating images of human figures. Historically, Muslim rulers have overwhelmingly enforced such prohibitions, often through violence, with only a few historic exceptions and even then only in some parts of the Islamic world.

In many Islamic countries, perceived insults to the Prophet Muhammad or Islam are punishable by law. Recently, Saudi Arabian courts sentenced a man to 1000 public lashings for developing a blog was accused of insulting Islam. See

Yet while such actions insure that offenses to the Islamic faith are very limited in Islamic countries, Muslims living in a globalized world are hard pressed to insulate themselves from such slights in global news reporting and on the Internet. Perhaps representing this growing unease at their ability to control how the rest of the world depicts Islam and its prophet, in 2005 the Organization of the Islamic Conference held a summit with the heads of state from its 57 member countries. The summit sought to implement a ten-year program to protect “the true image and noble values of Islam.” It proposed doing so through having the United Nations adopt a resolution calling on nations around the world, Islamic or otherwise, to implement laws and punishments to deter hostile statements about or representations of Islam. This was not long before Danish embassies around the world were attacked in 2006, ironically, because a small circulation Danish Newspaper had associated the Prophet Muhammad with terrorist bombings and violence in a series of cartoons.


There has long been tension over freedom of speech or expression issues between Muslims and the modern west. Perhaps the best known of them all dates back to the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, which was seen as blaspheming Islam. The resulting outrage resulted in a fatwā calling for Rushdie’s death issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, on 14 February 1989. This led to several assassination attempts on Rushdie’s life and the killing of Hitoshi Igarashi, who was stabbed to death in 1991 for translating the book.


Another much publicized example was the murder of Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh, who was stabbed to death for his part in the making of the film Submission, which criticized the treatment of women in the Islamic world. More recently, the terrorist attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, which led to the deaths of four Americans including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were blamed on a youtube video seen as mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

Similar tensions came to a head in France this past week with the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. In 2006 the magazine had republished the Dutch cartoons, first putting it on the radar screen of Islamists who were angered by the move. In 2011 the offices of Charlie Hebdo were then fire bombed by Islamic militants, resulting in police protection. Unfortunately, that police protection would prove inadequate in defending the paper or their staff from the recent attack that resulted in the slaughter of twelve people associated with the magazine, including the officers there to protect them. In the immediate wake of the slaughter of the staff and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, as they began to make their escape, one of the militants shouted to people nearby that they were “avenging the Prophet.”

There have been many debates over the degree to which French Muslims are radicalized. According to a recent CNN report, as much as 60% of France’s prison population is (at least “culturally”) Muslim, even though Muslims only represent around 7% of the total French population. As a result, there is major concern that French prisons have become a vibrant recruiting ground for Islamists. While Islamists undoubtedly represent only a small percentage of French Muslims, the problem is that in a population of over five million Muslims, a small percentage still represents and enormous security threat. If just 2% of French Muslims sympathize with ISIS, for example, or other radical Muslim groups, then this represents a population of over 100,000 French Muslims that can provide moral and sometimes material support for those willing to act in violent ways on their beliefs, which is a nightmare scenario for both French and other western intelligence services.

Unfortunately, the number is probably higher than 2%.