There has been much controversy recently over a shooting at the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which published mocking cartoons of the Islamic Prophet Muhammed in 2006 and again in 2011. This led to an attack on the magazine’s offices in 2011, and, in January 2014, a shooting at the magazine’s offices which left twelve people dead. This has sparked worldwide sympathy for the magazine, which has been made into a martyr for “freedom of speech.” But this sympathy is very misguided. The cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo are severe acts of racial and religious vilification which were obviously intended to incite hatred of Muslims, and they would have been prosecuted as such in my home state of Victoria. By allowing those cartoons to be published, France ignored the obvious dangers of hate speech, violated international human rights law, and allowed this shooting to occur.
Freedom of speech always has limits. Nobody believes that racial vilification should be legal. Nobody believes that advocating violence should be legal. Nobody believes that harassment should be legal. Nobody believes that publicly approving of terrorism should be legal. Nobody believes that threatening people should be legal. Even the most dedicated, die-hard free speech zealots agree that all of these things should be against the law. Freedom of speech always has to be balanced against other freedoms, such as freedom from racial vilification. Everyone recognizes that freedom of speech is not absolute, and nobody is saying that it is. But the international response to Charlie Hebdo does not seem to take this into account.
Shortly after the Danish Muhammed cartoons were published in Jyllends-Posten, Amnesty International published a statement saying that the cartoons should be prosecuted since freedom of expression is not absolute, freedom of expression must always be used responsibly, and inciting racial or religious hatred is illegal under international human rights law. When Charlie Hebdo first published the Muhammed cartoons, they faced widespread international condemnation for inciting religious hatred and needlessly stirring up conflict. Many people stated that the cartoons would likely lead to violence, and the magazine’s offices were indeed attacked in 2011. But the reaction to this most recent attack has been very different.
Although a few people have, in the wake of the massacre, condemned the magazine for publishing the cartoons in the first place, the general consensus now seems to be that the magazine was in the right to publish those cartoons, and that inciting religious hatred against Muslims in this manner was somehow an act of “free speech.” This is in stark contrast to how the world reacted when Charlie Hebdo first published the Muhammed cartoons a few years ago. Why was it hate speech back then, but “free speech” after the massacre? Just because the people responsible for the cartoons were killed does not lend their cartoons any legitimacy.
Why do we outlaw racist hate speech? Because it constitutes an act of emotional violence, it directly leads to physical violence, and it damages social cohesion. Publishing cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammed also does all of these things, only on an even greater scale. So, if we ban racist hate speech, why should we not also ban disrespectful cartoons such as those found in Charlie Hebdo? No civilised country would allow people to call for the extermination of identifiable groups, or to refer to identifiable groups as being subhuman, so why should any civilised country allow people to denigrate the religious sentiments of others like this?
Absolutely nobody believes that neo-Nazis should be allowed to urge violence against Jews, gays, blacks, Muslims, etc. Saying “death to Jews,” for example, would be considered a direct incitement to violence. But publishing cartoons of Muhammed is actually much more likely to lead to violence than a neo-Nazi advocating violence. If Charlie Hebdo had printed cartoons that called for the genocide of Muslims, would anyone call it “free speech?” Of course not. Nobody thinks that advocating genocide is “free speech.” Likewise, France also has laws against things like Holocaust denial and insulting people. If exceptions for freedom of speech can be made for all of these things which harm society, then why can’t an exception be made for insulting the Prophet of Islam, which damages society to an even greater extent and creates a very real danger of physical violence? Publishing cartoons of this sort easily qualifies as directly inciting violence. It’s even more dangerous and even more damaging to society than a direct incitement to genocide like “death to all Muslims” is. As such, it should never be considered to be an exercise of freedom of speech.
France is required to enforce legal protections against racial and religious hatred under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Like all advanced liberal democracies, France has many human rights laws that outlaw things like hate speech. But these laws are not enforced evenly and in a satisfactory manner. France has, numerous times, prosecuted comedians for joking about the Holocaust. France has prosecuted “boycott Israel” protesters for discrimination. France has prosecuted a politician for saying that, if everyone was gay, it would be harmful to society since people wouldn’t be able to reproduce. France has prosecuted a woman for writing a negative restaurant review online. France has prosecuted people numerous times for making insulting comments about politicians. But France refused to prosecute Charlie Hebdo for its hate speech against Muslims. Why? Why is hate speech against Jews and gays given much harsher penalties than hate speech against Muslims? If France is trying to demonstrate that they are not an Islamophobic country, then they are definitely failing to do so when they refuse to prosecute anti-Muslim hate speech like this. By refusing to press hate speech/discrimination charges against anti-Muslim magazines like Charlie Hebdo, France is sending the message that they have no problem with anti-Muslim bigotry. Refusing to protect the basic human rights of Muslims only fuels jihadist sentiment.
Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any democratic society, and it’s the foundation by which all of our other rights are based on. However, the human right to freedom of speech has always been subject to other human rights. Everyone agrees that racist hate speech has no place in a democratic society. Likewise, we should also agree that gratuitously wounding the religious feelings of Muslims also has no place in a society based on human rights either. While I condemn the violence committed against these cartoonists, the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo were most assuredly not a legitimate form of free expression. The cartoons clearly fail the free speech test, as they had no real redeeming social, cultural, or artistic merit, and were obviously intended to offend and insult. As such, they are not free speech, but are indeed hate speech, which should never be allowed in any civilised nation.
Speech does have consequences. While respecting freedom of speech, we must also remind the public that, like all freedoms, freedom of speech comes with great responsibility. Freedom of speech is never a license to hurt other people, and recklessly wounding the feelings of Muslims like Charlie Hebdo did is most definitely not an exercise of freedom of speech. As the German Constitution states: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” All states have the obligation to protect freedom of speech, but this freedom must be balanced against human dignity. Speech that interferes with the dignity of others – thus removing their basic human rights – has no place in even the freest society. I sincerely hope that France will take this opportunity to make protecting human dignity a far greater priority, and to ensure that the human rights of Muslims are protected to a much greater degree in French society.