To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged

A terrific essay by Kenan Malik – je suis charlie? it’s a bit late.

The expressions of solidarity with those slain in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices are impressive. They are also too late. Had journalists and artists and political  activists taken a more robust view on free speech over the past 20 years then we may never have come to this.

Remember the fatwa on Rushdie? That’s when it started – people saying “wellllllllll maybe he really shouldn’t have…”

It’s partly fear, Kenan says, but not only that.

There has also developed over the past two decades a moral commitment to censorship, a belief that because we live in a plural society, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offence.

In some ways, I do think we should do that (and I think Kenan would agree). I do think we should all refrain from shouting racist or sexist or homophobic epithets whenever we get irritated. I do think we should constrain our own speech in that sense. But discourse about beliefs? No.

So deep has this belief become embedded that even free speech activists have bought into it. Six years ago, Index on Censorship, one of the world’s foremost free speech organizations, published in its journal an interviewwith the Danish-American academic Jytte Klausen about her book on the Danish cartoon controversy. But it refused the then editor permission to publish any of the cartoons to illustrate the interview. I was at the time a board member of Index – but the only one who publicly objected. ‘In refusing to publish the cartoons’, I observed, ‘Index is not only helping strengthen the culture of censorship, it is also weakening its authority to challenge that culture’.

I remember that.

The irony is that those who most suffer from a culture of censorship are minority communities themselves. Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged.  To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

Yet, hardly had news begun filtering out about the Charlie Hebdoshootings, than there were those suggesting that the magazine was a‘racist institution’ and that the cartoonists, if not deserving what they got, had nevertheless brought it on themselves through their incessant attacks on Islam. What is really racist is the idea only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or demolish its pretensions or can handle satire and ridicule. Those who claim that it is ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ to mock the Prophet Mohammad, appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. It is here that leftwing ‘anti-racism’ joins hands with rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.

That second link is to Bill Donohue’s press release, which is fitting. If Bill Donohue is echoing you, you’ve gone terribly wrong somewhere.

What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hudreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Pakistani cartoonist Sabir Nazar, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, exiled to India after death threats, or the Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi, sentenced to death last year for ‘insulting the Prophet’. What happened in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was viscerally shocking; but in the non-Western world, those who stand up for their rights face such threats every day.

They do. I know some of them; I’ve heard some of their stories.

What nurtures the reactionaries, both within Muslim communities and outside it, is the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within minority communities.

So don’t be that kind of liberal. Really don’t. Stand with the progressives, the Taslima Nasreens and Raif Badawis and Charlie Hebdos.


  1. Robertsilencieuse says


    “La liberté d’expression c’est faire couler de l’encre, pas faire couler du sang!”

    Je me tiens en solidarité avec Charlie Hebdo.

  2. quixote says

    Free speech vs. censorship. On one side there are the free-speech-über-alles fanatics who enable hate speech against women (which takes away their free speech rights). On another side there are the political-correctness-gone-goofy who want the standards of garden parties applied to all speech.

    They’re both wrong. In a world where everyone has a platform, we definitely do need standards. Trolls whose whole purpose is to torment or silence people should NOT have a platform. They actually need to be censored to prevent real censorship, that of ideas. But shutting down ideas because somebody somewhere might get indigestion is also lethal to a free society.

    In some ways, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference. Was anyone at Charlie Hebdo issuing threats against people? Were they making points about ideas? (I mean, duh!, right?) When someone in a goddy situation preaches about the fires of hell waiting for sinners, they’re also talking about ideas. They’re also not threatening people with harm in physical reality.

    The problem may be that in order to make any useful distinctions the purpose of the speaker has to be guessed. That’s the part I think both the fanatics and the goofs are desperately trying to avoid with their all-or-nothing ideas. And they do have a point. In the case of CH or Jon Stewart it’s not hard to guess. In other cases, it’s a much grayer area. But the sad fact is that it doesn’t matter. We have to guess. There’s no alternative. It’s similar to the situation in a trial where the only difference between murder and manslaughter is the intention of the defendant.

    Fair treatment requires us to do our best to understand intention. It seems to me that if we don’t start getting that, we’re going to lose even more of those great Enlightenment rights. All-or-nothing seems like an easy answer but it wrecks the freedoms it pretends to support.

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    The government should not censor. Large semi-public forums should not censor. However, we should respond to vitriol with reasoned arguments, ridicule, and shaming. That is the only thing which works.

  4. says

    Yes, that too. I have no idea why you were banned there, or indeed if you have been banned. But I do support the blow owner’s right to ban whoever they want for whatever reason. It’s a freedom of speech issue too: If you have a blog, you get to run it in whatever way they feel like, and that includes the comment section. If you disapprove, you are free to say so in whatever venue will accept your comments, including here – until and unless Ophelia puts her foot down, which is her right. Am I making myself clear?

  5. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    Trolls whose whole purpose is to torment or silence people should NOT have a platform

    I wouldn’t even go that far. I support their right to a platform of their own. However, A) They are not entitled to use a public platform to harass other users of that platform, and B) They aren’t entitled to the use of somebody else’s platform (a blogger’s comment space, for example.)

  6. says

    @ # 9 – I can see no contact info for the blog holder that allows me to inquire if for sure, and why, I have been banned there. So I can only conclude such based on the fact I cannot see my own posted comments there when logged in. Though my comment admittedly contained an element of sarcasm (provoked by non-response to my repeatedly querying the non-appearance of another comment made on a separate post a fortnight ago), I recognise and adhere to blog comment policies, including those at that specific site. As to the comments relevance – well, no-one can now judge… because it has apparently been blocked.
    I appreciate Ophelia allowing my consequent commenting here, which, as it is beneath a post discussing related (controversial) subject matter, I don’t consider too off topic (and thus see no cause for her to ‘put her foot down’).
    So, if you are arguing that selective censoring of (policy-adhering, on-topic) comments equates with free speech, then I’m afraid, no, you are not making yourself clear.
    @ # 10 – I see neither the relevance of that quote nor the applicability of your following comment.

  7. says

    Lee – it could easily just be a glitch. Sadly it happens often to regulars here – comments just stop appearing, out of the blue. When they let me know, I can fix the problem. (Such comments just go into the spam filter for no apparent reason.) That probably is what happened in your case, since they disappeared as opposed to being held for moderation.

  8. says

    Thanks, Ophelia. I have wondered that it might be a glitch (and if that turns out to be the case I will, of course, happily offer an apology to the blog holder in question); however, the previous comment I mention remained visible to me as ‘under moderation’ for almost two weeks – but that too is now no longer visible to me at all. Which suggests it has been moved?

  9. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    @Lee #11

    That “quote” was Another commenter’s–the one I was replying too. You are not the only person commenting on this blog post.

  10. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    In fact, a blogger choosing to ban certain commenters or delete selected comments is perfectly consistent with free speech. It’s their blog. Their platform, not yours. You’re free to get your own.

    If you think blog moderation is somehow anti-free speech, then you must really stand against blogs that don’t allow comments at all–Sam Harris’s, for example.

    And how about print newspapers and magazines that don’t publish every letter to the editor they receive? Somehow I never hear complaints that they are therefore somehow denying anyone’s right to free speech.

    Your right to free speech does not mean anybody is required to share their platform with you.

  11. says

    @ Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy):

    # 15: Ah, yes, I see, thanks. Non-nesting of comment replies threw me. ‘You are not the only person commenting on this blog post.’ – Precisely!

    # 16: The points you make in your first and final paragraphs I’ve already responded to. On your other points: if a blog does not provide a comment facility at all, well, as much as I might not like it, at least it is a consistent policy and doesn’t waste anybody’s time (and which one can address, as you say, through one’s own platform). As for newspapers/magazines, that’s more of a space issue. Though when you see them varying their comment facilities beneath online articles – often due to pussyfooting avoidance of offence – then it does get very irritating. And if you never see complaints on such threads… it’s because they delete them! (I know, I’ve tried.) Please don’t presume I’m ‘anti-moderation’ – I fully get the need for that. But when a blog does provide a public comment facility, then I take that to mean the platform is being shared and receptive to relevant on-topic comment – however objectionable. I can only assume I touched a nerve.

  12. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    The points you make in your first and final paragraphs I’ve already responded to.

    No, you haven’t.

  13. says

    Lee – at any rate, your apparent point @ 6 with this remark –

    It appears free speech is a variable at (some parts of) Freethought Blogs.

    – is just empty. You misunderstand the nature of the network. We don’t tell each other what to do. The blogs are all independent. It’s a network, not a group blog. There’s no point in complaining to me about someone else’s commenting policy or actions.

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