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Charlie Hebdo: freedom of speech, religion and co-existence

By Tristan Ewins - posted Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Charlie Hebdo massacre raises difficult questions for the West, and for Australia specifically. The terror attacks strike at the heart of Western norms of free expression and free speech.

For some free speech is an inalienable absolute. For others free expression and speech are preferable because they provide fulfilment and happiness through self-expression. In this sense democracy and liberty are 'social goods' in of themselves. And free speech also enhances democracy. That is, in a democracy free speech contributes towards the conditions necessary for self-correction. The rights and wrongs of policy are less likely to come to light without free speech.

Jurgen Habermas developed a concept of a 'perfect speech situation' through which free and equal rational speech provided the conditions for consensus. Conflicting values and interests may prevent that from ever happening. But nonetheless it is an ideal worth pursuing, which stands to edify genuine liberal pluralism. Open exchange at this point is a better vehicle for liberalism in its engagement with Islam than the escalation of rhetoric which only heightens the sense of fear and intolerance, and promotes the process of radicalisation.


Despite the inadequacies of the American settlement (threadbare welfare, threadbare protections for labour etc), the American consideration of free speech as 'an absolute' does have benefits. Such a discourse and constitutional framework could provide a defence for the Left. Certainly in Australia Doc Evatt would have failed in his defence of the liberties of the Australian communists were it not for arguments about free speech. Extreme hate speech and Holocaust denial are exceptions because of the potential in the future of the rehabilitation of fascism and the denial of the world's worst-ever genocide against the Jewish people. But those of us on the left who advocate more extensive interference with freedoms of expression should be wary of the precedents set, and the possibility that infringements on liberties will one day be turned against us.

Another legitimate social aim is mutual recognition/respect and peaceful co-existence. Without this peoples are sometimes too-easily led into violent conflict with all the associated suffering, brutalisation and death. When people are driven primarily through fear and hatred mutual respect for common humanity 'goes out the window'. Fears, misunderstandings and anxieties can be played upon to facilitate neo-colonialist and Imperialist interventions. Or to rationalise murderous terror attacks on Western civilians. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the murder of four Jews 'simply because they were Jews' engagement with the aim of creating the conditions for peaceful co-existence has never been more necessary.

It is often said that Christianity is unlike Islam because Christ's was a message of peace. Though going back several centuries the Christian faith was also warped to justify war. Indeed, more recently, also, Christianity was considered a rationale to extinguish indigenous cultures, rationalise colonialism and so on.

But today Christianity in the West has largely 'made its peace' with liberalism. Whether because of a philosophy of 'turning the other cheek' or through internalisation of liberal ideology – Christians largely accept public criticism of their faith as 'part and parcel' of liberal pluralist society. 'Piss Christ' and 'The Last Temptation of Christ' may have been hurtful for some Christians, but a great many liberal Christians (probably a majority of Christians generally) do not deny freedom of criticism and expression.

Yet Islam also involves movements towards liberalisation and movements to moderate the message of Islam, and promote gender equality and human rights. There are parallels with Reform Judaism for instance. Though Sunni and Shia regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran are anything but liberal, as their treatment of women and practice of extreme corporal punishment show. Still: given how far Christianity has come who is to say these cultures will forever remain impervious to liberalisation? Also the example of largely-Christian Uganda – where active homosexuality can result in life imprisonment – shows there is no 'essential' nexus between Christianity and liberalism. And liberal critiques of Islam can be abused cynically to rationalise interventions driven primarily by geo-politics.

Despite some peoples' over-blown fears, those of Islamic faith comprise only two per cent of the Australian population. And well-intentioned engagement between liberals and Muslims could result in many more Muslims shifting into the liberal camp. Much as occurred with Christianity. Democracy has a right to protect itself from those who would propagate violent and hateful ideologies. But this does not nullify our responsibility to provide sanctuary to those in need of refuge. Decisions on migration more broadly need to be made on a case-by-case basis, and as such should not be driven by generalising caricatures of Islam.

We can show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo by confronting the associated issues openly and open-mindedly. But also we need to avoid an escalation of rhetoric which would only polarise our society along religious and ethnic grounds. Here,freedom should ideally be balanced with honest self-criticism. (not the same as censorship) This may seem to go 'against the spirit' of Charlie Hebdo's irreverent and immoderate attacks on religion. But it might be a precondition for the engagement which could promote long-term harmony between religion and liberal rights in this country.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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