Free Speech and Buddhism

Voltaire on a Je suis Charlie poster

The recent events in Paris have stimulated a lot of discussion regarding free speech in the press, blogs and across social networks and the issue of whether free speech equals having the right to insult others has been centre stage in discussion taking place in the UK. I wanted to say a few words on the topic and look at comments that have come from a number of Buddhist sources that I think are complicit in calling for the suppression of free speech. It seems to me that a lot of well-meaning folks are unable to distinguish between being nice and being socially and politically irresponsible, demonstrating at times a rather warped utopian view of the world which seems prevalent amongst well-meaning western Buddhists and liberals. Some of what I write here will be obvious to the politically informed reader, but I am writing it nonetheless, because it turns out that a lot of folks just do not get why a secular pluralistic society is so important and seem all to willing to start giving up on freedom of speech.

I teach English in Italy and have spent the last week engaging students in debate on free speech. I introduced the same questions with high school teenagers, university students and adults, and there have been consistent responses to the questions posed, which are more or less as follow:

1. Do you think free speech is important? Why?
2. Should free speech ever be limited? Why?
3. Is it right to punish people for the things they say? Who should punish them?
4. Does free speech allow us to offend people? Why? Why not? Are there exceptions?

The responses were overwhelmingly uniform across age groups: 80 to 90% of students in the courses I teach gave almost identical answers. Question number one received a resounding yes. Number two received an almost resounding no with just one born-again Christian saying yes. Number three received a resounding no. When it came to number four, in spite of the obvious contradictions; it received an almost resounding no too.

I avoid telling students what to think. What I did do this time round though was lead students forward in the discussion to try to highlight the contradictions in their responses. The discussion was fruitful and most of the students, including those who were more religious (a minority even in Catholic Italy these days), understood the significance of being able to offend people, even if they didn’t like it. The discussion was interesting in great part because it seemed to show how people, especially white middle-class Europeans, find offending others to be almost taboo.

It seems to me that people take their ideas about how the world should be and confuse it with how the world is and in doing so fail to see how disallowing the act of offence would undermine the foundations of secular society that are fundamental to pluralism and the relative degree of freedom we currently enjoy here in the West. In discussing free speech, we have to be very clear that we are talking about a politically and legally sanctioned right: the fundamental basis for the successful functioning of democracy in a secular society in which pluralism is made possible and defended by law. The significance of free speech is usually under-appreciated perhaps because we so often take it as matter-of-fact in the West.

The desire to avoid offending or harming others confuses and muddies the issue. The inability to rationally think through the consequences of stifling criticism or satirical humour that offends is rightly considered dangerous by many journalists and free thinkers. It seems that for many well-meaning folks, there is an inability to separate the ideal from the real. In the actual world we inhabit, free speech is a safeguard against censorship and the domination of religious or political ideologies. It has very little to do at all with being nice to people and avoiding conflict.

Censorship driven by religion is rife and it’s not only in Muslim countries that we see it. A modern supposedly democratic state like Russia shows what happens when blasphemy laws exist and criticism is condemned and punished by the state.

It is amazing how easily people fail to understand that criticism and offence are driving forces for democratic activism, as well as a source of creativity, social change and renewal. The universal declaration of human rights states that freedom of expression is a fundamental right and yet half of the world’s countries have laws suppressing free speech and freedom of expression with dire consequences for the average citizen. Even in democratic countries, politicians are too often troubled by the degree to which the general public are allowed to express themselves, which is to say that there is a constant tension between those in power wishing to determine the limits of behaviour and criticism, and the need to defend and secure this basic human right to allow all discussion to take place, however unsavoury, however offensive.

Half of the world’s countries penalise critique of religion with horrendous consequences. Blasphemy, defamation and apostasy can be punished by serious jail time and in a number of countries by torture and death. In thirteen of the world’s countries, being an atheist means you can be killed by the state: I repeat, murdered by the state for not accepting religious orthodoxy. See more on the work of the Freedom of Thought report here. A video of the Rubin report discusses the issue further here.

The religious often forget that free speech allows for pluralism of faiths: the fact that we in the West can convert to Buddhism and Islam or become Hindus or Scientologists is due to this pluralism. Despite the fact that Christianity is still fighting hard in many Western countries, it no longer gets to shut down political discourse and change when taking offence at the possibility of gay civil partnerships. Lest we not forget how it fought against freely accessible contraception, divorce, and so on, tooth and nail, with all its doctrinal powers. So many of the freedoms we enjoy are due to the fact that secular society has beaten back the obfuscating dominance of Christian ideology through hundreds of years of struggles and offence to religious orthodoxy. On a more light hearted note, if offending Christianity were illegal, there would have never been Father Ted, George Carlin and all the other wonderful comedians and shows that have highlighted the madness of blind faith and archaic Christian beliefs. This stuff is so obvious, but people do not seem to join the dots, especially if they are well meaning folk who want everybody to just get along.

Islam is obviously the most famous of the world’s religions for the suppression of freedom of expression at present but there are also a number of Buddhist countries that actively suppress it too. Burma is perhaps the most famous as the state actively suppresses religious freedom and even attempts to force conversion to Buddhism, with Muslims getting the worst of it. In Thailand, another Buddhist country, it is illegal to insult the Royal family and the state religion of Buddhism with punishment there including jail time. In Sri Lanka, a Buddhist majority country, suppression of Muslims and other faiths is commonplace. Famously, a British backpacker was arrested there in 2014 and then expelled for having a Buddhist tattoo. She was accused of ‘offending religious sensibilities’. Vietnam, an-ex-Communist country, has a majority Buddhist populace and freedom of expression is heavily clamped down on. The relationship between states and religion and the use of religious morality in suppressing free expression is an ongoing disaster for the cultivation of open societies but censorship seeps into even unlikely places.

A number of contemporary Buddhist teachers cannot help but jump in on the debate presumably holding that if we were all to practice right speech, everything would be more peaceful and we would all be happier. Joan Halifax recently spoke against unrestrained free speech at the Huffington Post following the Paris murders and I think she is guilty of failing to make a distinction between politics and benevolent practice, not quite understanding the significance of undermining this pillar of modern-day democracy. She also appears guilty of good old utopian new age thinking.

“I hope a warmer approach to discussing matters of faith can develop across news platforms around the globe.”

Really Joan? Really? When religion globally is too often complicit in the suppression of free expression, it is rather difficult to have a ‘warm’ rational conversation on the topic. There are way too many cases where faith equals conservatism, orthodoxy, and fanatical adherence to literal readings of religious texts or reliance on highly disturbed, manipulative religious leaders. Being all nice and warm about rampant homophobia and the suppression of gays by almost all conservative expressions of religion, including Buddhism, is kind of hard to swallow. Being all nice and warm about religious backed state terrorism and torture and even the murder of citizens for alternative beliefs is kind of tough Joan. Let’s not forget the support Putin receives for his anti-democratic dictatorship from the Orthodox Russian Church where blasphemy can lead to time spent in the prison, most famously the Gulags of Siberia for the anarchist punk group Pussy Riot. Then there are the fatwa issued on journalists and writers (with Salman Rushdie being the most famous back in 1989 and in case you didn’t know, that little gem has not gone away. Read on). The list is long and cruel and very, very violent. Unfortunately, she continues with this gem of wishful thinking:

“We have engaged in — globally — a kind of global disrespect of religious traditions, of political, of governments, of nations and views…How do we create the conditions where a critique — a really profound critique — can unfold in the conversation that we’re having globally, but where people don’t feel disempowered, disrespected?”

The answer is you can’t love. If black and white moralities lead to state suppression, notions of right or holy speech seem too often to lead directly to self-censorship. As Karma Yeshe Rabgye, a Western convert to Tibetan Buddhism, states at his website in an article on speech:

“…obviously, freedom of speech is a human right, but if you’re written words are going to harm others or stir up trouble, that should not be written.”

Really? Who decides what is or is not trouble? What if trouble actually needs stirring up? The problem is that such a vague statement as ‘harm others’ or ‘stir up trouble’ can be interpreted in endless ways. Such statements seem to assume that people will naturally arrive at the same benevolent conclusions and that they will be able to easily distinguish between right and wrong. Good people have been doing the wrong thing, supporting the wrong ideology, and ignoring suffering to avoid upsetting the apple cart since forever. Just think if Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King had not had the courage to stir up trouble in the States in the 1950s? What about the suffragettes in England in the early 1900s? Perhaps they should have remained in their place and avoided upsetting the sensibilities of a male-centred society based around discriminative Christian values? These are two obvious examples. The list of freedoms and justice earned by upsetting the status-quo is very, very long.

It goes on. The Buddhist Channel just recently published an article on the Charlie Hebdo attack and suggested that:

“It is for countries that believe in the Right to Free Speech to balance this right with some censorship.”

Who gets to censor? What is censored? Why would censorship be good? Have these people read Orwell? Very scary stuff!

We have another representative of Buddhism, this time Venerable Doboom Tulku who is director of Tibet House. He stated back in 2012 during another clash of cultures with Islam due to a video that was made that portrayed Islam in a bad light that “…freedom of expression or intellectual exercise must never be used to hurt the sentiments of any section” and also commented that a film which had “some content” that “showed Islam in a bad light and should have been prevented.”

He, like many other Buddhists, seem to be of the opinion that freedom of speech is good, but only if it adheres to strict controls, which is a rather funny notion of freedom. This is exactly why religion needs to be kept out of politics: all religion. Bucket loads of religious ideas need to be undermined and deconstructed for their inaccuracies and barbarism and when it comes to religion there really is no legislating against disrespecting cherry picked ideas. Once you decide to avoid upsetting feelings, the door opens to all manner of claims from all quarters. As Bill Maher pointed out, the bullying starts. We need to be pulling apart religious ideas that are incompatible with the facts of the world, not pussyfooting around them so as not to offend.

The intention behind the spoken word is of course important and when you look at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, you see a magazine that comes out of a long history of critiquing the powerful and the religious through satire and humour. Satire does this in great part to destabilise what we consider as normal, as ‘just the way it is’; which is to say, it attacks assumptions and norms, reminding us of the folly of ideas, political certainties and religious dogma. Satire is supposed to upset or offend, not because it has the purpose of doing so, but because in destabilising the status quo, inevitably people’s cherished ideas and identities are upset, are turned over and displayed under a less adulating light. The fact is that religion has a speciality for producing dumb ideas, as old George Carlin never failed to remind us, and dumb ideas need not be protected and shielded from examination, but opened up, looked at without fear, and explored without suppression.

This whole affair seems to point again to the ignorance liberal religious and spiritual people have regarding the fundamental importance of political engagement. It also seems to reflect complacency regarding our history and what it is that has created a society within which choice is possible: choices available to Muslims and Christians too. Add to these constraints on freedom of expression adherence to right speech, the avoidance of anger and other so-called harmful emotions, and we have a wonderful kit for suppression and self-censorship provided by Buddhism that perhaps accounts for the words of someone like Halifax.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who obviously has a lot of first-hand experience with dictatorships, suppression and the removal of free expression, has made sharp comments in defence of free speech in her native Burma. As a political activist and Buddhist she advocates full free speech. She speaks not of ‘right speech’ but of ‘intelligent speech’ over at the Index on Censorship. For those of us with some form of ongoing connection to Buddhism, intelligent speech could form a code of conduct that is conducive to managing life more successfully. As well as suggestions on how to manage inter-personal communication more successfully, it would necessarily include a commitment to truth, honesty, transparency and intelligent critique. Intelligent speech should never seek to oppress, shout out criticism and silence dissent in order to avoid upsetting the fragile beliefs of others, however angry. How a voluntary ethical approach to speech can be formulated in the 21st century is a conversation that we can certainly have. Well-meaning Buddhists though would do well to read up on the history of Democracy and Secularism before joining in on it.






Follow Up: Dave Watson made some interesting comments below that highlight a situation that is widespread amongst those who have managed to view the Paris attacks as being solely a result of Western foreign policy. They are often guilty of inverting the situation so that the French journalists, artists and their families are almost dismissed and the bigger story is brought to the fore as a means for justifying the terrorists acts. Free speech is seen as a cover, a means for the privileged West to ignore the ‘real’ issues. I wonder if this view from the far-left in the States is due to their own fairly solid free speech where a European law against denying the Holocaust does not exist and Muslims are generally better integrated and less ghettoised than here in Europe? I am personally concerned about protecting free speech and the continuous and ongoing push from religions for blasphemy laws to be introduced. Islam, far from being the religion of some poor minority that needs our protection is a world religion with powerful men in powerful places. The latest horror story concerning its protectors shocking fear of critique can be seen at the following link where Saudi Arabia is trying to motion the UN for the enactment of a motion against ‘contempt’ of religion. This is there second attempt. They are accompanied by Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey. Read on if you wish.

I shall post here two articles I included in a response below.

“Wherever religion controls politics it drives out tolerance and basic human rights.”

Polly Toynbee from 2004. Worth a read. She articulates why defence of free speech is perhaps more of an issue here in the UK and Europe than in the States. I was thinking that if you’re American Dave, you’re missing some of the context for why I might write write what I did.

There’s an article from Douglas Murray here that may boil your blood.


  1. Thanks for this, Matthew. I stand on the side of free speech, but I’ve gotten a lot of flak from ‘progressives’ who prefer to discourage caricature and ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist’ ridicule of those whom they see as the weak and powerless, as if Islam lacks national and political support in as you note suppressing those within the Muslim polity who dare to speak out against its strictures. The whole shift from sympathy to sneers took less than three days among many in the wake of the CH murders. Many on the left while paying lip service to freedom of expression then go on, at least in the media coverage and conversations I have had, to take the side of self-censorship.

    One more Buddhist blog I found, David Riley’s The Endless Further: contrasts free with right speech. Near his conclusion, Riley asks: Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?


    1. Hi John,
      You further illustrate the inability of intelligent folk to look at the bigger picture with some clarity. It doesn’t surprise me that ‘progressives’ in the States suffer similar discomforts as those in the UK where there seems to be a sort of collective guilt hanging over from colonialism, a fear of not being liberal enough, paranoia about being labelled as racist or xenophobic and an obsession with saving perceived minorities. I think that at the core of all this is an immense discomfort with reality and a refusal to see the world as it is in all its messy complexity. The consequence of which usually means setting aside idealistic yearning for a perfect harmonious world as envisioned in some sort of hyperreality. It’s why I made the point about Halifax’s comments being utopian. I also think forced niceness is in essence cowardly.
      We all tune out, switch off the noise and reduce the visual and auditory overload. The problem with well-meaning political ideology is that the noise upsets the class-based isolation the person enjoys and possibly feels guilty about. This leads to uninformed political engagement or disengagement or appeasement of perverse ideas such as ‘let’s not offend anyone’ and acceptance of censorship of the press.
      I am generally a progressive, liberal, socialist (in the UK sense of the term), but I make a habit of reading intelligent commentary by those who are conservative so as to avoid being too taken by the failings of liberalism. Douglas Murray at the Spectator, a Conservative publication, has been the most articulate in discussing the Charlie Hebdo attacks and one of the staunchest defenders of free speech prior to and following the Paris affair. I recommend reading his work.


  2. Matthew-I’ve noticed that most of the vocal Buddhists that have called for wise speech are American and most of the vocal Buddhists that have defended CH are European and I really wonder if that has a factor in it as I think that deference to religions is stronger here in the US than Europe.
    In terms of the importance of free speech, i’ve found this article helpful:

    In terms of CH cartoons and the limits of satire, I’ve found these articles helpful:
    cheers, ann


  3. I agree that free speech is a very important principle. As a Buddhist I find it amusing that almost no Buddhists trust to karma to sort out the moral accounting of humanity. We all want to stick our oar in and wave it about. It’s just lack of faith really. One might say that Buddhists wanting to intervene in other people’s lives is a form of Buddhist heresy.

    The other issue that I would like to see discussed, though, is colonialism. The massacre occurred in an historical context that goes back to WW1 and the Sykes-Picot agreement. Picot was the French representative. France was a colonial power in the Middle East after the ousting of the Ottoman dictatorship. The end result of European colonialism is the Middle-East we see today: a long period of brutal dictators supported by our governments, followed by civil war when we tire of them. The toppling of elected governments because they were not our kind of democrats. Dividing up the land according to our whims in almost total ignorance of the allegiances of the people being divided. Two illegal wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) And so on. Europe, and more recently the USA, have behaved abominably.

    We set up the conditions for the Middle-East to be what it is. Saudi Arabia is both the source of the extreme forms of Islam that motivate terrorists and our main ally in the Middle-East. We support that anti-democratic feudal state which is both inspiring and funding Jihadists around the world, because we tied our economic fate to them decades ago. They go about enacting the opposite of our values and we claim to be moral.

    Ought we really to be mocking those who want to throw off the oppressive Western yoke? Those who see religion as essential to their identity because they had nothing else left? Or ought we be mocking ourselves? Ought we to be mocking our own prophets – the morons that have set malignant foreign policy for close to a century, pursued insane strategies, and made pacts with nations that are against all our values?

    When agents of a colonial power mock and deride the people they conquered (whose land the raped for natural resources) then we have to consider the power dynamic. Would it be a simple free speech issue if a white American cartoonist mocked and derided Native Americans for example? Or would it be seen more in terms of racism? No doubt it would be *legal* under US law. But would it be seen as a cause to get behind? Or on a par with the KKK. One of my American friends described the French cartoons as “white men punching down”. I agree. The cartoons were racist and racist in a post-colonial environment. Satire is very effective when mocking those in power. When those in power use satire to mock those they oppress it’s considerably less funny.

    We think we’re very progressive to have done away with slavery. As though we’re even now. We think that the Middle-East is a mystery. It’s really no mystery at all. We fucked them up, repeatedly. And now we’re paying the price.

    For Buddhists seeing this karma ripening, the only validated response is the one that the Buddha offered to Aṅgulimālā: “bear it”. And take the Buddha’s example and go out to the murderers and offer them compassion. We believe (to the extent we believe of course) that they are due for many lifetimes of suffering, most likely in Hell, as a result of their actions. When the blameless die they go to a better rebirth. That *is* Buddhism.


    1. I did not really want my post to be limited to a discussion of Islam, Muslims and Paris, hence the focus on the suppression of free speech in Buddhist nations and the multiple references made to Christianity. There are plenty of others who are far more knowledgeable and articulate than I in discussing the failings of Islam and religious conservatism, and its multiple causes and history. Mine was a defence of free speech in all spheres, not just with regard to Charlie Hebdo. As I state, we need more satire of the powerful and the religiously ignorant, not less.
      That said. It seems the two sides debating the attacks are divided into two camps. The first sees the Paris murders as being all about religion. The second sees them as being all about politics. I think both positions are disingenuous as the attacks were clearly inspired by both. If these Muslims are claiming that they are engaging in terrorist attacks because of their religion, because of the Koran and a variety of Muslim beliefs, then perhaps we should accept that Islam is a major factor in their motivations and not assume to know what’s really going on. Claims by Muslim terrorists seem very clear in stating “we are doing this for political AND religious motives.” At the same time, the politics are evident and Europe and the States have done an awful job of meddling in Middle-Eastern affairs. Iran is possibly one of the clearest examples I know of of the West undermining what was an immensely progressive Muslim country. I have students that I teach whose parents emigrated to Italy after the Iranian revolution and the pictures they’ve shown me of quasi-liberal Iran in the 1970s before the revolution are heartbreaking when contrasted with what followed. This does not mean that Iran was a paradise of reason before America did what it did. Free speech was limited, being gay was unthinkable and Islam was the religion to be worshipped.
      I am well aware of the immense fuck ups due to the failings of Western foreign policy and the continuing role of Israel in stoking anger and hatred against Western foreign policy through its apartheid policies. I do not see though that such awareness cancels or detracts from the discussions being had about free speech. I also disagree that Charlie Hebdo was racist. Ann has provided links in her comment above on this. Have a look and see what you think.
      As for your comments about Native Americans, I think there is some difference. Islam is a world religion followed by a billion faithful. To define them as a minority and to place them in the role of victims is problematic as they are not a single race or single unified group. The satire is aimed at Islam, not Muslims. I know that such a difference is likely meaningless for enraged Muslims, but there is a difference. There is an immense variety of religious beliefs held by the different Native American tribal nations and from what I know, their beliefs do not lead to the suppression of gays, women and so forth. Should people be able to poke fun at them? Free speech would say that we can. Would it be satire though? I doubt it. Considering the role of satire historically, using it to abuse a genuine minority that were the victims of genocide seems unlikely and contrary to the spirit of satire. As you say, satire generally seeks to mock the powerful and the usually conservative ideological norms. In that sense, if the satire of Charlie Hebdo was aimed at the Palestinians as a nation of people, then it would certainly be racist, right? Aiming satire at a religion which is saturated with absurd ideas and barbaric instruction seems all too appropriate. We forget that even though Palestine is a genuine victim of state backed terrorism from Israel and the US, they have also been busy locking up journalists and punishing the gay community too. One point I would add is that even without Western intervention, it is in no way a given that Muslims everywhere would be embracing rational, pluralistic approaches to governance. They would still have a long history of religious intolerance and barbarism to draw on. The issue is clearly not only about free speech and I think that pussyfooting around religious sensibilities is hardly the road to go down to enact effective change. Should we be aware of the politics, of course! That’s another point I was making in the post, though perhaps too subtlety.
      Thanks for your comment.


  4. Thanks, Matthew, for this post, which has greatly helped me to clarify my thinking about this issue. The links Ann provided were especially useful — I did not follow up on all the links included within the items she mentioned, but if anyone failed to click through to the Joe Sacco cartoon, included within Ann’s third link, you are missing one of the best things published on this topic.

    I realize, Matthew, that you were highlighting the fact the Buddhism can be guilty of repressing speech in places where it has political power. This is a good point. But I think viewing this from the “free speech” perspective is a mistake. Free speech is implicated most directly where a government restricts speech. That has nothing to do with the French events. Islamic fundamentalists do control some governments, but certainly not that of France.

    Instead, this event is best understood in the context of the war on terrorism — which, of course, is actually a war being fought by the U.S. and the former colonial powers of Europe to defend their economic exploitation of the Middle East (especially with regard to oil) and the rest of the third world. In this context, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” amounts to an expression of solidarity with the bourgeoisies of the U.S. and Western Europe in their campaign to portray resistance to economic exploitation by former colonies as a threat to modern bourgeois democratic norms. This is not to say that no tension exists between those norms and the rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalism. But to accept at face value the bourgeois claim that the so-called “war on terrorism” (or the battle against Islamofacism, or religious fundamentalism generally, with the latter only rarely including Christian fundamentalism, or any of the other newspeak terms used to describe this current preoccupation of the world’s dominant powers) is about defending our traditional freedoms is to side with the powerful against the disempowered.

    I think it is worth noting that the French violence was quite remote in time from the publication of the cartoons considered most offensive to Islamic religious sentiment, but quite close in time to two other events: the sudden drop in the price of oil, allegedly produced by market conditions, that resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from oil producing (mostly poor) countries to oil consuming (mostly rich) ones; and the contest for political power in Yemen, which as even the bourgeois press acknowledges, threatens a major U.S. ally in the “anti-terror” campaign.

    Matthew, you critique the European and U.S. left for a “sort of collective guilt hanging over from colonialism, a fear of not being liberal enough, paranoia about being labelled as racist or xenophobic and an obsession with saving perceived minorities.” But this guilt is well earned; we are liberal only when it suits us; we are far from free from our racist and xenophobic heritage; and we certainly ought to take the side of oppressed minorities everywhere, and not side with their oppressors.

    I cannot conclude without noting your argument that, “If these Muslims are claiming that they are engaging in terrorist attacks because of their religion, because of the Koran and a variety of Muslim beliefs, then perhaps we should accept that Islam is a major factor in their motivations and not assume to know what’s really going on.” Even in the ordinary course of bourgeois political events, it is necessary to look behind the rhetoric used to defend actions. Union-busting is not aimed at job creation, and the red-baiting of the 1950s was not aimed at defending bourgeois democratic freedoms. We should not “assume” that we know what is really going on, but we should try to understand what is really going on, and this will rarely if ever mean accepting the rhetoric of political actors at face value.


    1. Hi Dave,
      You’re dragging the conversation back to Charlie which I’d rather not do. I was clearly addressing the wider context of the suppression of free speech in Buddhism, so I won’t respond to all of the points you make; basically, I’m not interested in discussing all of the reasons why I disagree with a purely political or economic reading of the Paris attacks having already done so in debates on Facebook and its time consuming to say the least. I don’t want to go over the merits, failings, and sacred scripture of Marxism either because it would mean reading up on Marx again in order to provide any sort of informed response and I can’t be bothered at present. I’ll make a few quick points in response to your comments as they deserve a reply.
      Considering how strong the call from Muslims in Europe is for blasphemy laws to be enacted in the West and how many moderate Muslims worldwide have demanded that western governments censor Charlie Hebdo and other satirists, I think it is actually very important to defend free speech and what it implies. I disagree with your claims that the French attacks had nothing to do with it. AL Qaeda, who claimed responsibility for the attacks, said in their video afterwards that the attacks were carried out in revenge for ‘blasphemy’ and ‘insult towards the Prophet.’ Where did you draw your conclusions from? Considering that such organisations think murder the appropriate response to satire, I don’t see how you can claim there is no link between free speech and the attacks. Remember, this is not the first time this has happened: the Dutch cartoons being another case in point.
      I do think you’re possibly guilty of assuming you know better than the terrorists themselves. You’re not the first to claim that ‘they’ do not really know that the reason for their actions is not what they themselves repeatedly say, which is odd if you think about it. It is interesting how many people, usually non-Muslim, white Westerners, seem to believe they know the inner-workings and true motivations of the terrorists. To claim that the attacks were primarily about economics and Western foreign policy and had nothing to do with religion contradicts what the terrorists repeatedly claim.
      That said, I don’t see why we hear binary divisions brought up again and again with people insisting it is an either or scenario when it is clearly both religion and economics, both politics and historical grievances that have all provided fuel for the attacks.
      I’m afraid I don’t feel guilty in the slightest for the failings of colonialism. Such a warped emotion leads to in an inability to think clearly. I do feel motivated to defend free speech however from governments, internet censors, and religion in all its guises.
      Finally, this idea we should align with minorities everywhere is clearly absurd and utopian: which minorities? When? Where? To what extent? What would it imply? With there being limitless minorities, which ones would you choose? Minorities rarely see eye-to-eye. Sounds like more Marxist wishful thinking. I think we have to choose our causes more carefully rather than assume there are such clear cut class lines that determine where our allegiances lie.
      I have seen the Joe Sacco cartoons and can’t agree with you there either. They make an important point, but that doesn’t detract from the essay I wrote. I found this gentleman to be much more articulate, insightful and to be expressing very important points and being an ex-Muslim terrorist himself, I think he should be listened to. See what you think:


  5. Sorry if I hijacked your thread, though I think that had already happened and was inevitable since you posted under a “Je suis Charlie” graphic. The Maajid Nawaz PBS interview was very interesting, and thank you for it. I am at a loss as to how you think he supports your view. Nawaz quite explicitly portrays what he calls “Islamism” as a political, not a religious, movement, and traces its roots to the grievances that are the legacy of colonialism. That, I thought, was my argument.

    SNB has extensively addressed the issue of “right speech” as a means of suppressing dissent — indeed, of suppressing thought. I agreed with you that this was a fair point to make in the context of the French events, though it is posed much more sharply when it arises in the context of critiques of Westernized Buddhism, such as those SNB advanced.

    There are two bandwagons rolling along here, and it is important to avoid jumping on either. One is the leftist, political correctness bandwagon that is inclined to lump disrespecting the Prophet in with hate speech, holocaust denial, pornography, and a bunch of other types of speech we have decided to not deserve protection. You are right to poke a stick into the wheels of that bandwagon, and you do a good job of it.

    The problem is that in doing so you risk jumping on a much bigger and more dangerous bandwagon, the “Je suis Charlie” bandwagon. Do you really want to lock arms with Netanyahu, Hollande, and Merkel in a movement that is already being exploited to portray Muslims as a existential threat to our “way of life” — that is, to neoliberal capitalism?

    I know you don’t, and you will argue that you take a more nuanced view of the issues involved. You do, and I respect that. But when a political meme achieves the momentum of “Je suis Charlie,” the time for nuanced views has passed. It is time to take a stand one way or the other. I support free speech unconditionally, but here “free speech” is being used as a club to further stigmatize Muslims, the vast majority of whom (as Nawaz repeatedly points out) are offended by the Charlie cartoons, but utterly out of sympathy with the resort to violence. And (again, as Nawaz stresses) the Islamic rhetoric of blasphemy is merely a selling point for a movement the true basis for which is the entirely reasonable and justified discontents of the displaced and disadvantaged populations of the formerly colonized world.


    1. Yes, the image was provocative I guess, so I have myself to blame there! I have not said that your claim concerning the politics is wrong Dave, rather that it is incomplete and that ignoring that Islam is a problem and always has been, as Catholicism and Judaism always have been too, discounts much needed critique of an outdated ideology and the ideological basis for taking a multitude of grievances to the extremes that have occurred. I also think you underestimate the degree of sympathy amongst the Muslim world for the terrorists and the ongoing support of barbaric acts across the Muslim world sustained by the Koran and Hadiths. Maajod Awaz actually describes the issues as informed by politics and religion, as I do, and calls for major reform of Islam to be kick started by Western Muslims. He is also a strong proponent of free speech and spoke in its defence against conservative Muslims both before and after Paris, most recently on live debate on the BBC. He has also spoken out against the imposition of blasphemy laws and attempts by Muslims who have grown up isolated from the wider societies in the West they were born into and their desire to have insulting Islam legislated against. So many Muslim voices speaking for free speech, born in Europe or in the Middle East, say as much. Yes, it’s politics, but boy is it also the religion. Ali A Rizi and Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, further proponents of free speech and escapees from Islamic indoctrination, highlight its inherent problems. They just participated in a podcast interview on The Thinking Atheist on this topic that you might find interesting. You’ll hear them in the second half of the show. Here’s the link:

      As for not jumping on bandwagons, I actually think I am making that same point. My views are consistent and have not changed since the Paris attacks. The politicians you mentioned would be better seen as the bandwagon jumpers and I am not ‘with them’ as they are a joke. The famous photo of those clowns on parade in Paris with a number of human rights abusers quickly reveals the hypocrisy of their actions.
      As for taking sides, I am not with Muslims or those who might like to blame them for all our ills. I am certainly encouraged by the Muslims voices mentioned in this reply and I am supportive of all satirists and comedians and their freedom to continue highlighting the absurdities of all religion. If I am to side with minorities, it would be the women, homosexuals and free thinkers imprisoned, tortured or killed in Muslim countries, those poor victims of their fellow citizens. Blaming colonialism for that really takes a stretch of the imagination, or a very superficial reading of the situation across all Muslim countries.


    2. “Wherever religion controls politics it drives out tolerance and basic human rights.”

      Polly Toynbee from 2004. Worth a read. She articulates why defence of free speech is perhaps more of an issue here in the UK and Europe than in the States. I was thinking that if you’re American Dave, you’re missing some of the context for why I might write write what I did.

      There’s an article from Douglas Murray here that may boil your blood.


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