Liberty depends on defending the freedoms of those who offend us

Only a robust defence of the right to be offended allows individuals to enjoy their own rights to self-expression.

Only a robust defence of the right to be offended allows individuals to enjoy their own rights to self-expression

It is a sad but inevitable irony that last week’s jihadist attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper for its exercise of its freedom of speech will be followed by calls for the freedoms of Islamists to be restricted, including their freedom of speech.

Indeed, this illiberal backlash by some ‘liberals’ has already begun.

Hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack on 7 January, the hacking collective ‘Anonymous’, in a sublimely irony-free moment, declared that “freedom of speech and opinion is a non-negotiable thing” and then hacked a French salafist website, knocking it offline.

Shortly afterwards, the Huffington Post and assorted twitter users pilloried a junior Conservative Party aide for posting an ‘offensive’ tweet (calling Mohammed “a child abuser and a paedo”) until he was agreed to delete it.

Government interventions are likely to be close behind. The Observer’s Nick Cohen has superlatively catalogued the UK police’s obsession with investigating and prosecuting ‘offence’.

It can only be a matter of time before newspapers that vigorously defended Charlie Hebdo’s rights to offend begin to harrumph about how Islamists are abusing their right to free speech on social media and to demand ‘action’.

This shows that while it is easy to defend the right to insult other people’s traditions, it can be harder to defend their freedom to criticise your own. This should not be surprising.

As any parent can testify, the desire to shock and offend appears an innate facet of human behaviour from an early age; likewise, the instinct to react angrily to supposed insults and slights inflicted by others. To be offended – and to be angered by offences – is part of being human.

However, that such reactions seem deeply embedded in all our DNA makes it all the more essential that liberals should clearly and consciously defend, both in the abstract and the reality, the right of others to insult our own deeply cherished beliefs, however difficult this can be.

The alternative is a scenario – perhaps, already coming to pass – in which the freedom of all us to freely speak, listen, think and access new ideas is gradually eroded.

This process of accepting offence, however, must be reciprocal; a situation in which one group defends its right to be attacked, and the other side simply defends its right to attack is ultimately unsustainable, leading either to a collapse of the attacker or a grotesquely illiberal backlash (as with Geert Wilder’s campaign in the Netherlands to ban the Quran, “that fascist book”, for hate-speech).

Indeed, the historic willingness of many on the Left to see the West portrayed as the root of all evil while dismissing crimes committed by the exotic ‘other’ as a mere ‘reaction’ has created a fatal synergy with Islamists who are also all too eager to see the West as uniquely evil and their own side as entirely blameless.

Willingness to be criticised must also be counter-balanced with willingness to criticise and mock others as needed.

Fortunately, for all the recent discussion of the Muslims’ supposed collective intolerance of criticism, there are signs that increasing numbers of prominent British Muslims are becoming willing to declare that their own freedoms depend on just such reciprocity.

The former Islamist Ed Husain, for instance, wrote last week that Muslims’ ability to live in Europe and promote their religion depends on them defending Europe’s freedoms:

“Islam and Muslims are secure in the west because of freedom of speech, conscience, press and religion. To attack those freedoms is to attack Islam’s existence.”

Similarly, Inayat Bunglawala, formerly a leading defender of British Islamist movements, wrote last week (in an article that began ‘Salman Rushie is right’) that:

Everyone must have the right to satirise religions and religious figures – without exception. And that includes Islam and the Prophet Muhammad…. The price of … freedom is that some people may sometimes say things you do not like and will find offensive. It is in reality a very small price to pay.

As this recognises, only a robust defence of the right to be offended allows individuals to enjoy their own rights to self-expression.

Following the lead of British Muslims like Ed Husain and Inayat Bunglawala, rather than responding to threats to liberalism by becoming less liberal, Western liberals – both Muslims and non-Muslims – need to become less touchy and more confident in the goodness and strength of their values.

This does not mean not feeling pain or hurt at offences committed against us; hurt, sadness and anger are defining aspects of being human. However, this does mean recognising that our freedom to offend others is best strengthened by more robustly defending the rights of those who offend us most.

James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). Follow him on Twitter

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15 Responses to “Liberty depends on defending the freedoms of those who offend us”

  1. swat

    About time these weak feeble minded liberal moderates showed some backbone and stood up to islamofacism, before it does us all in.

  2. damon

    I was in Marseille last summer, and would dread trying to talk about this to some of the tough looking young Muslim guys who hang out at the cafe tables around the Vieux Port and La Canebière.

  3. CGR

    Islamofascism is the biggest threat to world peace today.

  4. rgwes

    “the Huffington Post and assorted twitter users pilloried
    a junior Conservative Party aide for posting an ‘offensive’ tweet
    (calling Mohammed “a child abuser and a paedo”) until he was agreed to
    delete it.” – This is an awful example. Nowhere in the Huffpost article does anyone suggest he should delete it –
    mocking, pillorying, or criticisng someone’s bigotry is not the same as wanting it banned. He agreed to delete it, I’m guessing, not because he didn’t believe in the bigoted sentiments but because he was forced to as it made his political party look by association like a bunch of intolerant bigots.

  5. Guest

    What needs to be stood up to is extremism. Yours, Islamists, etc.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    What do you expect? France’s got a very divided society. But yet some on the right think the same here would be smart.

  7. ForeignRedTory

    And we need to get over the idea that feeble minded moderate liberal rope-sellers have a valid role to play in the struggle to defeat that theat.

  8. ForeignRedTory

    So what do you want, Leon? Either we can talk about this with words, or we will have to let our guns do the talking.

  9. damon

    I’m not quite sure what you mean. Who are the right you talk about? Not anyone who backs the right of the French magazine to produce its content surely?
    And you can’t let ignorance and suspicion have a free pass not to be criticised, because that is exactly the problem that democrats face in places like Pakistan now, where to speak out against the nutcases could be a death sentence. When you have a popular idea within a community, that people who leave their appointed religion should be killed, you have to challenge that, for the sake of those who don’t want to be straight jacketed into their family’s religion and cultural practices against their will.

  10. Leon Wolfeson

    So you’re in denial about the right. Uh-huh.

    And yes, let’s talk about capitalism here shall we?

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    Quite – your very predilection to guns and violence is a good part of the problem.
    The excuse your brand of extremism uses really is irrelevant in the end.

  12. damon

    I’m not in denial about anything. And no, let’s not talk about capitalism.
    That would be too sad to do here.

  13. Leon Wolfeson

    Yea, can’t discuss your creed, denialist.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    Ah yes, can’t allow the vast majority of people a say, as you “struggle” to impose your totalitarianism onto Britian.

    *slow claps*

  15. damon

    I don’t have a creed, but I’m not a communist or an anarchist.
    Does that make me a capitalist? I do have a bank account and go to work, so maybe that makes me one.

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