By Khalil Charles
In the debate over free speech and the right to insult others to uphold that right, Pope Francis has made it quite clear that one ‘cannot make fun of faith’. Speaking to journalists on the plane going to the Philippines, the Pope said that ‘every religion has its dignity’ and there was an obligation to speak for the ‘common good’.
His comments have been criticised by some journalists and indeed contradicted by the Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron said, “I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian; if someone says something offensive about Jesus, I might find that offensive, but in a free society I don’t have a right to wreak vengeance on them. We have to accept that newspapers, magazines, can publish things that are offensive to some, as long as it’s within the law. That is what we should defend.”
Despite Cameron’s view, the Pope’s unambiguous statements will come a great comfort to the hundreds of millions of Muslims who have felt upset and insulted by the redrawing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (upon whom be peace) in the Charlie Hebdo magazine in France last week.
The Pope who has been praised for his strong stance on terrorism, poverty, global warming and rooting out unsavoury practices in the Catholic Church went on to say that if a close friend said something abusive against his mother, he would ‘punch him on the nose’. He said that would be a normal reaction.
His comments appear to indicate that there are limits of free speech despite the claim that the French satirical magazine decision to again draw a cartoon was prompted by the desire to uphold the freedom of speech. However, the Vatican denied that the Pope was in any way justifying the use of violence to repel offence.
Cartoonist Renald Luzier, the man responsible for the latest outrage accepted that the decision would not be popular and admitted that the drawing ‘was not the cover that the world wanted.’
46 world leaders, with the notable absence of the American President Barack Obama, staged a huge rally calling for unity and the preservation of Western democratic values, but commentators have been quick to seize on an apparent ‘double standard’ particularly in France where protection to Jewish people for Anti-Semitism or holocaust denial is enshrined in law, but the same protection to other religious faiths is not offered.
Comedian Dieudonne fell foul to France’s free speech laws when he was arrested for tweeting and using the name of one of the gunmen he wrote, “’I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” a reference to Ahmed Coulibaly who held and killed four Jewish hostages in a Parisian Supermarket. Dieudonne was accused of promoting terrorism and faces a 7-year jail sentence. Since his arrest a further 54 people including young children have been detained for promoting terrorism.
Others have pointed out anomalies while exposing double standards. The French themselves have been accused as being the greatest threat to free speech. Jonathan Turley a professor of public interest law at George Washington University wrote in the Washington Post, “The greatest threat to liberty in France has come not from the terrorists who committed such horrific acts this past week but from the French themselves, who have been leading the Western world in a crackdown on free speech.”
Turley quotes numerous cases where the right to freedom of speech has been curtailed by the French government. Turley points out that a former French President Jaques Chirac once said, ““Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided,” he said. “Freedom of expression should be exercised in a spirit of responsibility.”
His words echo that of the Pontiff, Pope Frances; but both men and the 1.8 billion Muslim throughout the world seem to be at odds with the French government who were unconcerned about the offence caused to Muslims and decided to pay for the publication of Charlie Hebdo latest edition to reinforce its position.