Author: Atif Munawar Mir

Published in Spring 2015 Issue of Muslim Sunrise

Freedom of speech and expression is a corner stone of western democracy. Islam equates freedom of speech and expression with human dignity.[1] This freedom ensures the free flow of ideas in social and political spheres making possible the smooth functioning of democracy.

The credit goes to the western world for institutionalizing this much needed value in their societies. They made this freedom available to all its members without any discrimination. Lately, however, in the western world freedom of speech and expression is becoming less available to Muslims and other religious groups, particularly in France. It was in France in 2004 where school staff was banned from wearing insignia or garments displaying a religious allegiance. In 2007 these rules were also applied to those delivering a public service.  Some Muslim women in France, when forced to choose between hijab and their jobs, became home makers. [2] This ban on freedom of religious expression was described as the victory of secularism. The ban on burka – whether or not this garment is Islamic is irrelevant – was hailed as a victory of tolerance over oppression. When the cartoon controversy broke out, freedom of speech was invoked to defend the mockery and insult of the Holy Prophet of Islam (saw).

Are Muslims facing double standards when it comes to freedom of speech and expression in France? Answering on PBS, Bertrand Vanier, a journalist, acknowledged that if he were a Muslim today in France he would feel that there is definitely a double standard. He points to a French law which prohibits young Muslim women from wearing the burqa in public spaces but authorizes Charlie Hebdo to print religious caricatures.[3]

The purpose of the ban on religious symbols in France was to push religion out of public space. However, the cartoon controversy suggests that religion is allowed in public space as long as it is being subjected to mockery and insult.  Public insults to religion are not seen as threats to tolerance or secularism. Instead, they are celebrated as embodiments of freedom of speech. Simply put, it appears that these French laws are not designed to uphold secularism, tolerance or freedom of speech. They simply reflect the growing prejudice against marginal groups, particularly Muslims. The worse part is that this prejudice has been successfully cloaked in the glorifying language of freedom and secularism.

Because of its offensive publications, Charlie Hebdo has been painted as an institution that “sets the limits of freedom of speech.”[4] Those glorifying the Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons never question why in 2008 this institution fired French cartoonist Maurice Sinet, who had been working for the publication for 20 years, for mocking the relationship of former French President Sarkozy’s son with a wealthy Jewish woman. He was fired for being anti-Semitic. [5]  This firing demonstrates a double standard in which Charlie Hebdo champions freedom of expression only when it targets France’s marginalized populations.

Such a double standard though pronounced in France is not absent in countries such as the USA. Answering on PBS, Daisy Khan explained that America Muslims do not enjoy free speech. If they criticize their government, they are seen as unpatriotic. If they criticize the policies of Israel or even question them, they are called anti-Semites. And if they call for examining the root causes of terrorism, they are seen as aiding and abetting. So there is a sense that free speech is not for Muslims.  That it is only to be enjoyed by Westerners. [6]

Mehdi Hasan zooms in on the growing double standard. He says that no publication would run cartoons mocking the Holocaust or caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the twin towers, and rightly so. He goes on to suggest the conducting of a thought experiment offered by the Oxford philosopher Brian Klug. Imagine, Klug writes, if a man had joined the “unity rally” in Paris on 11 January “wearing a badge that said ‘Je suis Chérif’” – the first name of one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen. Suppose, Klug adds, he carried a placard with a cartoon mocking the murdered journalists. “How would the crowd have reacted? Would they have seen this lone individual as a hero, standing up for liberty and freedom of speech? Or would they have been profoundly offended? Do you disagree with Klug’s conclusion that the man “would have been lucky to get away with his life?”[7]  Freedom of speech must not be selective.  Otherwise it smacks of double standard.

Professor John Hacker-Right of the University also puts things in perspective. He writes “Muslims deserve the respect of non-Muslims; we need to mend fences with the vast majority of Muslims who are not carrying out attacks of any sort and just want peace, sovereignty and respect. For that reason we should be cautious in lionizing Charlie Hebdo and be sensitive to what our exercise of freedom of expression means to people interpreting messages against the background of a very different history.” [8]

Muslims and the western world sometimes see the world with different ideological lenses. They must strive to understand each other’s perspective through dialogue and discussion. Labelling provocation as satire not only prevents engaging dialogue but is also antithetical to common sense.

Freedom of speech is a hard won value won over a period of centuries and one that we must protect and cherish. Legislations should not be introduced to limit this freedom. However, that does not mean that the civil society should not advocate common sense when exercising this freedom. Freedom of speech that incites hatred and perpetuates prejudice must be discouraged in any civil society. Disagreements must not be swept under the rug, nor overrun with mockery.  Instead they should be discussed with decency and respect as dictated by common sense and reason.

The best respect we can offer to victims of the holocaust, of racism and hatred, apart from honouring them, is to not let conditions that led to their downfall take root again in the western world. The conditions that enable prejudices to mutate into irrational fear, hatred and potential violence must be prevented from finding a foothold in the Western world. Instead of allowing the degradation of free speech via insult, injury, and provocation, western countries should protect and cherish it so that this value can continue to inspire such freedom in other countries. Freedom of speech loses its charm and defies its purpose when it is used to loudly and proudly defend wilful insult and offence.

In a multicultural society, the cross cultural exchange of ideas paves the way for tolerance and respect. The benefits of cross cultural encounters are maximized when disagreements and disapprovals are carried out respectfully and decently. Mockery and insult create resentment whereas respectful disagreements increase tolerance and enhance the benefits of freedom of speech.

Other Articles on Freedom of Speech

Satanic Verses: The Ideological Imagination

Shariah and Freedom of Speech

Freedom of Speech and Cartoon Controversy



[1] Ahmad, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmed, “Inter-religious Speech” in Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues. Islam International Publications, Tilford Surrey, page 35-36

[2] Zeroula, Faiza, “Handscarf ban turns France’s Muslim Women towards Home”, 3 October, 2014 (

[3] Judy Woodruff of PBS News Hour interviews Daisy Khan and Bertran Vannier “Do Western Muslims face a free speech double standard?” see transcript at

[4] Dincer, Busra, “Cartoon World has Double Standards on the Freedom of Speech issue”, Daily Sabah World, January 9th, 2015 (

[5] Dincer, Busra, “Cartoon World has Double Standards on the Freedom of Speech issue”, Daily Sabah World, January 9th, 2015 (

[6] Judy Woodruff of PBS News Hour interviews Daisy Khan and Bertran Vannier “Do Western Muslims face a free speech double standard?” see transcript at


[7] Hasan, Mehdi, “As a Muslim I am fed up with the hypocrisy of Free Speech Fundamentalists     “, NewStatesmen, January 13, 2015 (

[8] Hacker-Right, John, “Defend Freedom of Speech, not Offensive Mockery”, Toronto Star, January 12, 2015 (


1 reply

  1. “Mehdi Hasan zooms in on the growing double standard. He says that no publication would run cartoons mocking the Holocaust or caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the twin towers, and rightly so.”

    This is a false argument. There is no double standard here because the comparison fails. You cannot compare the printing of cartoons that would purportedly mock the mass murder of thousands of innocents, with the printing of cartoons featuring a man. They’re two entirely different things.

    I accept some people were offended, but mocking a man – living or long dead – is not the same as mocking an event in which people were murdered.

    And what is this false narrative that’s being peddled that Charlie Hebdo only targeted Islam? It targeted everyone indiscriminately! No one was immune – politicians, the far right, the Catholic Church, the Pope, Judaism… the list goes on. CH printed a cartoon of a Nazi SS office french kissing an orthodox Jew. If that isn’t close to the bone given events in recent history, I don’t know what is.

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