PEN’s Charlie Hebdo Tribute and why there is no freedom of speech without the freedom to blaspheme

© Chappatte in The International New York Times
© Chappatte in The International New York Times

I want to respond to some of the continuing debate about  PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo and what it means to say that there is a “right” to blaspheme without a corresponding duty on the part of civil society to protect blasphemers. Aside from the letter discussed in the Manchester Guardian article, I do not want to cite any specific critics so as to avoid having the conversation degenerate into personal attacks. 

I think the authors of the PEN letter are cleverly dancing around the real conundrum. They seem to be advocating for two contradictory values at the same time. On the one hand, they loudly proclaim the absolute right to freedom of speech (including blasphemous speech) while at the same time urging everyone to refrain from ever actually exercising that right because doing so would be “impolite”.  The unstated subtext is that writers shouldn’t blaspheme against Islam because only a fool whacks a hornets’ nest with a stick.

But, frankly, even though this sort of high-minded temporizing might make the authors feel less embarrassed about being intimidated even as once can almost feel the fear dripping from the page,  I think what the authors of the letter missed is that it’s no longer possible to pretend.  It seems to me that with the Charlie Hebdo massacre a Rubicon of sorts was crossed.  I think you have to chose one or the other. Condemning blasphemy while acknowledging that people can blaspheme but shouldn’t is not an abstract call for a politer discourse between Islam and its critics. Rather, it is a tacit acknowledgment that the religious fanatics are calling the tune now and we’re just pretending that the dance we are being forced to perform is really one we would have freely chosen for ourselves as a matter of principle. I no longer see any middle ground between unqualified support for blasphemy and a tacit understanding that anyone who blasphemes against Islam is on his own and won’t get any help from the rest of us.

Charlie Hebdo blasphemed. There was a massacre. The Danish cartoonists published their cartoons and others republished those cartons; some of these people were murdered, others had their property destroyed and all those who survived will spend the remainder of their lives under constant threat. The danger is only intensifying; politely averting one’s eyes won’t make it go away.

It seems obvious to me that some of PEN’s critics and many in the Western media have learned the obvious lesson that we now live under very much the same blasphemy laws as in Pakistan.  Naturally, they don’t like it but the butcher’s bill is already very high and they don’t see a way around things as they are. I can understand deciding that discretion is the better part of valor but everyone needs to be honest about what this means for the future. The places where we live will be forever different and we will spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders.

A response to threats of murder against blasphemy that is anything less than full throated, with no hemming and hawing or genuflecting at the altar of politeness is no defense at all. What matters is the right to publish blasphemy without fear of reprisals by violent religious fanatics. If it exists only in the abstract and with the tacit understanding that the right won’t ever be exercised, then it really doesn’t exist at all.

Sometimes it can be quite difficult to tell the difference between a polite man and a terrified one.