It’s been a tough week for free speech in Europe

A cover from the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo

A cover from the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo

This morning, masked gunmen attacked the Paris headquarters of French humor publication Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people, including the editor and four cartoonists who had depicted the prophet Muhammed. Although no one has yet claimed responsibility, the Times reports that “extremist groups applauded the violence, calling it revenge for the newspaper’s satirical treatment of Islam and its prophet.” At the risk of profiling, I’m going to say this was a radical Islam thing, because who else violently attacks funny newspapers? Western traditions have more respect for free speech. In unrelated news, the UK has arrested a series of people for praising jihad on Twitter and Facebook.

Here’s a question that can only be answered through beheading: If God is so great, how can cartoons diminish him? We all agree that Islam is the only true religion and Muhammed the most important of its prophets. If these ideas are self-evident, as everyone knows they are, then how could other ideas possibly threaten them? It seems odd that is should be necessary to resort to forces outside the marketplace of ideas, e.g. Kalashnikovs, to refute the French version of Mad magazine.

It’s almost as if Islamic terrorists are killing people to protect not Islam but their own political advantage. Jihad and Muslim fundamentalism might just be bankrupt ideologies. I seem to remember French existentialism catching on without bombing shopping centers or threatening to assassinate everyone who made fun of it. The same cannot always be said for liberal democracy, but at least Western consumer culture has succeeded by seduction rather than direct coercion.

Which brings us to Azhar Ahmed, the British teenager who posted this message on Facebook two days after six British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan:


What a dick. There’s a lot of dross in this message, but there is also a valid point. Prime Minister David Cameron called the deaths of these six soldiers “a desperately sad day for our country,” which suggests asymmetrical sympathy for the thousands of Afghan civilians killed in our ten-year quest to unseat the Taliban. Ahmed expresses his idea poorly, but the notion that we should consider the innocent people killed in war while we piously mourn our soldiers is legitimate and valuable.

Or, to paraphrase the magistrate who sentenced Ahmed to 240 hours of community service for sending a “grossly offensive communication,” Ahmed’s opinion was “beyond the pale of what’s tolerable in our society.” Apparently, contemporary Britain cannot function if people are allowed to say soldiers deserve to die for fighting in an unjust war.

For the record, I don’t think anybody deserves to die; that’s what makes unjust wars so awful. But “all soldiers should die and go to hell,” stupid and reductive though it may be, is not exactly a mind-virus threatening to erase civilization. It’s an opinion that is deeply unpopular with most Britons and, more importantly, with their government.

You see where I’m going with this. What we have here are two totalizing ideologies bent on preserving and expanding their shares of political control. Both are willing to use coercion backed by violence to fight speech.

The British government’s monopoly on force allows it to use the symbolic violence of the justice system, but make no mistake: if Ahmed doesn’t do his community service, they’ll take him to jail, and if he refuses to go to jail they will knock him down and bring him there. Jihadists mount a (doomed) challenge to state monopolies on violence, so their coercion is localized and explicitly brutal. But both groups are willing to use physical force to fight ideas.

Why is that? A good idea doesn’t need to silence its critics. It welcomes criticism, because thinking critically about a good idea reveals its merits. Jihadists’ willingness to assassinate cartoonists who satirize Muhammed suggest that they are insecure about the merits of their faith. The British government’s willingness to put a teenager in jail for criticizing the war in Afghanistan on Facebook suggests it is insecure about the merits of its war.

By the standards of Western/Enlightenment values, fundamentalist Islam is a bad belief system. This morning’s attack on Charlie Hebdo reminded us of that. I want civilization to be a contest among funny newspapers and weird ideas, not a question of who’s got machine guns and can profess the loudest loyalty to church. But stamping out criticism of a decade-long war on Facebook doesn’t live up to Western values, either. Maybe our governments have become afraid of speech for the same reasons as terrorists: because they know there is something wrong with their own ideas.

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