After Charlie Hebdo: is religion dividing or uniting the world?

After outrage at the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo turned to anger against its ‘satire’, we reflect on the growing divide over the right of free speech between religious and secular societies.

Days after three gunmen killed 17 people in Paris, a man holds a placard during a unity rally in the old harbour in Marseille, southern France. There were similar demonstrations in support of free speech held around the world. Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP Photo
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On Sunday, January 11, as nearly four million people and 40 world leaders marched in Paris in a display of unity, it seemed, briefly, as though the world had, as one, condemned the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Wasn’t that Abu Mazen, the president of the Palestinian Authority, there right at the front, along with Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as the leaders of Germany, Britain, Israel and, of course, France? Europeans, Africans and Asians, Christians, atheists, Muslims and Jews: all, it appeared, had come together in a rare moment of unanimity.

But it was all too fleeting, and it was an illusion in any case. We were not all Charlie. Even many of those on the march were not; at least not in the sense that they would support the right of cartoonists to insult religion everywhere, including in their home countries. The globe was near united in condemning the killings. But that was as far as it went. That ecstatic demonstration in Paris, so powerful a symbol that it allowed for the temporary suspension of reality – perhaps Lennon was right, and we could hope to imagine “all the people, living life in peace” – only papered over a divide that has long been growing, and which now is fast becoming a near-unbridgeable chasm.

On the one side are those who believe in near unfettered free speech, which they claim must not only be robustly defended but extended too, as it is a universal right. On the other are those who believe there is an obligation not to offend religion, and that the liberty of the individual to speak and write as he chooses should always take second place to the good of the community; if that means that certain things are unsayable, so be it. Geographically this is largely, but not entirely, a divide between the secular West – much of which could be described as post-religious – and developing countries where the vast majority identifies as belonging to a religion.

Charlie Hebdo has focused attention on Muslims' objection to blasphemy, but Pope Francis made clear his agreement that religion should be protected in his remarks to journalists on a plane to the Philippines shortly after the attacks: "You can't provoke, you can't insult the faith of others, you can't make fun of faith. You can't make a toy out of the religions of others," he said, adding that provocation was likely to produce a reaction. "In freedom of expression there are limits." The BJP, the party of India's prime minister Narendra Modi, has similarly guarded against slights to Hinduism, accusing one state government of blasphemy a few years ago, for instance, for denying that there was any historical evidence for the existence of Lord Ram and other characters in the Ramayana. And even many Buddhists, widely if lazily thought of as being otherworldly pacifists, are taking aggressive steps to insist that their faith be protected, in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar and in Thailand.


This divide was not so stark in the past. In the West, religion once had a much larger place in societies that were more conservative, deferential and hierarchical. In Britain, the Lord Chamberlain censored plays until 1968. When Monty Python's Life of Brian was released in 1979, 39 local councils refused to screen it for fear of contravening the UK's then still extant blasphemy law (the film was taken by many to parody the Christian Gospels, although the makers insisted it did not), and the Python team received death threats. The Catholic archdiocese of New York called the film "a crime against religion", Jewish groups called it "a vicious attack on Judaism and the Bible", and its showing provoked demonstrations in America and Britain.

In 1989, Britain's then foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, fell short of a full-throated defence of free speech after Iran had threatened to break off diplomatic relations over the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Sir Geoffrey told the BBC World Service: "We do understand that the book itself has been found deeply offensive by people of the Muslim faith. We can understand why it has been criticised … The British government, the British people have no affection for this book." The eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper proved himself an even less ardent defender of the liberty of the writer, famously declaring: "I would not shed a tear if some British Muslim, deploring his manners, should waylay him in some dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer."

Likewise liberalism and secularism had a much bigger place in developing countries – maybe not in the rural heartlands, but certainly among the elites. In the post-independence era, political discourse was dominated by talk of anti-colonialism and socialist planning, and by theories, such as Pan-Arabism and Baathism, and new organisations, like the Non-Aligned Movement, that had nothing to do with religion. A less than strict observation of faith was tolerated in public figures, with Muslim leaders such as Pakistan’s Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Malaysia’s Tunku Abdul Rahman being known to consume alcohol (both were fond of whisky).

Since then, however, religion has declined in Europe – to the extent that it is an open question whether the continent’s much-vaunted tolerance of different faiths (primarily within the Judaeo-Christian family) is now just a matter of indifference. The disappearance of Christianity from everyday received culture is such that the Bibical references that once would have been understood by everyone – “Dare to be a Daniel”, for instance – are likely to be lost on anyone under, say, 30. This applies to the more overtly Christian US, too. A 2009 study found that 60 per cent of Americans could not name either half of the Ten Commandments or the four Gospels of the New Testament.

In much of the rest of the world, however, religion has increased in valency – to the extent that there is a gulf of misunderstanding over this issue now. Many people in developing countries simply do not understand the history of French laicité, influenced historically by a strong strand of anticlericalism, that underpins the tradition of satire and disrespect towards authority of any kind. And few non-Muslims have any comprehension of just how very offensive insulting depictions of the Prophet are to Muslims, many of whom see them, not unreasonably, as deliberate provocations that cannot be ignored in the way that one can avoid, say, eating a dish that one finds unpalatable.

The Charlie Hebdo affair only underlined how far apart these two world views have become. One Australian political operative recently bemoaned the fact under his country's hate laws, the French magazine's Islamophobic caricatures would probably have been banned. "What couldn't be done with a Kalashnikov in Paris could be handily achieved by the draconian restrictions of Australia's statutes," wrote Gabriel Sassoon in a New York Times op-ed, calling for a bill that would grant free speech the same kind of near-absolute guarantee as that contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. After the Pope's comments, British Prime Minister David Cameron provided a clarity his Conservative predecessors had not during the Rushdie affair. "'I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offence about someone's religion," he said in an interview with CBS.

While only a few extremists, such as the Indian politician Haji Yaqoob Qureshi, actually defended the killings, there was anger throughout the Muslim world when in the aftermath the magazine printed millions more copies of a “survivors’ issue” that – in their eyes – repeated and aggravated the offence. Hundreds of thousands came out to protest, but many millions more felt quiet dismay. Iyad Madani, the secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, tweeted: “These cartoons have hurt the sentiments of Muslims across the world. Freedom of speech must not become a hate speech and must not offend others. No sane person, irrespective of doctrine, religion or faith, accepts his beliefs being ridiculed.” Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani and the Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi also both condemned the issue. One Libyan social media user, Hend @LibyaLiberty, summed the sentiment up well once news of the issue had come out: “1.6 billion Muslims want to express solidarity for a crime, and yet you are telling them that to do so they must accept ridicule. No.”


In some states where freedom of speech is under attack, such as Turkey and Russia, it would be fair to point out that, however the moves are publicly justified, they clearly serve the interests of the relevant governments and restrict the space for opposition voices to be heard. In others, however, proponents argue that maintaining or extending laws that limit what can be said or written are culturally appropriate, necessary for public harmony and command considerable popular support.

Last October, for instance, Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, announced that he was going to strengthen the country’s colonial-era Sedition Act. This surprised some, as he had previously declared his intention to repeal it and replace it with a National Harmony Act. But many in his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), had a fierce attachment to the Sedition Act as a legal bulwark shielding their race (Malay) and religion (Islam). Najib said, however, that he wanted the act to protect the sanctity not only of Islam, but also of all religions. And in a country that is home to Malays, Chinese and Indians, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, and many other minorities, there was plenty of support for the new proposal.

The move was welcomed by one of his coalition government’s Indian-majority component parties, the Progressive People’s Party, and by the president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, another member of the coalition. “Be it retaining or replacing the act with the National Harmony Act, the core spirit of the law is to maintain harmony among Malaysians of different races and religions,” said Liow Tiong Lai. “We have to focus on this principle.” He added that there was a need “to update the act for it to be more refined, specific and relevant to the current times, which will see to a fair and just implementation.” The latter was a nod to accusations that the act has been used selectively against opposition politicians and supporters, and that its language was so vague that almost anything could be considered “seditious”.

Early indications from government sources are that they are looking at ways of tightening the law and ensuring that the updated act is implemented fairly. That is key. “There is apparently no alternative law that covers what the Sedition Act does in safeguarding key institutions of society,” says the prominent Malaysian analyst Bunn Negara. “The problem is not with the act itself but rather with several controversies over how it had or had not been wielded lately.” But the government sources also point out that in recent years there have been many cases in which members of UMNO have been charged under the Sedition Act, and that opposition parties have used the act too – in fact, there is currently a case against the president of a Malay Muslim NGO who had accused ethnic Chinese Malaysians of being “trespassers” and questioned their right to citizenship and wealth. The investigation began after members of the Chinese-majority opposition Democratic Action Party filed police reports against him.

Moreover, the retention and strengthening of the act was also supported by UMNO’s leading dissident, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister much admired by the opposition alliance. “This is a good thing,” he said after the move was announced, “because things are going like a yo-yo. People are taking advantage of sensitivities of racial and religious issues and it is high time the government put its foot down and stopped all this nonsense because we cannot afford this in a multiracial society like ours.”

The Charlie Hebdo attacks have only strengthened the hand of those who warn of the dangers untrammelled free speech can pose. "Take heed of the Paris incident. That is why we need the Sedition Act and police will not let off those who insult religions," tweeted the country's inspector-general of Police, adding that the act was there to "nip the problem in the bud before it escalates". The Sedition Act in its current and future forms will be debated. The idea that religion has to be protected in some shape or form, however, is near unanimously agreed upon to an extent that is unimaginable in the secular West.

Malaysia has long been held up as an example of a moderate Muslim democracy. But even here, the divide on the value of unrestricted free speech could not be clearer. I asked Zaid Ibrahim, a leading liberal commentator who has been both a law minister and a senior member of the opposition, for his view. “The French position on free speech that allows for inciting hatred and insulting Islam is certainly not to be followed,” he replied. “Insulting any religion will only bring problems to a country, and for what purpose?”


This could, at one level, be taken as a vindication of the "Asian Values" argument. Promoted most famously by Malaysia's long-time premier, Mahathir Mohamad, and his Singapore counterpart, Lee Kuan Yew, this view held that there was a significant distinction between what western and eastern peoples most cherished. As listed by the Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani in his book Can Asians Think?, Asian values included "attachment to the family as an institution, deference to societal interests, thrift, conservatism in social mores, respect for authority", whereas westerners placed greater emphasis on individual achievement and economic and political freedom. "European values are European values," as Mahathir once put it, with typical forthrightness.

But the challenge to claims to universality of the rights and values that the West holds dear was already there. The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in 1990, contains many caveats that makes that clear. Article 22 states: “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shariah”; and: “It is not permitted to excite nationalistic or doctrinal hatred or to do anything that may be an incitement to any form of racial discrimination.” The penultimate article says: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shariah.” This might be thought to be perfectly reasonable for a statement of rights within the context of Islam, but it is a definite rejection of many of the freedoms taken for granted in many western societies.

And it could be argued that many countries never freely chose the western free-speech model in the first place. The post-war, post-independence era in which much of the developing world won its liberty was dominated by a western-constructed architecture of thought on human rights. Elites, who tended to be well-traveled and often educated abroad, were comfortable with that. Populations were often much more conservative. Giving the masses real voices has often meant moving away from liberal politics, as shown by the success of the BJP in India (although it is true that its recent support comes from middle classes who saw Modi as a pro-business and successful chief minister of Gujarat, as well as from Hindu hardliners). Mahbubani describes the assertion of a different view of rights by Asian countries as “a desire to reconnect with their historical past after this connection had been ruptured both by colonial rule and by the subsequent domination of the globe by a western Weltenschau­ung … an effort to define their own personal, social and national identities in a way that enhances their sense of self-esteem in a world where their immediate ancestors had subconsciously accepted that they were lesser beings in a western universe.”

In fact, for all the blithe talk of human rights, it is pertinent to ask to what extent there is any real global agreement on what they constitute. Holding up the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t get us very far. Firstly, it must be perfectly obvious that plenty of the signatories never had the blindest intention of keeping to it. Secondly, it was a document of its time. There is nothing, for instance, in the UDHR about LGBT rights, which are today considered part of what should be the panoply of protected and universal freedoms by most in the West. In around one-third of the world, however, homosexual acts are still illegal, as they were in many American states until relatively recently, and some countries are passing new laws against them. If, as the British philosopher Mary Warnock once put it to me, “the word ‘right’ properly belongs to the law. You can look up whether you have a right or not and find out”, it is simply wishful thinking to say that same-sex relations are a universal right, however much liberals may rue the current situation.

The same applies to free speech. That is not to say that there are not rights, values and freedoms on which we all can agree. But they may be very small in number. To return to Charlie Hebdo: those who write and draw for the magazine, and the similar-­minded, are never going to accept that they do not have the right to insult the Prophet, and whomsoever else they feel inclined to lambast. Neither will millions of Muslims accept that they are not right to take grave exception to such acts. This is going to be problematic in countries with large minorities of either side. Rather than fudging it, as in the past, it appears the West is going to insist that all live by the rules and traditions of the indigenous majority, and many other countries will prefer to place restrictions on the space for debate in order to preserve harmony. Belief systems may flow beyond borders but laws are enforced by states. This is an uncomfortable reality that is likely to become increasingly stark.

Those who argue for moderation and for the responsible exercise of rights (which sounds fine in theory, but would be taken as an outrageous attempt to curtail liberty by some) are going to have their work cut out. Perhaps the best one can hope for is that a West that has largely forgotten how central and sacred religion once was in its own realm learns about Islam in an unbiased way, as Ayatollah Khamenei recently suggested, as well as about other faiths (including Christianity); and that countries in which religion is an integral part of identity take time to explore in depth the concept of liberal values and freedoms. I jest only slightly when I suggest it might be explained that that is the religion westerners believe in – for it has all the force of faith – and that it is just as dear to them as Islam, Hinduism and the other great creeds are to their believers. A greater understanding of each others’ deeply held beliefs may not be able to bridge this chasm. But it may be a start.

Sholto Byrnes is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia.