A recent interview in Die Welt is a welcome addition to the debate about Islam and freedom of expression in democratic countries. Frances Cowell examines perspectives and limits they evoke.

Emmanuel Macron’s strenuous defence of the right to free expression, enshrined in the 1789 French declaration of human rights, and central to democracy, has excited strong responses, with Muslims around the world burning French flags, images and even effigies, of M. Macron. The controversy has thrown up some surprising allies and critics.

On one side, Justin Trudeau, defends free expression, but notes that it is not without limits. You can’t just cry “Fire” in a crowded theatre, for example, unless there actually is a fire. Its hard to argue with that. And most people are OK with laws against defamation.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Die Welt, Anwar Gargash, United Arab Emirates Minister for Foreign affairs, applauds M Macron’s broader context, which he set out in his prescient address to his nation on 2 October. M. Macron’s aim is to combat ghettoisation of French Muslims, which he believes encourages their radicalisation. By bringing Islam and Muslims into the mainstream of French communities, he seeks to encourage open discourse and mutual acceptance by Muslims and non-Muslims of each other. Mr Gargash’s point is that Macron’s defence of the long-standing and strongly-held principle of freedom of thought and expression should be understood in the context of his genuine objective of mutual respect.

Both Messers Trudeau and Gargash make good points – all the more powerful in that they recognise valid arguments by the “other” side. In this they contribute to an important, thoughtful debate on freedom of expression, which goes to the heart of what sometimes seems to be a fundamental incompatibility of Islam and liberal democracy. In questioning the legitimate limits of freedom of expression and examining the longer-term aims and implications of the speaker, each lifts the debate into grown-up territory.

Two weeks after Macron’s address, Samuel Paty was beheaded for teaching a class on civics, as part of the normal school curriculum. To illustrate freedom of expression and its implications, he showed a copy of the Charlie Hebdo image that had lead to the terrorist attack on its offices in 2015. M. Paty had warned his pupils that he was about to show an image that some of them may find offensive and invited them to look away. This was not unusual: M Paty had previously used the same image in exactly the same context with several previous classes.

Most people would agree that gratuitous offensiveness is at best in poor taste. But should it be outlawed? And, if so, who decides what is good and bad taste? Many would consider the image published in Charlie Hebdo indeed to be in very poor taste. Yet the right to poor taste was vigorously defended at the time of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo by a broad cross-section of people, including politicians from all sides marching in support of what amounts to the “right to offend”.

The navel-gazing continues, especially in French university circles – and not for the first time. Jules Ferry, the nineteenth century French statesman, thinker and writer, for example, thought that teachers should avoid teaching any material that may put any of their pupils in conflict with parental authority, as it seems to have for a pupil at M. Paty’s school.

But what if the parental teaching is at odds with the laws of the land? Its not hard to imagine a situation where a teacher finds himself so constrained by the possibility of offending someone – who he may not even have met – that he cannot say, and therefore teach, anything.

Critical thinking and personal responsibility are central to western education. The aim of civics classes after all is not to drill doctrine into pupils’ heads – or even merely to teach them the laws they must abide by, but to invite them to think for themselves and decide how to reconcile possible conflicts between their personal commitments and the demands of the country in which they live.

Freedom of expression is fundamental to democracy, which cannot function without it. Freedom to shoot and stab people and cut their heads off is not.

Mr Trudeau spoke for many when he evoked reasonable limits to freedom of expression; and Mr Gargash’s argument is shared by thoughtful Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere. The world is better for their contributions.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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