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Freedom of Expression, Without the Expression

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Freedom of Expression, Without the Expression

A French imam weighs in, unfortunately. September 26, 2012

There can be moderation even in moderation, and in his interview on September 20 with the French newspaper Le Figaro, the president of the association of imams in France, Hassen Chalghoumi, proved himself moderately moderate. Asked about the recent publication of satirical Mohammed cartoons in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, he rejected the use of violence and argued that the way to defend the prophet was through “sharing, tolerance, forgiveness, faith and love.” He was also against trying to take the magazine to court, maintaining his support for freedom of expression.

This is all welcome, though I note that he said nothing about rational argument as a way to defend the prophet. And he also, less encouragingly, said this: “The attitude of Charlie Hebdo is irresponsible. For days, we have been doing all we can to appeal for calm, to ease tensions, to condemn violence; and this journal, either unwittingly or through a desire to increase its sales, has revived it [the atmosphere of violence that followed the anti-Islamic film in the U.S.] at the worst moment.”

Here one would have been tempted to ask the imam when the right time would have been for Charlie Hebdo to publish its cartoons, but the interviewer did not. “But let them not deceive themselves,” the imam continued. “It is for them now to accept their part in the material damage that will be caused, and in every building burnt, every person attacked or killed, their responsibility will be involved.” This is surely an odd way of looking at the situation, accepting as it does the logic of the blackmailer or the intimidator: either you do as we say, or we will be violent.

Or perhaps the imam thinks of his more violently inclined coreligionists in the way that the Roman aristocrats thought of the plebs in Julius Caesar: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,” which is to say, as mere material objects that don’t think or decide but merely react as water to wind or rocks to gravity.

If a Republican physically attacked a Democrat, or a Democrat a Republican, after one said something with which the other strongly disagreed, would it be any defense for the attacker to say, “He knew perfectly well that I detested his views”? Freedom of expression requires not so much the exercise of self-control in what is said as its exercise in reaction to what is said. I can hardly look at a book these days without taking offense at something that it contains, but if I smash a window in annoyance, the blame is only mine—even if the author knows perfectly well that what he wrote will offend many such as I.

Interestingly, the imam did not excuse or even explain the conduct of Charlie Hebdo by claiming that the magazine may have been provoked into publishing the cartoons by those who reacted violently to the film made in the U.S. In other words, Frenchmen act, violent Muslims merely react.

As far as Hassen Chalghoumi is concerned, then, you can have any freedom you like—so long as you don’t exercise it.

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