Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Expression

I want to address some of the (many) issues that arise from the recent murders of the staff at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, in Paris. In the first place, and appealing to the characterisation of terrorism given in the previous blog, this was not an act of terrorism, surprising as it may seem at first sight. This judgement derives from the fact that the murders do not appear to be acts of random violence, but rather violence that had a specific target. The aim was not, apparently, to further some (political) aims by killing some French citizens, or Parisians, but to kill those who worked on the magazine. If the killers had gone to the wrong building and killed fourteen people who did not work for Charlie Hebdo, then they would have failed in their ‘mission’, but if they had simply been terrorists, this would not have mattered. I think this is the correct view to take of the murders and I think it does confirm the criteria for terrorism given in the previous blog. But I would add one qualification: from what I understand, Charlie Hebdo was particularly offensive to Muslims and it was therefore a specific target. However, it is possible that part of the rationale was deterrence, and the motivation was deterrence as well as revenge: a message was being sent to others who might insult the Prophet. This aspect of the incident inclines one to see it as terrorism, designed to prevent others from doing what Charlie Hebdo did. So the question of whether or not this was an act of terrorism is not entirely straight forward and clear-cut  - which is perhaps what we would expect.


I want now to look at a more general and abstract question. According to the theory of morality that informs everything that I write in this blog, an act which is morally wrong because it breaks a moral rule may still be permissible – and an agent can perform the act without being blamed - if there is adequate justification. Many believe that acts of terrorism, or terrorism-like acts, can never be justified because nothing justifies killing innocents. I am inclined to agree, but that should not stop us from looking further into the matter. So if a terrorist were asked to justify his or her actions, then, if a coherent answer were forthcoming, one would expect it to be given in terms of what I called  ‘ongoingness’, of the ‘cause’ that is at stake. IS, for instance, want a caliphate across the Middle East; that is the end which animates their cause and motivates their actions, and which, by their lights, justifies what they do. Assuming that this is indeed their justification, then one needs to at least to think about it as a way to understand what IS is all about – to dismiss IS as a death cult, as our Prime Minister does, may win him a few political points, but it is hardly helpful. I reject the IS justification, as most would. It does not, in my view, make what they do morally permissible. But what of the actions of the Kouachi brothers? What was their justification?


For Charlie Hebdo it seems that no target was off-limits for satire and ridicule, including the Prophet Mohammed. I believe, though I am far from well-informed on the matter, that the status of Mohammed  in Islam is such that he is venerated in a rather different way than, say, Jesus in Christianity. And on the whole while some Christians would feel upset and insulted if Jesus featured in cartoons, this would not derive from any sense that Christianity as a whole was denigrated and disparaged – indeed, maybe satirists tend not to do it just because it fails to give serious offence. This is not, however, as I understand it, what happens when Mohammad is depicted in this way. Serious offence is given, and Charlie Hebdo knows this. It seems to me that the Kouachi brothers therefore had more going for them by way of justification than certain other acts of terrorism, which is not (by any means) to say that what they did was permissible.

They would have had nothing by way of justification if it were always permissible to say whatever one likes, without any restraint or limit: call this unrestricted freedom of expression. Some responses to the murders seem to imply that we should uphold, or in fact do uphold, this principle. But clearly we should not. The  slander and libel of individuals is wrong; it is wrong to vilify on racial and other grounds; it is wrong to incite violence; on many occasions it is wrong to lie, and there are other kinds of instances in which freedom of expression should be restricted. The test in all such cases is whether more harm is prevented. There is nothing especially fundamental about free speech: it is not an independent foundational moral principle. All morality is about restricting actions that cause unjustifiable harms. Certainly restricting any kind of freedom, whether of act or spoken word, is prima facie wrong; but when this prevents greater harm, then it is justified and seen to be justified. Charlie Hebdo’s poking fun at Mohammed cannot therefore be defended by invoking the unrestricted freedom of expression because that is not itself a defensible moral principle. I believe they should not have caused, and should not continue to cause, great offence – harm – to Muslims by publishing their cartoons. This does not, of course, excuse or justify the Kouachi brothers. But Charlie Hebdo is not innocent either.

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