January 11, 2015

The roots of the battle for free speech

 (Unlike Andrew Bolt, Tom Holland is action and thoughtfulness, not bluster and mockery.)
Historian Tom Holland was one of those who tweeted Charlie Hebdo's cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in the wake of the deadly attack on the magazine's office. Here he explains the ramifications of defending free speech.

Religions are not alone in having their martyrs. On 1 July, 1766, in Abbeville in northern France, a young nobleman named Lefebvre de la Barre was found guilty of blasphemy. The charges against him were numerous - that he had defecated on a crucifix, spat on religious images, and refused to remove his hat as a Church procession went past. 

These crimes, together with the vandalising of a wooden cross on the main bridge of Abbeville, were sufficient to see him sentenced to death. Once La Barre's tongue had been cut out and his head chopped off, his mortal remains were burned by the public executioner, and dumped into the river Somme. Mingled among the ashes were those of a book that had been found in La Barre's study, and consigned to the flames alongside his corpse - the Philosophical Dictionary of the notorious philosopher, Voltaire. 

Voltaire himself, informed of his reader's fate, was appalled. "Superstition," he declared from his refuge in Switzerland, "sets the whole world in flames."

Two-and-a-half centuries on, and it is the notion that someone might be put to death for criticising a religious dogma that is likely to strike a majority of people in the West as the blasphemy. The values of free speech and toleration for which Voltaire campaigned all his life have become enshrined as the very embodiment of what Europeans, as a rule, most prize about their own civilisation. 
 ...
 To the gunmen who yesterday launched their murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, it is the mockery of a prophet whom they feel should exist beyond even a hint of criticism. Between these two positions, when they are prosecuted with equal passion and conviction on both sides, there cannot possibly be any accommodation.

It was the Salman Rushdie affair that served as the first symptom of this. Since then, like a dull toothache given to periodic flare-ups, the problem has never gone away. I myself had first-hand experience of just how intractable it can be in 2012, with a film I made for Channel 4. Islam: The Untold Story explored the gathering consensus among historians that much of what Muslims have traditionally believed about the life of Muhammad is unlikely to be strict historical fact - and it provoked a firestorm of death threats. 

Unlike Charlie Hebdo, I had not set out to give offence. I am no satirist, and I do not usually enjoy hurting people's feelings. Nevertheless, I too feel that some rights are worthy of being defended - and among them is the freedom of historians to question the origin myths of religions. That was why, when I heard the news from Paris yesterday, I chose to do something I would never otherwise have done, and tweet a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad. 

The BBC, by contrast, has decided not to reproduce the cartoon for this article. Many other media organisations - though not all - have done the same. I refuse to be bound by a de facto blasphemy taboo.
While under normal circumstances I am perfectly happy not to mock beliefs that other people hold dear, these are far from normal circumstances. As I tweeted yesterday, the right to draw Muhammad without being shot is quite as precious to many of us in the West as Islam presumably is to the Charlie Hebdo killers. 

We too have our values - and if we are not willing to stand up for them, then they risk being lost to us. When it comes to defining l'infâme, I for one have no doubt whose side I am on.
The roots of the battle for free speech

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