Murdering Freedom of Speech

The spectre of more jihadi attacks and bloody protests in response to the Charlie Hebdo covers will test the resolve of Western states and the media.

However, the corollary to "Je suis Charlie" is most likely "Je suis Charlie until je get scared," according to Foreign Policy.

Clear threats are not required; the whiff of intimidation may constitute sufficient aversion. And without greater awareness of the wider perspectives, the West will prolong a default position characterized by confusion and paralysis.

The mainstream media capitulated during the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons controversy in 2006. Sidestepping reprinting the images, they proclaimed fear of causing offense, as if their own insults and ridicule were not stock in trade for intrepid defenders of outrage and obloquy.

Editors of serious Western media are understandably concerned for the wellbeing of their staff and wish to avoid subjecting them to risk. If so, the public should be informed, as constraints based on fear of reprisals would surely influence reportage.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris inevitably distracted attention from restrictions on freedom of speech by some Muslim governments, including acknowledged Western allies.

While France is still reeling, Raif Badawi, a Saudi writer and blogger is suffering from his first 50 lashes per week out of a total 1,000 for "insulting Islam" on his Free Saudi Liberals website.

His second flogging due last Friday was postponed for a week on medical grounds. If he survives the corporal punishment, he will face ten years in prison and a large fine.

Badawi's female associate, Souad al Shammari, was arrested for tweets that scorned religious texts and institutions, and roused women to rebel against guardian laws. In another case of cyber offense, two Saudi women, Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi, were arrested for driving but they will be tried in a terrorism court, reportedly for comments on social media.

With the world's largest contingent of journalists in prison, freedom of expression is under serious attack in still secular Turkey.

In Pakistan, more than twenty-five cases of blasphemy were filed in 2012.

Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi is fighting a death sentence for charges of defaming the Prophet, and politicians, Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer, were assassinated for campaigning on her behalf.

Cyber journalists in Iran have been arrested for writing content held to be insulting to Islam, a penalty consistent with the fatwa issued to Salman Rushdie in 1989. This death warrant was Ayatollah Khomeini's early shot in Islamist opposition to freedom of speech. International attempts by the Organization of Islamic Co-operation to ban criticism of Islam may have percolated to Europe, where Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands have implemented legislation prosecuting "vilification" of religion.

The OIC, a major voting bloc at the United Nations, sponsored resolutions aimed at proscribing criticism of Islam and from 1999 they were regularly introduced to the UN Human Rights Council or General Assembly.

Formulated as "defamation of religions," the resolutions were unacceptable to the West, where such calumny applies to people rather than concepts.

When the wording was reframed to criminalize incitement to hatred and violence, incitement was not described as a provocation to commit a crime but as a "test of consequences."

Even if offensive speech did not aim to provoke violence, it could be considered incitement if it resulted in violence.

In 2006, Britain came close to introducing legislation that would have criminalized denigration of Islam, including satire.

Supported by the Muslim Council of Britain, moves to incorporate incitement to religious hatred in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and in the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act were dropped after being challenged in the House of Lords. Another attempt in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act was narrowly defeated in the House of Commons.

Freedom of speech might be integral to the hard-won flowering of modern freedoms valued in the West, but its fragile bloom has faded and could die without proper tending by courageous politicians and media working in a global partnership to oppose Islamism and the Zeitgeist of political correctness.

Western politicians could find support from Muslim leaders, such as Egyptian President Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, who in December spoke of the "need to revolutionize our religion," because extremist ideology was destroying Islamic countries and endangering the world.

The response to the politico/religious ideology of Islamism has proved inadequate in France and many other Western countries.

If the state can't protect the individual, and can't control jihadists from applying their own law, the "citoyens" are in a hard place. Freedom of speech is just a primary casualty.

A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.