Today, "Charlie Hebdo" published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Its website is unavailable and riot police have been deployed. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and it is under attack.
The attack on freedom of expression from militant Muslims is to be expected. Islam is a theocracy, and like all theocracies, it does not tolerate criticism. This attack on freedom of expression is relatively easy to deal with. We can best defend our freedom by expressing it and upholding the right of everyone else to express it.
There is, however, a much more serious and insidious attack on our fundamental right to freedom of expression. It is fear and the concomitant self-censorship that inevitably flows from the ignoble emotion. Fear of offending Muslims; fear of provoking violence; fear of public disorder. This is the greatest threat to our freedom: fear.
When Charlie Hebdo took the decision to publish cartoons of Mohammed, it knew full well the probable consequences of its action. Only last November, as a result of the magazine publishing an edition that featured Mohammed as its "guest editor", they were subject to death threats, their website was hacked and their offices were firebombed. The staff of Charlie Hebdo are to be applauded for their heroic commitment to the cause of freedom of expression.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the French establishment. Laurent Fabius, the Foreign Minister, in a move that was all too typical, criticised the magazine, saying, there was "no point in such a provocation". Yet, when Charlie Hebdo ran its cartoon campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy in the run up to the recent French presidential election, no one called it a "provocation".
Acceptance of criticism and mockery is a fundamental part of any free and open society. And no one, and no thing, can be off limits. A society that cannot tolerate criticism is an oppressive society. In such a society, there are no human rights, for without the right to freedom of expression, no other rights can be defended.
As Sir Salman Rushdie, who has been under sentence of death since his novel The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, recently expressed it, the only way to deal with this attack is:
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