Freedom of Speech and Its Consequences

This paper examines how the meaning of freedom of speech has changed in an age of terror, and also how globalisation, the information age and the like has affected the very ways in which speech and communication is done. Focusing on the growing xenophobia prevalent in Europe, the increased immigrants has sparked a heated debate on freedom of speech in an information age and in an age of multiculturalism that this paper examines by using France as a case study.

Freedom of Speech and Its Consequences

Topic: Does the freedom of speech give you the right to express opinions that insult the

religious convictions of others?

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without

understanding both” (Mills 1959, 3)

Wright Mills, one of the most influential sociologists of his time, stressed the importance of understanding others not just as they are but with the “history of a society.” That this is often forgotten by individuals in judging the values and beliefs of others has led us to an era where we are in a constant zone of fear. Having the freedom, or ability to speak as one wishes to, does not also include the privilege of being able to neglect another man or woman’s upbringing without attempting to understand the abyss that is the difference between nations and people. In this essay I will analyse the implications of freedom of speech and whether or not this includes the right to insult the religious convictions of others by looking at the current dynamics of superdiversification in Europe—in particular, analysing the Charlie Hebdo attacks in this light.


Let us first discuss the implications of these words: “freedom of speech.” Naturally this includes, before anything else, speaking freely, naturally, without having to hold back one’s thoughts. It is a positive thing. After all, no country can join the EU without guaranteeing freedom of expression as a basic human right (Council of Europe 2004, 18). Progress would not be made possible without discussion of thought. It is each individual’s right to be able to speak his or her mind freely. This neglects the complications of the consequences that may arise, especially if these rights were to be abused, which they often are. ISIS, 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, terrorism, school shootings- these are all consequences of people not just exercising their right to “freedom of speech” but abusing it.


In order to answer this question, I must first look at the differences in the public sphere, in democracy, in the economy; in general how Europe has changed in terms of its dynamics due to super-diversity and globalisation. As western countries are facing an increasing flux of cultural minorities due to globalization, it is becoming harder to define and distinguish between the “other” while clashes between religion, ideas and cultures are more readily made. Without an increase of attention to attitudes towards these migrants by the government and people, phenomena such as the European migrant crisis is a drastic consequence of globalization and superdiversity to the changes in dynamics, leading to growing fervors of xenophobia, as many of the European countries have not responded well to the diaspora.


One example of this is the Muslims coming to the Netherlands, some of the main reasons including the Dutch colonial past, labor migration, conversion and asylum (Beck). Islamic countries are not wholly compatible with democracy, depending on which ethnicity, stream, denomination, etc., but in the era of globalization today, and with less socially dominant cultures like Islamic cultures migrating to socially dominant Western European cultures, many people just want to insert Western ideas, such as democracy, by oppression and disrespecting their own cultures, into these less privileged countries, all the while using their right to “freedom of speech” as an excuse to do so.


The right to freedom of expression is being questioned more as there is an increase in diversification in identity and culture but also a massive lack of knowledge of the amount of diversity within various cultures. For example, there is massive diversity within different religions, including different streams within Islam (Sunnites; Shi’ites- Isma’ilites, Ithna ‘Asharites, ‘Alawites; Kharijites- ‘Ibadites, Zaydites; Ahmadiyya-Muslims, etc). There are also different ethnicities of Muslims, such as Indonesian Muslims, Moluccan Muslims, Surinam Muslims, Tunesian Muslims, and so on. Different forms of Islam, different denominations, different reasons for migrating, different streams and ethnicities; these differentiations all show that Islam “is not a uniform, monolithic whole” and must not be treated as such by socially dominant cultures (Beck). This also means, even more so, that definitions differ, which make the question of whether the freedom of speech or expression itself also includes the right to insult the religious convictions of others more difficult to answer than before. I will now discuss the terror of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and how this highlights the consequences that arise from abusing the meaning of “free speech”.


Gunmen Said and Cherif Kouachi attacked satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and in doing so brought to light many issues of hypocrisy. In an interview between journalist Jeremy Scahill and reporter Amy Goodman, they discuss the consequences of the satirical magazine exercising their “freedom of speech” by discussing the largest rally in French history ever which occurred on January the 11th, 2015, with approximately 3.7 million people on marching in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack (Withnall, Lichfield 2015, 1). The cartoonists and all the 3.7 million people that took part in the Charlie Hebdo march afterwards argue that what the Kouachi brothers did was unjust, as the illustrates of the prophet Muhammad was just an act of “freedom of expression”, although they fail to see that their retaliation was also merely, according to the definition of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, an act of “freedom of expression.” Were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were to first be respectful of their deepest convictions and beliefs, they would also not have abused their rights of “freedom of expression” to such a horrific and immoral extent- an extent which should not be reached.


The shock displayed by the French public and people all over the world who supported “Je suis Charlie” is hypocritical and controversial. They seemed to have believed that it is justified to insult and mock the religion of socially less dominant cultures but when they respond, this is appalling and unjustified. This in it of itself is, essentially, the pot calling the kettle black, as the act of the Kouachi brothers could also be justified in this sense as an act of free speech. It is not seen as an act of free speech largely because it resides from less socially dominant cultures, which social media has depicted as immoral, unjustified, violent without meaning or cause; although in a sense it is even more justified as it was a response.


In his interview by Goodman, Scahill talks about France holding a “very Islamophobic position toward their immigrants.” France, social media and other institutions like Charlie Hebdo- even all the people chanting “Je suis Charlie” afterwards, did indeed express as they pleased, but the consequences were vast and irreparable. The cartoonist that works for Charlie Hebdo, Luz, drew a tearful Muhammad after the Charlie Hebdo attacks holding a “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) sign under the words “All is forgiven” (Silva 2015, 1). At least 12 people died due to the magazine extending the boundaries of what “freedom of speech” means, and this is only one example. Publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, while having clear conscious that this is a direct insult to Islam and considered blasphemous, is not only immoral but also puerile. To continue this while dealing with the aftermath that was a product directly of their actions, it is no wonder there was such a backlash Paris was forced to take. One might argue that they are a satirical magazine; that that is their point, to make fun of things- but what if the Kouachi brothers and the Islamic people now also believe that their attacks on Charlie Hebdo were an act of free speech, an act of expression, merely in response to the mockery of their deepest convictions?


Xenophobia is a growing phenomenon today in Europe, especially with the European migrant crisis, another result of “freedom of speech.” Many Europeans, especially of Western Northern European countries, expect migrants to at least conform to their beliefs and traditions if they are to enter their countries. They expect them to throw away everything they know to be good, right, and true. In 2004, the French “secularity law” passed with a vote of 276 to 20, banning “conspicuous religious symbols” including Muslim hijabs, Sikh’s head coverings, large Christian crosses or crucifixes, Jewish yarmulkes—in other words, “all explicit religious symbols in public schools” (Raja 2014, 1). This “veil issue” shows that “many feel that ethnic and religious minorities” need to be “assimilated properly” (Raja 2014, 1). The illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad in the Charlie Hebdo magazines prove this. Society today sees itself becoming more and more cosmopolitan, yet at the same time, however, first world Western European countries continue to field a massive influx of immigrants that stress the question of the need for assimilation and the degree this will affect cultures and religion.


Globalisation today has caused a loss of cultures and is affecting religions negatively. Raja also mentions the French Law having already been criticized by Human Rights Watch in 2004 saying that by “banning Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols in state schools” the government “violate[s] the right to freedom of religion and expression”. Freedom of religion and expression includes wearing the Burqua, or jihabs, or headscarves, or crosses, or yarmulkes, the list goes on. The French “security law” is an act oppression that goes against freedom of speech, which includes, in it’s entirety, freedom of thought, and thus, freedom to believe whichever religion, if any, one wishes to believe in. Laws like these are created in an attempt to keep order in the changing dynamics of Europe today, to create some form of order in the chaos that is globalization, but it is destroying religions in the false name of “freedom of expression”.


Individuals each expect a certain amount of respect or understanding, yet it is these cartoonists and the like that do not seem to acknowledge the fact that people of under privileged civilizations deserve just as much respect and acknowledgement, regardless of their values and beliefs. In 2012 France was forced to temporarily close its schools and embassies in over 20 countries due to potential terrorism attacks in response to the Charlie Hebdo Prophet Muhammad cartoons, yet according to the director of the French magazine of the time Stéphane Charbonnier, they were “not really fuelling the fire” but rather using freedom of expression “to comment on the news in a satirical way.” (Silva 2015, 2). Charbonnier is blind to the “fire” of rage and fear, so to speak, that her magazine has caused, and one consequence was having to close down those schools and embassies.


Contrary to what Charbonnier said, drawing the Prophet Muhammed not only
“fuelled the fire” for the argument of freedom of expression but on a larger scale helped create a society ridden with fear. It first led to the two gunmen who shot 22, killing at least 12 people, then the largest rally in French history ever (3.7 million people with some of the worlds’ biggest leaders) in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and finally fostered massive feelings of resentment in countries like Islam towards first-world countries who disrespect their beliefs like France and in general helped create and be a part of what we are in today: an age of terror.


An example of how drawing the Prophet Muhammad and abusing the right to “freedom of expression” helped build the age of terror we are in today includes the concept that in many Islamic countries there is a belief that acceptance of Western ideas may lead to corruption or tyranny, which in turn fosters the blind hatred and fear of ideas like democracy, then leading to anti-democracy propaganda as such: “Democracy is Cancer, Islam is the answer” (Duke 2015, 2). The widespread background idea that anything from the West will lead to their destruction is due to globalisation and superdiversity, and so we cannot afford to just assume that freedom of speech includes the freedom to insult others. Charbonnier continues to say that she does not live under Koranic Law, but under French law, and so she doesn’t “blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings” (Withnall, Lichfield 2015, 4). However, although she does not need to abide by the Koranic laws, as a human being, she is still bound to certain morals as a citizen of the world.


Rüdier Safranski, a German philosopher, discussed the consequences of globalisation on culture and religion in our society today. There are three paradigms he outlined in his book How Much Globalisation Can We Bear? The second refers to a homogenisation, or “Mcdonaldization” through multinational companies, the kind we see at airports and the third speaks to the concept of “hybridization”, which is less visible, and involves hidden hierarchies, and is a post-modern concept. For the purposes of this essay I will focus on the first paradigm, and perhaps the bleakest: a clash of civilizations- creating a lasting difference. Here Safranski argues that globalisation has a dangerous, negative effect, which is proven through phenomena occurring only today such as terrorism and through organisations such as ISIS. There is more chances for cultures to clash and for societies to fight for dominance due to globalization and closer proximity. The question remains, who gets to decide which cultures/values dominate?


As there is an increasing knowledge of other religions and cultures due to globalisation there are also more opportunities for the clashing of cultures and religion, and more opportunities for dominant cultures to attempt to control and overtake the ideals of socially non-dominant cultures. The loss of diversity, or an increase in generalisation and uniformity of ideas can be seen as entire civilizations are “slowly dissolving into tribalism and gang warfare” (Safranski 2005, 10) just like the French “Secularism law” or the printed images of the Prophet Muhammad in the Charlie Hebdo magazines. Today there is a large scale of terror infiltrating every aspect of daily life. Western countries like France attempt to smudge out religions and cultures such as Islamic beliefs, and in retaliation terrorist attacks occur. Due to globalisation today, perhaps a phenomena beyond our control, we find ourselves in a society filled with fear and destruction, where people feel the need to insult the religious convictions of others in order to preserve their own cultures by using their “right” to freedom of speech as a means to do so.





Beck, Herman. “Wicked Problems: Muslims and Democracy” (presentation at Dante Building on Tilburg University Campus, Tilburg, Netherlands, September 24, 2015).


Council of Europe, “European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as amended by Protocols Nos. 11 and 14”, 4 November 1950.


Council of Europe, “Freedom of Expression: A Guide to the Implementation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights”, January 2004.


Duke, Barry. “Britain Wakes Up At Last To Home-Grown Islamists’ War on Freedom and Democracy.” The Free Thinker, June 22, 2015.


Scahill, Jeremy. Interview with Amy Goodman, “Democracy Now!”, January 12, 2015.


John Lichfield & Adam Withnall. “Charlie Hebdo shooting: At Least 12 Killed As Shots Fired at Satirical Magazine’s Paris Office.” Independent, January 7, 2015.


Mills, C. Wright. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1959.


Raja, Raza. “Burqah Ban, Multiculturalism and Secularism.” Huffington Post, July 9, 2014.


Safranski, Rüdiger. How Much Globalisation Can We Bear? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005.


Silva, Cristina. “Charlie Hebdo Attack: The Prophet Muhammad Cartoons That May Have Caused Paris Magazine Massacre.” International Business Times, January 7, 2015.





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