In the pre-enlightenment Western world, it was common to put someone to death for holding all kinds of view that society or religion deemed blasphemous. In the same century that Anglican Reformers were being burnt at the stake in Oxford for their views on the sacraments, Servetus, anabaptist and antitrinitarian, had the dubious privilege of being burnt in effigy by the Catholics in France and in actuality by the Protestants in Geneva.
But mercifully, the enlightenment, largely through its discovery of the dignity of the created human person in the Bible, has taught the Western world the value of freedom of speech, as well as freedom of conscience. We no longer burn heretics or put blasphemers to the sword. We may seek to persuade the mind and heart, but we respect the person.
We have also learnt that the best response to outrages such as this is tolerance, meeting hatred with unity and xenophobia with acceptance. Again, I suspect that we have learnt these values from the Christian faith which has so influenced Western culture: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” said Jesus (Matthew 5:44).
Freedom has been coming under trial as Biblical faith in the West, having largely been the river through which it flowed into our culture, is ironically finding its own freedom of thought and belief under threat in moral and ethical areas. But freedom of speech is still a precious Western value which we need to unite with all in prizing.
The attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo is unsurprising to many, given both the satirical style of that magazine (its cartoons are justifiably seen as potentially offensive) and the Islamic fanaticists’ response to their work (firebombing the same place in 2011). If anything the taking of hostages in a kosher supermarket the next day is even more horrifying since totally without provocation.
Most of us became aware of this hard-edged and intolerant side to Islam when Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988) was condemned and he was placed under Fatwa. Observers of the journalistic and Islamic world suggest we will see more of this clash of fundamentalist ideology and free speech in months to come. Failure to speak up more in defence of Rushdie then, suggests Padriag Reidy in the Telegraph, has enabled Islamic extremism’s denial of free speech to grow influential since unopposed.
Historian Tom Holland has recorded TV programmes about the ideology underneath Islamic terrorism and writes in The BBC Magazine about the need to be clear about protecting free speech as a value worth dying for. Although sceptical eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire (in some ways, patron saint of secular revolutionary France) is not an obvious icon for orthodox Christians at this time, he did champion freedom in a way that needs to be remembered today. Tom Holland prefers his lampooning of self-promoting authority of all kinds to the terrorists’ execution of perceived blasphemers.
I suspect we will need to have the same clarity about defending freedom of conscience, as well as speech, in future too: there will be in the West, as already elsewhere, those who want to kill people not only for the provocative cartoons they draw, but for the peaceful creed they follow.