Since the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, decreed the assassination of the Indian writer Salman Rushdie on 14 February 1989 – other than the attempts against his life, editors of his work were persecuted or murdered in several countries – a growing trend of harassment, threat and murder of all of those whose views are deemed unacceptable by religious zealots have been observed around the World.
Whereas abusive laws against freedom of opinion and religion in particular have covered massive crimes against humanity in Iran and elsewhere, the Iranian fatwa set a new precedent where a State unilaterally overrides any existing international norms as well as the internal order of other states to apply its own capital punishment rules on opinion dissent. In 2006 several Islamist fanatic organisations followed the Salman Rushdie precedent and condemned the satirist French newspaper “Charlie Hebdo”.
The freedom to express critical opinions and most in particular to express them as caricatures stands at the heart of our concept of free society. As in any other of our basic freedoms, there are limits to freedom of expression. There is not a single formula independent of time, mode and space to draw such limits, but in a democratic society it is for the public opinion in the first hand to discuss, ultimately the legislator and the judicial power to decide on this matter.
I promoted a conference on the issue joining a specialist on security, an academic presenting the case for limits on caricatures and a Charlie Hebdo representative.
I was severely harassed by my own political group on this occasion and I was only authorised to keep the conference by withdrawing from it the cartoon here depicted, which compares a “Believer hurt by a Non-believer” with a “Non-believer hurt by aBeliever“
The European socialist leadership act of censorship on this conference stands as a major symbol of its failure to understand and give the appropriate response to what was and is at stake.
Whereas the European socialist leadership joined the general condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo massacre the tweets of some of them betray their true beliefs, calling at first attention to the responsibility of “unemployment and austerity” in the crime and now accusing “Charlie Hebdo” of insisting to offend Islam.
For the European political establishment the issue is not and never was to decide if one agrees or subscribes to a specific form of caricature: it is a matter of opinion; or to decide if these caricatures should be allowed: the French Judicial system already decided these caricatures to be in conformity with rules limiting freedom of expression. The issue is that an offense to the beliefs of someone can never authorise this someone to commit murder.
This is the question confronting our society. Should we appease fanatics or should we defend the freedom of expression, the rule of law within national boundaries and within the international community?
The future of Europe will depend on our answer to these questions.