French Lessons

Is Blasphemy Against Free Speech Worth Dying For?

I have been doing background research on the murders of ten members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists on January 7. This atrocity raises profound questions about the relations between Islam and secular Western culture, about the role of free speech, and about the nature of blasphemy.

Not all of it is depressing. For instance, I stumbled across a scholarly publication devoted to the study of blasphemous and offensive language, Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. The journal lapsed in 2005, but for many years it had collected examples of vulgar, obscene, aggressive, abusive, and blasphemous language, such as . . . sorry, I'd better not go there. The keyboard might melt if I were to type in some of the words, let alone say them.

The point is that, no matter how progressive we might think ourselves to be, there are expressions that offend us deeply.

And that's the way it should be. A person who cannot be offended is a person who loves nothing, who is loyal to nothing, who has no commitments, who is a pathological loner. Consider the husband who stands by and grins while a stranger calls his wife a &3^@)#, a %+#&@, and a &@+$% (all terms drawn from the Maledicta journal). Human decency demands that he react strongly—hopefully not violently, and certainly not murderously, but emphatically and severely.

Society's Lynchpin

We are learning a wrong lesson from the atrocity in Paris. The terrorists claimed that they were avenging the honor of Allah, whom the journalists at Charlie Hebdo had blasphemed. And we in the West, rightly enraged at their barbarous response, not only condemn the murders but also dismiss blasphemy itself as a savage prejudice, the result of blind fanaticism, while we exalt free speech.

But is blasphemy really nonsensical? After all, it's not just religious people who shrink from it. Thomas Aquinas, the encyclopaedic theologian of the Middle Ages, gives a very precise definition: "The word blasphemy seems to denote the disparagement of some surpassing goodness."

Every society needs a commitment to a "surpassing goodness"; it is the lynchpin that holds society together. Pull that out, and the rattling Rube Goldberg contraption that is society collapses. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," in the famous words of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats.

Of course, for St. Thomas, as for all Christian believers, that "surpassing goodness" is the Triune God. But secular societies in the West, and especially France, no longer accept that God is the lynchpin.

However, all societies need a lynchpin. What is France's? The fact that millions of people marched to protest the Charlie Hebdo killings suggests that it is the "surpassing goodness" of free speech. Thus, the terrorists, in avenging the blasphemy against Allah, in turn blasphemed against the most treasured value of secularity.

On one level, it's impossible to disagree with this assessment. It's outrageous that rational discourse about the teachings of Islam should be muted by the fear of being beheaded on a suburban street—like the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

Roussel's Blasphemy

But what happens when free speech itself is impugned in France?

Not surprisingly, we see supporters reacting with the anger of a person whose supreme goodness has been disparaged. Take, for instance, responses to an article in the left-leaning magazine Nouvel Obs by one of the founding editors of Charlie Hebdo. Henri Roussel, now 80, had written for the magazine in 1970 when it was known as Hara-Kiri Hebdo.

In Roussel's opinion, the murdered editor Stephane Charbonnier was to blame for inciting violent attacks after he published scabrous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. "I really hold it against you," Roussel had told "Charb" before the January 7 attack. He thought Charb was "dragging the team to death" with rash editorial decisions. "I believe that we are fools who took an unnecessary risk. That's it. We think we are invulnerable. For years, decades even, it was a provocation and then one day the provocation turns against us. He shouldn't have done it."

Since his death, Charb has been apotheosized as a martyr of Enlightenment values by admirers of his scabrous cartoons, while Roussel, for venturing to question Charb's reckless editorial decisions, has been viciously maligned. "Charb has not yet even been buried and Obs finds nothing better to do than to publish a polemical and venomous piece on him," said Charb's lawyer. And on Twitter Roussel was harangued as "senile," "a typical French capitulating coward," "appalling," "truly disgusting," and so on. It was to be expected; Henri Roussel had blasphemed against Free Speech.

A Challenge to Enlightenment Values

Thus, the question that arises from the Charlie Hebdo killings is not whether blasphemy is absurd. Even atheists believe that denigrating whatever they esteem as their "supreme goodness" is wicked.

Nor is it whether free speech should be limited lest it offend paranoid Islamists. We should never surrender to fear. This is something the Charlie Hebdo editors did not do, and we can admire them for that, even if we think their editorial decisions were wrong.

The real question is whether a commitment to Free Speech can bear the weight of being the lynchpin that holds society together. The terrorists are ruthless killers, but they are also prepared to die for their convictions. Are French devotees of Free Speech prepared to die for theirs? Will their lynchpin hold firm when put to the ultimate test?

I hope we never have to discover the answer to this question. However, by a bizarre coincidence, a wildly popular and controversial novel that examines the conflict between Islam and the Enlightenment was published on the same day as the attack. It suggests that the French would not die in a ditch for free speech.

The title of Michel Houellebecq's novel, Soumission ("Submission"), is a clever pun, as the word "Islam" means submission to the will of Allah. But it also describes the shoulder-shrugging, life-must-go-on attitude of collaborators.

Houellebecq offers a dystopian look at France in 2022. After some complex political events, voters elect a Muslim president. He sets about creating an Islamic state more or less peacefully, using powerful cultural and financial incentives.

The protagonist is a loose-living, pornography-addicted lecturer in French literature at the Sorbonne. When the new regime takes over, he loses his job and retires to the countryside. Upon returning some time later, though, he finds that life at the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne is not as bad as he had imagined it would be. Thanks to the Saudis, the university is awash with money, and if he converts, he can live in polygamous bliss. Why not?

The novel has been blasted as Islamophobic. But its real target is Enlightenment values. Houellebecq hints that the French may give lip service to ideas like free speech, but ultimately they are not committed to them.

And that is because, in the end, values like free speech cannot bear the weight of being lynchpins. They are only cultural remnants of the real lynchpin of Western society: the Christian faith. If Christianity does not stand, eventually its remnants will fade away, too—while self-confident Muslims put dithering post-Christian secularists to shame. 

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #32, Spring 2015 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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