Are we consistent when we say that Charlie Hebdo should be free to satirize Islam but that Dieudonné M'bala M'bala should be prohibited from promoting anti-Semitism? My answer is yes.
The two positions are different, because they deal with different forms of speech. There are some free speech absolutists who say anything goes – whether it is fraud or plagiarism or threats of murder or defamation or child pornography. For those who accept that some restrictions on speech are justifiable, the issue becomes which ones.
Charlie Hebdo arguably was blasphemous. Dieudonné is engaged in incitement to hatred. It is perfectly consistent to hold that the right to free speech should prevail over the right to be free from blasphemy and that the right to be free from incitement to hatred should prevail over the right to free speech.
A prohibition against blasphemy is meant to protect the believer from insult and to protect us from a breach of the peace that the outrage from the insult may provoke in the believer. A prohibition against incitement to hatred is meant to protect us from those incited.
A prohibition against blasphemy is as wide as all outdoors, because religion is any spiritual belief. A prohibition against incitement to hatred is more limited, because what is prohibited is the incitement to hatred against identifiable groups – groups that are currently or have traditionally been disadvantaged.
One reason we protect freedom of expression is to arrive at the truth. The prohibition of blasphemy impedes the search for truth. To take one example, Galileo was prosecuted in the 17th century for blasphemy for his views that the earth revolved around the sun. If we had effective global blasphemy laws had been in effect from the 17th century until today, we might still today be prevented from saying that the earth revolves around the sun.
Incitement to hatred serves no similar truth-seeking purpose. It is an absurd position to say that maybe it is true that racial slurs are true, that Jews control the world, that blacks are less intelligent than whites and so on. The mere suggestion that these utterances might be true gives credence to them, something we would not want to do.
Sometimes we get a better sense of what is true by hearing what is false. Blasphemy can serve this purpose. A mis-characterization of any religion becomes an opportunity to explain what that religion truly is.
Hate speech serves no similar purpose. For example, we do not need to hear Holocaust denial to better understand the existence of the Holocaust or to hear that a minority controls the world to become more keenly aware of the disadvantaged situation of minorities. We do not need to hear hate speech to keep our belief in equality alive.
More generally, we protect freedom of expression to explain our ideas or to communicate information. Blasphemy can serve this purpose, thus developing religious thought. What is blasphemy for one religion is doctrine for another. Prohibiting blasphemy means stultifying the development of spiritual discussion.
Some believers, in an effort to inflate their own importance, inflate the importance of their beliefs beyond reason. Blasphemy is an antidote, a deflater, a pin-prick in the balloon of the overblown egos of some believers.
In contrast, hate is an emotion not a thought. Jean-Paul Sartre has written: “The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons”.
Freedom of expression is necessary for democracy. However, tolerance is also essential for democracy. Hate speech tears at the fabric of democracy by fomenting hatred of the majority against the minority.
A law against blasphemy is a law against preventing offence. A system that prohibits differences which offend is a repressive system, not a democratic system.
Prohibiting incitement to hatred attempts to protect society from the lunatic fringe, those who are susceptible to incitement and prone to act out whether through discrimination or violence. Prohibiting blasphemy is directed at protecting society from a far larger group, those who hold spiritual beliefs.
Democratic society must protect itself from the lunatic fringe. In contrast, if large segments of our society, those with spiritual beliefs, are unhinged, we are beyond hope. Prohibiting blasphemy is predicated on intolerance, that those whose beliefs are blasphemed will not and cannot tolerate the blasphemy. A prohibition of blasphemy is an abandonment of the hope of tolerance.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is senior honorary counsel to B’nai Brith Canada.