Freedom of expression

freedom of speech


ALEXANDER ADAMS rehearses recent arguments concerning freedom of expression before arriving at his own conclusion.


“One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests.”





On February 14th, 2015 an Islamist gunman attacked a café in Copenhagen where a debate on free speech was being held. Speaking at the meeting was Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had been issued with death threats because in 2007 he drew cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that were considered insulting by some Muslims (and some non-Muslims). Vilks was unhurt but a documentary filmmaker Finn Nørgaard was killed. A month earlier, Islamists murdered cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. On one level, the Danish attack was prosaically ineffective. The attacker could not gain entry to the building so he sprayed bullets through a glass door. On another level, it marks a new standard, where anyone associating with “insulters of the prophet” can expect to be a target for extremists.

The cartoons of Vilks and Charlie Hebdo will not be discussed. That has been done elsewhere. We should, perhaps, evaluate what recent assaults on controversial art and satirical journalism – and the assaults yet to come – will mean for arts in the West. It is worth considering how Islamists – some of them born and raised in wholly (or largely) secular European countries – have rejected Western values but have also absorbed aspects of secular culture. This essay cannot be a full account. Though arguments and positions here are simplified, they are not – hopefully – misrepresented. Footnotes have been kept to a minimum, omitting many news sources and much background material.

Here, “Islamism” is used to refer to “the assertive application of Islamic principles to political and social spheres” as differentiated from Islam practiced as a private ethical code; “extremist” is a personal will to use violence and the threat of violence to achieve his aims; “post-liberal” (1) is used as an adjective to describe the uneasy consensus between mainstream socio-political strands in Western societies, one which accommodates identity politics and encourages constraints on speech, voluntary and otherwise.

Civility and Censorship

In recent weeks a common refrain of many commentators and journalists has been “The murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was wrong but…”. Many felt that cartoonists who had freedom to ridicule Mohammed should not have exercised that right. The inference is that freedom to be irresponsible is not freedom from consequences of irresponsibility. Some of the cartoons were puerile and juvenile but there is plenty of material in that class; public lavatory walls and Internet websites are full of it. The difference is that the cartoons had authors’ names attached and there was a particular address where they could be found.

It seems that today people who deliberately set out to insult Islam can expect reprisals. Although there is a case to put that we should protect reckless individuals as a matter of principle – and this essay will not argue against that – it is more important that we consider the murders as (at least partly) an extreme manifestation of the climate of accommodation that already compromises our liberty and affects us as citizens, readers and makers of art.

As we have seen in the pages of arts journals (notably The Jackdaw and The Art Newspaper) and on the website Spiked, the practice of pre-emptive censorship has become an ever-present reality. Nowadays, institutions do not react to criticism but anticipate it. Formerly (in what we must now consider a brief post-War heyday), we relied on institutions to promote and protect difficult art. Institutions introduced new stimulating art and would defend it. Difficult art would at least be shown, allowing us to judge for ourselves. Now institutions fight shy of presenting anything which might cause “community tension”. What has happened to John Latham’s collage of Bible, Talmud and Koran   (2) owned by the Tate? Will it ever go on public display?

What goes undiscussed is the self-censorship which occurs daily in the lives of satirists, artists and writers. We have all held our tongues in everyday life when we thought speaking out would cause more harm than it would do good. In some respects that is human nature – the desire to avoid conflict and let sleeping dogs lie. When standing up for one’s ideas involves placing others in harm’s way, one naturally grows more tentative. Where you might risk your own safety, you often find you cannot risk that of your family and colleagues. This is something everyone from school bullies to mafia godfathers understand. If intimidators intend to become martyrs, and there is no certain way to protect the lives of you and those dear to you, speech seems impossibly dangerous – which is the calculated effect. Though – in at least some cases – isn’t the protecting-my-colleagues/family defence (albeit a legitimate one) actually a way of excusing oneself from taking an unpopular stand?

One problem with the on-their-heads-be-it reasoning is that it implicitly accepts that violent retaliation to an actual (or perceived) slight is regrettable but inevitable. Does that line of reasoning also apply if militant Jews were to firebomb publishers of the Koran or radical socialists were to murder BNP members? Doesn’t such reasoning, however indirectly, excuse intimidation and vengeance by any self-identifying group of victims against their putative insulters? Are Muslims not to be held to the same standards as the society they are a part of? (3) Are we to consider Muslims incapable of exercising self-restraint or obeying state laws? On-their-heads-be-it reasoning implies Muslims are less in control of their emotions than non-Muslims and have a tendency to react with violence in response to provocation. This sounds similar to patronising colonialist stereotypes about “savage natives” and “inferior races”. Yet this special pleading – that outsiders can never understand the members or culture of a subset, something which renders that culture unknowable and beyond universal principles – is very much a part of identity politics which robs individuals of autonomy, turning them into puppets of social conditions and hereditary circumstance.

Another problem with pre-emptive censorship for protection is that it is effectively impossible. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists knew they were creating provocative images and could expect a backlash. Consider the case of Salman Rushdie; his The Satanic Verses is a work of literary fiction. The novel included references to Mohammed dreamed by a fictional character in a delirium. The novel led to a fatwa being issued against its author and subsequent attacks against publishers and the murder of a Japanese translator. Rushdie and his colleagues had no reason to expect that instances of blasphemous delirium in a work of fiction might provoke violent hostility. Due-caution caveats cannot be applied in practice as there is no way of predicting how any work of fiction or art touching on Islam may be represented or misrepresented by extremists. The only way to be safe from extremists is to never say anything that touches upon religious culture, never associate with anyone who has and never be in the vicinity of an exploding bomb.

But even that position will not hold.

Even if you avoid opposing extremists, restrictions they force on others will affect you. Furthermore, accommodation will not work because Islamist demands will never end. Even if another image of Mohammed is never exhibited or published in the UK again, extremist pressure will continue, applied in other areas of the arts. Images seen as denigrating Muslims (especially Muslim women) will be targeted; “disrespectful” art by artists of Muslim heritage will be threatened; artists who take an avowedly atheist stance will be subject to violent protest. There is no way of following “rules of safe speech” because extremists make rules arbitrarily, opportunistically and unilaterally (4). What may be halal today may tomorrow be retrospectively considered haram (5) with no possibility of reasoned appeal.

To understand demands and expectations of Islamism as a political movement we must examine the psychology of the extremist.

The Psychology of Extremism

For the pious man, religious teaching gives a feeling of superiority through wisdom; ritual gives his life structure; repetition brings comfort and order; moral injunctions give him an ethical framework. He observes dietary restrictions, prays at the prescribed times using exactly the wording necessary. He is fastidious about cleaning, fasting and the way he dresses. Infraction causes him to experience guilt and shame. An extremist is a pious man driven by anger, often prompted by injustice. He is angry at society for failing to be sufficiently pious; he is angry at himself for failing to meet impossible standards of thought and deed; most of all, he is angry at constraints which prevent him from remaking the entire world in the mirror image of the ideal world in his head. Even should he perfect himself – which is never possible – it is the imperfection of those around him which antagonises him most. He cannot bear to exist surrounded by lack of belief and observance. For the Muslim, his religion urges him to jihad – a struggle to change the world around him. In an extremist’s case, he chooses not to perform acts of charity but to combat impiety through any means available to him.

Whereas a moderately (or even very) religious person can live in relative contentment in a secular society, an extremist never can. The extremist cannot avert his gaze. Religious extremists cannot be accommodated within a secular society by way of reasonable concessions because religious extremism is essentially unreasonable in that it rests on belief not reason. A religious extremist can never be satisfied because he lives a perpetual state of discontent and anger. He encounters obstacles in the form of co-religionists who do not follow his outlook and in secular laws and values which fail to recognise divine truth. He takes pride in being more dissatisfied than his co-religionists, whom he considers complacent. A religious extremist’s struggle is unending because there will always be ways in which the world falls short of the ideal. Hence the religious extremist will never be checked by practical concessions because his aspirations are nothing less than complete obedience to holy laws.

Enabled by the fiat of imams and encouraged by fellow jihadists, the extreme Islamist becomes so dissociated from the social norms that he ceases to recognise the legitimacy of any restraint other than his own beliefs. The extremist is capable of astounding brutality, avenging a catalogue of injustices which have humiliated him. He becomes desensitised to violence, even relishes committing atrocities in order to lose his humanity and, driven to ecstasy, he becomes a holy instrument of God. An extremist defines his existence by being at the extreme of his society. If he lived in an Islamic theocracy, he would be the enforcer of religious observance; he would volunteer to be an executioner. His devotion can only be proved by the extremities he can endure and which he can impose on others.

Compared to the executions in ISIS territory, the dispatching of a few cartoonists is a very small matter to Islamists. The Islamist admits no responsibility for the violence – it is the actions of the blasphemer which prompted the inevitable vengeance and if innocent blood is spilled then that is the fault of the transgressor.

How can such an apparently alien outlook find any succour in secular Western society? To understand how an extremist can be nurtured by a schismatic environment – part Muslim immigrant culture, part secular European – we have to consider the way social discourse in modern Britain changed in the 1970s and 1980s.

Identity Politics

Identity politics came to prominence in the late 1960s as a response to the failure in the West of agitation by the political left for fundamental social and economic reform. The disillusionment with the ideology and Marxist economic analysis of the Old Left – particularly after the failed protests of 1968 and in the light of increasingly militant civil-rights and gay-rights movements – gave birth to the New Left. The New Left asserted that – contrary to the Old Left principles of Universality extolled by the Enlightenment, which held that inalienable rights sprang from shared humanity and that one made allegiances by choosing a political stance rather than conforming to oppressive and debilitating division along national, gender and religious lines – rights reform relating to sub-groups could be a more effective means to drive social change (6).

From this point on, social conventions began to change in ways that have been accepted even by the political right. People are increasingly evaluated as constituents of subset classification by race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, disability and sexuality. Social constraints that were loathed by the Universalist Old Left are fetishized by the factionalist New Left. Certain subsets are resented by the right, other subsets resented by the left but what neither side does is question the validity of identity politics, merely the value of advantaged/disadvantaged groups and which factional interests should be resisted/promoted.

Crucially, these determining labels are matters over which individuals have little or no agency. Humanity is no longer seen as a uniting quality; the worth of an individual was measured by the assumed privilege or disadvantage of his or her subset(s). When individuals’ worth is measured by their birth subsets, individuals become essentially passive. He/she no longer gains respect and authority through education, skills, building relationships and contributing to society. Identity politics is exactly the opposite of empowerment – it infantilises by reducing individuals to passive victims in need of protection. Individuals are encouraged to reduce themselves to sheer helplessness. They become unable to avoid distasteful material, unable to bear the thought of others experiencing it, unable to allow it to even exist: and that final sentiment leads to censorship.

The preface “As a woman/African American/Muslim/gay man, I…” is used as a priori authority for subsequent statements. Being a member of minority subsets lends supposed authoritative or authentic insight and leads the speaker to demanding redress as a victim of systematic oppression, institutional discrimination or casual offence. Conversely, certain subsets (male, heterosexual, white) are viewed by post-liberals as less authentic and valued due to historically inherited privilege (7). The language of victimhood now dominates political discourse. The statement “I am offended by…” now carries weight in debates when all it demonstrates is the capacity of the speaker to articulate a temporary and subjective position that is as incontrovertible and inarguable as it is substantially meaningless. Rather than points being argued between equals on the basis of logic and evidence, common discourse is now between representatives of inherently unequal subsets and hinges on depth of feeling (8).

Now that emotional response has been accorded the status of a legitimate, quasi-legal grievance, why should a religious person who expresses genuine (or tactical) offence be denied redress? When a fundamentalist is denied parity by authorities that advocate “a respect agenda” but cannot legally curtail blasphemy, is it any wonder he sees double standards? Post-liberal identity politics promises emotional justice but betrays partiality by supporting favoured minorities under the auspices of “hate speech” but hesitating to censor blasphemy. Encouraging individuals to validate themselves through identifying with cultural subsets and maintaining a double standard separating anti-religious speech from hate speech are both practices that strengthen the agenda of Western Islamists.

The way to establish impartiality and strengthen free speech is 1) for state organisations and politicians to disengage from identity politics and to refuse to endorse emotional grievance as a matter for civil or criminal legislation, and 2) for the rescinding of laws regarding hate speech, prevention of “glorification of terrorism”, blasphemy and all restrictions on speech which fall short of incitement, with existing laws on harassment, threatening behaviour and other criminal acts being applied to those who infringe the safety and liberty of others.

There is little likelihood of this proposal being taken up, as these changes conflict with the will of the (apparent) majority of the populace and political class. Notwithstanding, the principles of identity politics and restrictions on free speech deserve to be opposed because they are intellectually flawed, morally invidious and practically counterproductive.

Towards Thought Reform

If that picture of identity politics and policed civility seems exaggerated, think back twenty or thirty years. Would you then have expected people to be sacked from positions in public and private organisations for expressing contentious political or social opinions, even in private settings? Would the use of certain forbidden words have led to public outcries which would force the speaker to publically recant? Aren’t those accused of infractions of civility offered the possibility of rehabilitation only if they express sufficient contrition? Don’t those sound like the tactics of totalitarian regimes, where enforced self-criticism and public shaming were used to suppress dissent and discredit troublesome individuals? Aren’t these now the norms we have grown to expect in Western democracies? Isn’t “hate speech” today akin to the catch-all terms such as “counter-revolutionary activity” used to smother political criticism in dictatorships? In today’s Britain it is unremarkable to be publically shamed for a drunken remark, not so much for the words but the thought they express. Whether or not speech crime is punished as a matter of politics or politesse makes no practical difference. Likewise, it is immaterial whether punitive sanction is enforced by legal authorities or social opprobrium. It is the imposition of the tyranny of the majority on the minority who express harmless (albeit unpleasant) ideas.

The point is not whether we adjudge racism, creationism, Islamism, banning abortion and so forth to be wrong; what matters is whether we are allowed to discuss such things openly because once we forfeit our right to speak (and listen to) controversial matters we forgo our critical intelligence. In allowing the limitation of free speech we give up an important part of what makes us human and such a restriction will soon enough be used against the leftists and liberals who champion enforced civility (9). Listening to a foolish opinion is not “giving it legitimacy” in the post-liberal parlance, for how can we test our ideas without arguing for them and against their opposites? (10) How is an untested principle qualitatively different from an inherited prejudice? How can we know the truth without investigating a spectrum of possibility? How can we improve and educate ourselves without encountering new ideas, even incorrect ones?

We live in a multicultural society where people do not mix but live parallel lives surrounded by their own kind, educated in single-faith schools, at a time when the public arena has become ever more anodyne. This is today’s political and social climate, where rather than ridicule and out-argue opinions we consider wrong, we suppress them. The Enlightenment principle of freedom for people to speak as they wish within the law is now supported by only a minority of politicians. University debate societies have a “no platform” policy for politically radical speakers, when speech is seen as so dangerous and hurtful it cannot be tolerated. In class, American academics issue “trigger warnings” which flag up potentially disturbing material so students can absent themselves in order to avoid experiencing distress. Books, magazines and songs are banned from campuses and student-union speech codes forbid the use of certain words. As Greg Lukianoff puts it, students demand not freedom of speech but freedom from speech (11).

This essay’s argument looks illogical, yoking as it does apparent opponents – religious fundamentalists and proponents of socially progressive policy. Yet if one examines the tendencies, it is possible to see they overlap. Both groups believe their moral certainties trump the rights of others to contest those certainties. Both are attached to emotional ideas of justice rather than application of rationalism. Both believe ends justify means and are strongly paternalistic. Both use group pressure to suppress dissent. Neither considers free speech an inviolable right and both seek to use legal means to outlaw transgressive speech and action. Both believe that there are correct ways not only of acting but of thinking. Neither wishes to examine too deeply their idées fixes. Both are averse to reassessing core ideas in the light of new information.

These supposed opponents share common roots; they share aims and collaborate. Witness the political alliance of Respect, a party of self-identifying Muslims (including a splinter of extremists) working alongside Feminists, environmentalists, disaffected Marxists and supporters of the New Left. There are extensive formal and informal links between far-left groups and Islamic political organisations for the purposes of opposing imperialism and global capitalisation. On campuses, student unions and religious societies uneasily act in concert to oppose dissent through hate-speech policies. It is in the interests of both tendencies to maintain official mechanisms to gag criticism.

Resisting Enforced Civility

In many Western nations we are living under de facto sharia law with regard to images of Mohammed. We are routinely told that “the depiction of Mohammed in any form is deeply offensive”; actually depictions of Mohammed were historically made by members of Shia and African Muslim traditions and were not considered offensive or even noteworthy. The prohibitions derive from interpretations in the hadith (12) rather than the Koran itself and the common acceptance of the prohibition may be due to the influence of Wahhabism (13). Yet despite this, museum curators in the UK censor historical images of Mohammed by Muslim artists, deleting images on museum websites and not publically displaying examples (14). British newspapers refused to reprint the Danish and Charlie Hebdo cartoons. This rigid observance of a partial (and contested) cultural injunction displays the zealously cautious management of post-liberal-led institutions (15) and is an example of a concession to religion which has already curtailed freedom of expression.

Advocating voluntary restraint of speech (on grounds of common civility, community harmony or fear of violence) ultimately establishes a climate of silence in which any criticism of Islam can be dismissed as provocation (racism qua Islamophobia), a label used to discredit critics (16). When valuable articulate comment of a critical nature needs to be expressed it may search in vain for newspapers and book proprietors willing publish it. The cartoons of Mohammed were anything but reasoned critique, and may be considered to have “poisoned the well” for moderate critics, but extremists are not reasonable people. Islamists seek to suppress critical opinions (17). Extremists exploit identity politics through use of argument or legal recourse to further their cause but they do not consider these channels to have authority – only their God has authority – and some of them will burn buildings and books and cut throats.

In coming years, not only extreme but moderate Muslims too will press for blasphemy laws and warn that offensive material will (regrettably) be countered by acts of violence; post-liberals will urge restraint on speech for the sake of community harmony; satirists and critics will grow ever more cautious. If makers and consumers of the arts, and the public more generally, do not assert that free speech is non-negotiable and that any legal speech (even distasteful speech) is permitted, then post-liberals will offer further concessions and anti-free-speech activists will make further advances. Extremists will occupy any territory vacated by others.

While many of us may feel confident that the evident extremeness of religious fundamentalism means it will never make inroads into our way of life, we overlook the willingness with which post-liberals (who are in the mainstream of society and in positions of power) offer concessions to religious sentiment and give away our freedoms to assuage their guilt, in a form of emotional reparations. The freedom to speak your mind has already been snipped away by post-liberals, religious extremists, New Left supporters, commercial lobbyists, social conservatives and paternalistic government.

The only way to preserve free speech is to exercise it. Otherwise, the opportunity to use it will be taken from you (by means both overt and covert), the channels of speech will atrophy, and when your time to speak comes you will be unable to do so.


  1. Alternative adjectives are unsatisfactory: redefining “liberal” is problematic, as well as time-consuming in a short essay; “neo-liberal” refers to a specific school of economic thought; “illiberal” is merely an insult; “Politically Correct” is idiomatically awkward and has particular connotations of campaigning leftism (though a largely pejorative term, it accurately indicates genuine intolerance towards opposing political ideas); “post-liberal” is a workable though inadequate neologism indicating an outlook that claims to be liberal but no longer conforms to liberal founding principles (see “Identity politics” below).
  2. God is Great (no. 2) (1991), presented 2005.
  3. ComRes poll of British Muslims, conducted for the BBC, 25 February 2015: those who believe British law must be obeyed 93%; those who “have some sympathy for the Charlie Hebdo killers” 27%; those who say violence against publishers of [presumably offensive] images of Mohammed is never justified 68%, disagree 24%.
  4. On the role of anger, insecurity, humiliation, lack of power and other aspects in the psychology of extremists see Arno Gruen, Peter Coleman & Andrea Bartoli. For a view of extremist violence as primarily tactic strategy see Eli Berman. Coleman & Bartoli also discuss extremism as strategy.
  5. “Halal”: permitted; “Haram”: forbidden
  6. For discussion of this transition in the context of the visual arts, see Paul Wood, Western Art & the Wider World (2014), Wiley Blackwell.
  7. Respectively, the argument-from-authority and argument-against-authority logic fallacies.
  8. See John Stuart Mill’s analysis of the way dissent is silenced by social oppression, On Liberty (1859).
  9. Note that this essay argues only the utilitarian case for free expression; there is an entirely separate argument in favour of free expression as a human right; see Thomas Paine, et al.
  10. On the wrongness of people suppressing opposition: “If the [opposing] opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Mill, On Liberty ch. II.
  11. Greg Lukianoff, Freedom From Speech (2014), Encounter Broadside.
  12. Interpretative commentaries on the Koran.
  13. Wahhabism is an ultra-orthodox interpretation of Islam native to the Arabian Peninsula, which has been promoted internationally by the Saudi royal family.
  14. The Victoria & Albert Museum removed an image of Mohammed by a Persian artist from its website in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
  15. The BBC has issued conflicting statements about whether or not images of Mohammed are prohibited for broadcast or simply avoided. The point is a moot one as the BBC does not show images of Mohammed, regardless of being the result of official guideline or unspoken consensus.
  16. An example of argumentum ad hominem, an attack on the proposer of an idea rather than the idea itself.
  17. This discussion centres on Islamist expansionism and largely omits discussion of the position of moderate Muslims. Do moderates wish to oppose the sectarianisation of the secular West or are they in favour of some (or all) additional restraints on free speech? There will be as many views on this as there are Western Muslims. It is worth remembering that many moderates suffer soonest and most from pressure and influence of Islamists in their own communities and families. This is especially true of adherents of Shia and Sufi traditions who are persecuted by Wahhabi extremists.

Alexander Adams, 2015