Freedom of speech, religion and fanaticism

The debate on the vitality and threat to freedom of speech and expression, including the most effective strategies to defend its practice, currently proceeds across large parts of the democratic world.

The more right we give to individuals to feel offended, the more moral justification for violent responses within this right emerges. Freedom of speech should never be restricted or related to the individual experience and right(?) to feel aggrieved. Instead, this privilege to express opinions has to be a fundamental part in a larger democratic discussion and development characterised by a holistic approach towards society. The risks of safeguarding our right to express and simultaneously restrict the width, will be that we unconsciously trigger and make way for islamophobic and anti-semitic tendencies. To mock a religious profile, or to criticise religions and valuegrounds, are not necessarily the same as attacking minority groups. Far from it.

I would never pretend to know what causes organizations or fanatics to commit deeds as the ones we have witnessed and experienced in Paris and Copenhagen recently. However, I believe any type of violent act of that kind fundamentally concern our relationship to one another. Senses of fear and social divides fuel radical actions, and that also include expressing opinions and the nature of public debate. If there is a perceived insecurity, coupled with exceeding limits regarding ethics and morality, pushing for provocation and polarization, the public debate (as well as social life in general) toughens. Religion or ideology becomes weapons for taking the edge off the opponent, often with highly polarized and provocative formulations. But what is the actual affinity between characteristics of public debate, freedom of speech and fanatics using religion as justification for violence?

Well, looking at the highly intense debate regarding the role of freedom of speech and  whether or not one should provoke by making fun of religious figures, some characteristics emerge. On the one hand there is a consensus in the condemnation of the attacks and a defence of the freedom of speech (ie support for the right to criticize religions, in the same way that we have freedom to practice a religion we have the right to make fun of religions in accordance with the freedom of speech). And in this final standpoint, the personal integrity and individual right of feeling offended enters. But just because someone feel offended it doesn’t mean they’re right. Again, if we are to structure society after the risk of individuals feeling offended and put that risk in relation to the overall idea of freedom to express what is within the arms of the law, well, I just don’t see how that would enhance democracy.

With this argument I critically approach the other dimension of this debate, namely those who strongly argue for freedom of speech through “yes we have the right, but it is not the time to provoke right now given the current state of society”. If this becomes a collective judgment, I believe it will not only confine but also have a more severe damage to open society than terrorist attacks actually carried out as partially a consequence for our provocations of religious characters.

Yes, with freedom comes obligations and our freedom to express must in practice be guided by common sense and responsibility. But, I find it hard to understand the surprisingly strong voices in the current debate arguing that we who express something, at the same time should be responsible for how others perceive and interpret it? No, we are not. And we never should be.

It becomes problematic when the individual interpretation, and the right to feel aggrieved and offended is given precedence over the collective right to express an opinion, which of course will move within the borders of the law for nearby areas of for example hate speech. And perhaps the most important aspect of all, the rights and responsibilities in a democracy must be tested, otherwise we do not know whether or not they can be applied.

That being said, let´s finally turn to the actual role of the exercising of freedom of speech. In light of the recent events in Paris and Copenhagen, I believe we should ponder the meaning we choose to ascribe the right to mock religious symbols or characters and the utterences themselves. Is it realistic to believe that it is our safeguarding and exercise of freedom of expression (especially the specific illustrations being debated right now) should be considered crucial mechanisms for attacks like the one against Charlie Hebdo or the meeting in Copenhagen? Extremely doubtful to me. Rather, we should probably aim our attention to other social, political and cultural issues to protect our democratic ideals. Debates on freedom of expression are rarely productive in the sense that we are debating with basically total agreement on the most basic core values: the right to express an opinion within legal limits. In the next stage there is, as shown above, difference of opinions regarding how to best use and develop this freedom. But it seems quite far-fetched to believe that organizations of ISIS character in a decisive way would bother blasphemous caricatures or the critical writings about the prophet. It may certainly has some form of triggering of and targets of certain attacks (as Charlie Hebdo showed), but I am rather convinced that to somehow understand the structural violence and terror attacks, by organizations using a pretext of religion, has far more central factors than an eagerness to defend freedom of speech in the west.


As soon as we equate the violence by ISIS or other fanatic groups with islam, we walk out onto a slippery rope. For no, even if these groups use islam as a justification for actions, it has very little to do with islam. No religion is violent or good in itself. It’s a religion. If you bring violence into your interpretation of islam, christianity or buddhism, then your islam, christianity or buddhism becomes violent. If you bring in peace it becomes peaceful. Religion in itself has no value. It is people´s approach to it that results in a value. And that may differ substantially. No, rather than wrongly categorizing structural violence along prejudices and ignorance, our quest for ways to respond to threats to democratic society must go through dialogue based on knowledge about the difference between for example fanaticism and islamism. 

Let’s start there.