By Peter Marshall
Recent events in Paris, in which so-called Islamic gunmen have shot down and killed cartoonists and journalists of a satirical magazine, are extremely serious for the cause of freedom. The outrage was to avenge the ‘prophet’ Mohammed whose name had ostensibly been held in disregard. All such religious fundamentalists oppose the freedom of speech because it threatens their very beliefs which are based not on thinking for oneself or on considering the other person’s point of view.
Satire is important because it punctures pretensions and laughs unexamined beliefs out of court. To laugh is not only to undermine the power of tyrants but to affirm the super abundance of life.In the long run, the cartoonist’s pencil and the writer’s computer are mightier than any gun.
Freedom of thought and expression are essential to any freedom-loving people. They are often enshrined in constitutions and yet they are ignored throughout the world. In Britain, for instance, we have the concept of a freeborn person and date it back to Magna Carta in the 13th century, yet until recently there was a law on the statute book against blasphemy, that is writing or speaking disrespectfully against any religion.
The British parliament likes to see England as the mother of democracy and yet has refused to extend such democracy to the subject peoples of the Empire. The same can be said of France despite the French Revolution which extended rights to property-owning white males and led to the planting of the Liberty Tree. The governments of both countries have continued to sell arms and support some of the worst dictators and monarchies in their former colonies who deny the freedom of speech to their subjects.
And yet the idea of liberty has taken deep root. Many people like myself hold the freedom of thought and expression as essential for a free society and for the education and enlightenment of all. Only by testing an opinion through the clash of arguments can an approximation of truth be arrived at. Religious fanaticism may try to set the world ablaze but only through the freedom of speech can the fires be put out.
At the same time, violent outrages in the name of any religion, whether it be Islam, Christianity or Judaism, should not lead to racism or intolerance. Religious toleration, the freedom to hold disparate religious and spiritual beliefs, should continue as long as it does not undermine the very principle of the freedom of expression and thought on which it is based and which I hold so close to my heart and mind.
As Voltaire was purported to have said:
‘I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.’
I would give my life to defend the freedom of speech.