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Do We Have a Right Not to Be Offended in Our Religious Beliefs?

13/01/2015 13:37 GMT | Updated 14/03/2015 09:59 GMT

The attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have once again thrust open the freedom of expression versus freedom of religion debate in our society. Where does one freedom end and the other begin? And perhaps more crucially, should this latest attack force us to reconsider our limits?

I do not think so and will explain why.

Just a day after the massacre, London-based radical cleric Anjem Choudary argued that "muslims do not believe in freedom of expression" and that the French government placed the safety of their citizens at risk by allowing such provocation through cartoons. Despite these absurd, extremist views, what he might be trying to say is that even in the most liberal democracies, expression should have some restraints.

With the record-breaking rally in Paris, global outpouring of hashtag tributes, and pen-wielding mourners flocking to city square vigils, it is easy to spout out that freedom of expression is one's absolute right. Except, that it is not - we already have some limits on it.

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Solidarity rally for the Paris attacks held in Brussels, Belgium. Credit: Valentina Cala

This right, along with others in the European Convention on Human Rights, carries with it certain responsibilities such as protecting the reputation of others. For example, Otto Preminger, the Austrian film director, had his film 'Council in Heaven' withdrawn in 1994 due to sexually provocative portrayals of Catholic objects. It was decided that offence should be restricted when it becomes gratuitous or not contributory to any academic debate.

But the issue however is that in today's ever evolving and increasingly liberalised society, the lines of acceptability have become very blurred; so should we reconsider our limits?

Where does genuine, academic satire end and gratuitous offence begin?

Given that Charlie Hebdo once featured the Prophet Muhammed as a 'guest magazine editor' to lampoon medieval Islamic punishments, as well as lewd sexual cartoons of the Holy Trinity to parody same-sex marriage opposition, it might now cause some to restrain types of expression. The British press have already been accused of doing so for not re-publishing the cartoons. This, I believe, would be a failure in our democracy.

Right from 1971 when British school teachers were summoned to court for writing the infamous Little Red Schoolbook, examining taboo sexual issues for students, it was made clear that European citizens are free to 'shock, offend and disturb' the state or any sector of the population. This does not preclude religious sensibilities. In fact, mockery of religions is now a more important instrument than ever in the argumentative arsenal to fight religious fundamentalism. It is only by caricaturing the issues of the day can we stand up and unpack the antiquated dogmas of society. The controversial Charlie Hebdocovers of the past arguably brought such issues to the forefront of public debate and thereby helped progress the human inquiry.

Anjem Choudary's ideas would have a 'chilling effect' on our democracy. If the French government were to restrict Charlie Hebdo cartoons due to so-called provocation, the state would be seen as trying to steer the views of free citizens by prioritising one moral ideal over another. The press and media therefore need to be very careful not to water-down their satire. People have different ethical views about leading a personal life and there is no good reason why free-thinking people should afford religious sensibilities some special protection. The BBC's review of portraying the Prophet Muhammad is a step in the right direction.

This also extends to the freedom not to have a religious view as an atheist as Stephane Charbonnier, the late editor of Charlie Hebdo, explained when their offices were bombed in 2011. Conceptions of what is offensive is extremely subjective in a multi-faceted, multi-cultured society, so the humour in cartoons is there for those who are able to see it; they would not be humorous if they were not provocative.

This goes to the core of Charlie Hebdo's purpose which was to address a historic rights mismatch where religious zealots could offend an atheist way of life, but atheists were restricted in their spoofing of religion. Just as an atheist should not be expected to have found the value in a religious way of living, a believer should not be expected to have found the humorous value in religious satire.

Fundamentally, we do not have a right not to be offended in our religious beliefs. The pillars of democracy demand that offence is not just allowed, but necessary as it forces us to inspect pluralism and its limitations, and build up our own moral towers of tolerance. Yes, there are limits as with all freedoms, but as far as satire goes, the cartoonists should keep on drawing.