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Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free expression?

By Kenan Malik / 12 August, 2013

Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik and art historian and educator Nada Shabout  on one of the art world’s most contentious debates

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Mark Boardman/www.mark-boardman.com

Mark Boardman/www.mark-boardman.com

Dear Nada,

I regard free speech as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. Others view speech as a luxury rather than as a necessity, or at least as merely one right among others, and not a particularly important one. Speech from this perspective needs to be restrained not as an exception but as the norm.

The answer to whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression depends upon which of these ways we think of free speech. For those, like me, who look upon free speech as a fundamental good, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. There is no free speech without the ability to offendreligious and cultural sensibilities.

For those for whom free speech is more a luxury than a necessity, censorship is a vital tool in maintaining social peace and order. Perhaps the key argument made in defence of the idea of censorship to protect cultural and religious sensibilities is that speech must necessarily be less free in a plural society. In such a society, so the argument runs, we need to police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs both to minimise friction and to protect the dignity of individuals, particularly from minority communities. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, “if people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism”.

I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In such societies it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And they should be openly resolved, rather than suppressed in the name of “respect” or “tolerance”.

But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, but also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply-held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. The notion that it is wrong to offend cultural or religious sensibilities suggests that certain beliefs are so important that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is the bedrock of an open, diverse society, and the basis of promoting justice and liberties in such societies. Once we give up such a right we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

The question we should ask ourselves, therefore, is not “should religious and cultural sensibilities ever limit free expression?” It is, rather, “should we ever allow religious and cultural sensibilities to limit our ability to challenge power and authority?”

Best wishes,


Mark Boardman/www.mark-boardman.com

Mark Boardman/www.mark-boardman.com

Dear Kenan,

I too regard free speech as a fundamental good and as necessary. On the surface, thus, the simple and direct answer to the question of whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression should be an unequivocal NO! However, the reality is that the question itself is problematic. While free expression, and let’s think of art in this specific case, will always push the limits and “reveal the hidden”, consideration and sensitivity, including religious and cultural sensibility, should not be inherently in opposition. By positioning it as such, the answer can only be reactive. I thus disagree with your argument.

A quick note on “censorship”. Yes, we all hate the word and find it very offensive. It is a word loaded with oppression, but the reality is that censorship in some form exists in every facet of life, personal and public. It is not that one needs to restrict speech in a plural society but that this plurality needs to find a peaceful way of co-existing with respect and acceptance, as much as possible — not tolerance; I personally abhor the word tolerance and find that it generally masks hatred and disdain. No belief is above criticism and nothing should limit our ability to challenge power and authority.

I suppose one needs to decide first the point of this criticism/free expression. Does it have a specific message or reason, and how best to deliver it — or is it simply someone’s personal free expression in the absolute? And if it is someone’s right to free expression, then why is it privileged above someone else’s right — religious and cultural sensibility being someone’s right to expression as well?

For example, and I will use art again, there is a problem when art/the artist is privileged as “genius”, with rights above other citizens — except not really, since the artist is subject to other limitations that may not be religious or cultural, like those of the tradition of expression, funding, law and so on. This is not to say that a religion should dictate expression. We should remember, though, that the marvel of what we call Islamic art was achieved within full respect of Islamic religious sensibilities, but also pushed the limits and critiqued simplicity in interpreting these sensibilities.

Perhaps my view here is less idealistic and more practical, but I see many unnecessary attacks on all sides that do not accomplish anything other than insult and inflame. All I’m saying is that expression is always achieved through negotiations, including limitations.

All the best,


Dear Nada,

I’m afraid that I was no clearer at the end of your letter than I was at the beginning about your actual stance on free speech. You say you ‘regard free speech as a fundamental good’ and that the answer to “whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression should be an unequivocal NO!”  You then, however, go on seemingly to qualify that unequivocal stance but without actually specifying what it is that you wish to qualify. Where should the line be drawn when it comes to the issue of what is and is not legitimate free speech? Who should draw that line? And on what basis? These are the critical questions that need answering. You write: “It is not that one needs to restrict speech in a plural society but that this plurality needs to find a peaceful way of co-existing with respect and acceptance”. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but what does it actually mean in practice? Should Salman Rushdie not have written The Satanic Verses so that he could find “a peaceful way of coexisting with respect and acceptance”? Was the Birmingham Rep right to drop Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti after protests from Sikhs? Should Jerry Springer: The Opera ever have been staged (or broadcast)?

You suggest that “one needs to decide first the point of this criticism/free expression. Does it have a specific message or reason, and how best to deliver it — or is it simply someone’s personal free expression in the absolute?” Again, I am unclear as to the point you’re making here. Are you suggesting here that speech is only legitimate if it has “a specific message or reason”? If so,who decides whether it does? During the controversy over The Satanic Verses, the philosopher Shabbir Akhtar distinguished between “sound historical criticism” and “scurrilously imaginative writing”, and insisted that Rushdie’s novel fell on the wrong side of the line. Do you agree with him? If not, why not? You ask: “If it is someone’s right to free expression, then why is it privileged above someone else’s right — religious and cultural sensibility being someone’s right to expression as well?”  This seems to me a meaningless question. A “sensibility” is not a “right”, still less a “right to expression”. If your point is that all people, whatever their religious or cultural beliefs, should have the right to express those beliefs, then I agree with you. That is the core of my argument. What they do not have is the “right” to prevent anybody expressing their views because those views might offend their “sensibilities”.

A final point: to defend the right of X to speak as he or she wishes is not the same as defending the wisdom of X using speech in a particular fashion, still less the same as defending the content of his or her speech. Take, for instance, The Innocence of Muslims, the risibly crude and bigoted anti-Muslim video that provoked so much controversy and violence last year. I would defend the right of such a film to be made. But I would also question the wisdom of making it, and would strongly challenge the sentiments expressed in it. There is a distinction to be drawn, in other words, between the right to something and the wisdom of exercising that right in particular ways. It is a distinction that critics of free speech too often fail to understand.



Dear Kenan,

Nicely said! I believe we are ultimately saying the same thing. It is that “distinction” that you outline in your last paragraph that I call a negotiation between all sides, cultures, etc. My answer is not clear because the issue is not simple! I am saying that it is not a black and white binary divide nor can one “draw a line”. And yes, “who should draw that line? and on what basis?” is critical and essential. I believe that should be reached through negotiation. The “wisdom” of something to exist is as important as its right to exist. But there is also the question of responsibility. Free speech cannot be “inherently good” or bad. The person who utters that speech must claim responsibility for its use and effects. The examples you cite above are not all equal. Yes, they all have the right to exist. But let’s think a bit about the Danish cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed as another example. Were they not an attack aimed to inflame Muslim communities? Was it not part of Islamophobia?

Was the aim not to ridicule and play off people’s fears and prejudices? How were they a critique of Islam? What was the point? It is not that “it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures” as you once said, but the how and why are just as important as the right to cause that offence. I agree with you that the fear of consequences has become a limitation, but that isperhaps because free speech has been abused.

Perhaps I am looking at this from a different point of view. As an educator, I often face the situation, equally here in the US and in the Middle East, of how to argue a point that has become of specific cultural/religious/political sensitivity to my students. If I offend them here, they will stop listening; in the Middle East, I will not be allowed to continue. What would I gain by doing that? By negotiation I test the limits and push gently. At least in academia, I think we are at a point where we have to teach our students to not get offended by an opposing opinion and to be able to accept various opinions and to be able to accept criticism. I don’t think I can achieve that through shock alone!

Best, Nada

Dear Nada

You write that your “answer is not clear because the issue is not simple”. Perhaps. But surely, if the answer is not simple, that only places a greater imperative to make one’s answers as clear as possible?

You believe that we are “ultimately saying the same thing”. I am not so sure that we are. So, let us try to work out where we do agree and where we don’t.

There are two questions we are debating. The first is about the legal limits to free speech. My view is that the law should not in any way protect cultural or religious sensibilities. All speech should be legal except where it directly incites violence. I assume that is your position, though you have never actually stated it as such. Do we agree on that?

The second question is about how we can define speech that is legally acceptable but morally distasteful. You say that where we draw the moral line “should be reached through negotiation”. But negotiation with whom? And on what basis?

You raise a series of questions about the Danish cartoons, and imply that the cartoons were not legitimate speech but created merely to provoke, and hence should not have been published. You don’t, however, actually say that. So, to clarify, is that your view?

Exactly the same questions were, as I pointed out in an earlier letter, asked about The Satanic Verses, and many came to the same conclusions about Rushdie’s novel: that it was Islamophobic, designed to provoke and inflame Muslim communities, that it ridiculed Islam and played off people’s fears, and so on. The philosopher Shabbir Akhtar described it as an “inferior piece of hate literature”. The liberal Ziauddin Sardar wrote that reading the novel felt like being “raped”. The novelist Rana Kabani insisted that it played upon ancient Islamophobic stereotypes.

In the case of both The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons, the majority of Muslims, certainly initially, stayed indifferent to the issue. A vocal minority transformed both into global controversies. So, what does “negotiation” mean in this context? Muslim objection to The Satanic Verses was as deep and as broad as that to the Danish cartoons. Yet, you seem to think that it was right to publish the novel but not the cartoons. Why? And please don’t say “My answer can’t be clear because the issue is not simple”.

In any case, the questions that you raise — Is it Islamophobic? Is the aim merely to ridicule? etc — are different from the question that we are actually addressing: “Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free speech?”. There is, in my view, a moral imperative on free speech advocates to challenge racist and other bigoted speech. I certainly do not that think that about speech that offends cultural or religious sensibilities. On the contrary, the moral imperative is often to transgress such boundaries. It is the conflation of racism and bigotry, on the one hand, and of cultural and religious sensibilities, on the other, that is the problem. Opponents of free speech often conflate these two issues in an attempt to establish a spurious legitimacy for their arguments against the giving of offence.

Best wishes,

Kenan Malik is a writer and broadcaster. His latest book is From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy (Atlantic Books)

Nada Shabout is associate professor of art education and art history at the University of North Texas and director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute

magazine March 2013-Fallout

This article appears in Fallout: free speech and the economic crisis. Click here for subscription options and more.
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