Pope Francis's comment about the limits of freedom of expression is important in that it reveals the new sacred hierarchies of late modernity. As the spiritual head of world Catholics, the Pope uses an example from civil/personal law rather than religious history. He could have said Jesus Christ or Moses instead of "my mother." But he is right to do so because this is the norm in most secular societies today.
This is where one needs to pay more attention to religious sensitivities. Muslims hold their prophet dearer to their hearts than anything else, and when someone attacks or ridicules the prophet, it becomes an attack on both religious faith and personal belief. This might be difficult for some to understand but this sense of respect and protection is not limited to Prophet Muhammad alone. Muslims would equally react to attacks on other prophets such as Jesus Christ, Moses, Noah or Abraham. This is not fanaticism, as some militant secularists would claim. Rather, it is a demand for respect for one's belief.
Freedom of expression, while firmly protected in modern law, has been limited on grounds of not harming others within the rule of law. In France, the denial of the Holocaust is a crime and you can be prosecuted for it even though holding the opposite view can be seen as freedom of expression. The anti-Semitism laws prohibit people from making racist and discriminatory remarks against Jews who have been vilified and persecuted for centuries in Europe.
Though not related to anti-Semitism yet a clearly political decision, the CNN International fired Octavia Nasr, its senior Middle East editor, in 2010 for saying in a tweet that she respected the Shiite scholar and spiritual leader Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah of Lebanon.
In the past, Dieudonné's shows have been cancelled in France and the U.K. for being anti-Semitic and racist. Since the Jan. 7 attack, France reportedly opened more than 50 criminal cases for hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism. Even in France, the land of Liberte, there are limits to freedom of expression.
A number of decisions taken by the European Court of Human Rights including the 1967 Handyside case establishes freedom of speech as a fundamental right but also limits it on the basis of the "harm principle," i.e., not harming others physically and psychologically.
All these examples point to the limits of freedom of expression and they are widely applied in various political and legal contexts. The trouble is that the harm principle is usually forsaken when it comes to Muslim minority communities. Ridiculing their sacred values and figures in the name of free speech goes against the principle of reason, rule of law and respect for others.
Furthermore, anti-Muslim hate speech and incitement is not limited to Muslim minorities living in Europe and the U.S. They are equally harmful and offensive to the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.
In its essence and impact, anti-Muslim hate speech is no different to anti-Semitism. But there is no legal framework to protect Muslims from libel, slander and incitement to violence in the same way that the anti-Semitism laws protect Jews. No matter how liberal and concerned they are, most European politicians and bureaucrats are against introducing a bill similar to anti-Semitism to protect Muslim minority communities.
It remains to be seen what impact President Hollande's call to protect all minority communities will have in the western hemisphere.
In the meantime, Muslim communities in the West and Muslim countries around the world should be equally uncompromising against both terrorism and hate speech targeting Jews, Christians and others. It is their civic and Islamic duty to denounce anti-Semitism and anti-Christian incitement in all of its forms. They have to make a clear distinction between the policies of the State of Israel and Jewish people and apply the same principle to Christian nations. It is only by upholding this principle with cogency and determination that they will succeed in fighting against racism, hate speech and defamation in unison with the people of reason and conscience around the world. It is also within such a framework that a healthy and genuine debate on the limits of freedom of expression and respect for others can begin.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey