Publishing Mohammad’s Cartoons:
A Utilitarian Apology for Free Speech
by: Doğaçhan Dağı
Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
Reprinted from the Secular Policy Institute website
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Do the depictions of Mohammad deserve protection within the realm of freedom of expression or does it count as hate speech that asks for limitations? The terrorist attack to Charlie Hebdo ignited the controversy regarding the limits to free speech in Western countries. Yet, this issue has only been debated with contemporary perspectives. John Stuart Mill and his Utilitarian ideals, which was the first and most orthodox discourse in defense of free speech, have been neglected. By using a Millian rhetoric based on the Harm Principle, this essay aims to demonstrate that the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo are not beyond the domain of free speech.
The concept of freedom of expression developed gradually during the era of Enlightenment, as greater political communities based on the separation of spiritual and temporal authorities replaced the customs of pre-medieval despotism. Nevertheless, this unprecedented progress in basic human rights demanded rules of conduct that would prevent or at least minimize the misuse of free speech. The unanimous commitment to set limits to freedom of expression unfolded arguably one of the most indistinct and persistent debates in liberal societies in which where and how to place the limits made the core of the intricacy. John Stuart Mill, as a proponent of Utilitarianism made a significant contribution to this debate, manifesting the most famous liberal apology ever made for freedom of expression throughout his book, On Liberty. Mill advocates that the only rightful limitation to the actions of individuals can be on the moral basis of preventing physical harm to others, which is now mostly cited as the Harm Principle.
The publication of series of controversial cartoons depicting Mohammad in a Danish newspaper in 2006 provoked Muslim mobs all around the world and where to put the limits to freedom of expression was again a matter of intense discussion in the Western countries. These discussions escalated again after Islamic terrorists targeted Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, in 2015. Certainly, the Mohammad cartoons are a perfect case to evaluate and interpret in light of Mill’s Harm Principle. This essay strongly argues that this incident does not satisfy the conditions of harm as understood by Mill, since abstract artificial structures (i.e. religions, ideologies) constructed by men, without exception, are neither subjected to physical harm nor do they enjoy any sense of inviolability. Even though the opinions expressed in Charlie Hebdo might have shocked others, Mill insists that “There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” Therefore, without any doubt the Mohammad cartoons needs to be considered within the domain of free speech for the sake of protecting the secular values and avoiding the possible slide into more censorship.
Even though John S. Mill recognizes the devoir to limit freedom of expression he is also very persistent to keep the purview of it at the maximum. The apprehensions behind his arguments are his belief to Utilitarian principles, the French Revolution and his concern towards the slippery slope. With a Utilitarian reading of the world Mill argues on the first chapter of On Liberty that the task of the rulers is to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number; therefore as long as the utility of the greatest number is not endangered, the commonwealth has an obligation to ensure the freedom of expression of every citizen since only that would provide the maximum utility to an individual. Furthermore, Mill proclaims that if all mankind silenced a single person they would not be more justified then that single person silencing all mankind. Thus, the utility and emancipation of a single person is not to be despised unless it endangers the freedom of others. Also, the Utilitarian approach to freedom was certainly influenced heavily by the Declaration of the Rights of Men and the Citizen of 1789 that stated “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each men has no limits…” Withal, to refrain from an irrepressible censorship and tyranny, it is of utmost importance to minimize the limitations to free speech since even the slightest of concessions to it contains the risk to pave the way out to further restrictions that might easily be justified by the government.
The Harm Principle proposed by Mill distinguishes between illegitimate and legitimate harm by defining the former with a sheer threat to violence against an individual or a group of people –including blackmail, malediction etc.- and the latter as a psychological harm that might offend a person or a community. Therefore, abstract objects created by men are not above scrutiny since they cannot be subjected to psychical violence. Moreover, Mill explicitly places a sensitive issue, religion, to a realm that by all means needs to be open to ridicule and criticism putting forward that: “Such liberty should exist with every subject matter so that we have absolute freedom of opinion on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological.”
However, the Offense Principle that asserts expressions which aim to psychological harm needs to be subjected to limitations can sometimes be vital to prevent the misappropriation of free speech and punish lawfully those who engage in racism, sexism or homophobia. Because of the vague nature of the argument, with a liberal reading that objects to recognize sensible outrages, it might well be argued that a constructed ideology cannot be an excuse to limit speech and only the congenital characteristics of the individual or the group (such as race, gender, sexual orientation) can be above scrutiny. Yet, from a Millian perspective, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting Mohammad does not satisfy the conditions of Offense Principal since it merely ridicules an ancient constructed theological idea that has nothing to do what so ever with inheritance and should not be treated any more specially than the cartoons of Jesus or Buddha.
Critics of this pro-free speech opinion tend to argue that cartoons of Mohammad should not be drawn just because it is forbidden in Islamic teaching. Nonetheless, they fail to comprehend that this Islamic rule -which is actually not even present in Orthodox Islam- can only apply in countries ruled with Sharia Law and individuals in secular countries cannot be forced to abide with it. On other counter argument against the Charlie Hebdo case is the claim that this expressions actually does satisfy the Harm Principle because of the likelihood of riots or terrorist attacks in the aftermath. This assertion is incredibly dangerous for open societies since it, in a cowardly fashion, explicitly aims to appease and tolerate the intolerant and violent. There are no limits to being offended and the smallest of concessions given from freedom of expression might easily pave the way out to bigger concessions in the future for the sake of being ‘politically correct’. To make the argument clear, the decision of Illinois Supreme Court that permitted a pro-Nazi parade in a mostly Jewish inhabited district makes a perfect example of a leading case. Even though that rally was incredibly provocative and could ignite clashes in the district, the Supreme Court decided not to ban the event because the risk of violence is actually ever present in any occasion and demands immense subjectivity to measure which could justify Muslim mobs all around the world.
To conclude, the cartoonists departed after the Charlie Hebdo attack are immortalized in the eyes of many as a symbol and martyr of free speech, which was achieved and defended with sorrow and blood. In the context of 21st century, there is absolutely no idea that is privileged or sacred except the idea of freedom and dignity. Thus, this essay is comfortable to assert that the opinion expressed in Charlie Hebdo and other similar cases does not satisfy the Harm Principle of John S. Mill no matter how much psychological shock or disturbance it might create in a certain community.
 John Stuart Mill’s Social and Political Thought, Edited by G.W.Smith, New York, 1998, p.282.
 Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty and Other Writings, Edited by Stefan Collini, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p.20.
 Lifelines in World History, New York, M.E Sharpe, 2009, p.286.
 Mill, J.S, On Liberty, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, p.11.
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