The freedom to offend is a priceless commodity | Kenan Malik


The details are still emerging, but the horror is clear – the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, in Paris, apparently in response to his using Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a classroom discussion on free speech.

After such attacks there are always claims that “free speech isn’t worth it”. Hardly had news begun filtering out about the 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders than there were suggestions that the cartoonists had brought it on themselves. The same will no doubt happen again.

But in such moments, we need to do the opposite: to reaffirm commitments to free speech and the freedom to offend.

What is called “offence to a community” is usually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the west and in Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and institutions - writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily risking their lives in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms.

The unwillingness of liberals to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray progressives within minority communities, nurtures reactionaries, both within Muslim communities and outside it. The more society gives licence for people to be offended, the more people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. And the more deadly their outrage will become.

Liberal pusillanimity also nurtures anti-Muslim sentiment, feeding the racist idea that all Muslims are reactionary, that Muslim immigration should be stemmed and Muslim communities more harshly policed. We must reject both kinds of bigots. In a plural society, much of what we say, others will find offensive. If we want a plural society, we need to defend the freedom to offend.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist