True Free Speech, Bravery and Letting Others Suffer the Consequences

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons controversy invites us to look at the world in simple black and white terms. You either support free speech, in which case it was an act of bravery to publish more cartoons after the shootings in Paris, or you give in to terrorism and extremism. Unfortunately, in reality, it turns out that the world is painted in shades of grey, rather than black and white.

The backlash from Charlie Hebdo’s defiance, in printing more cartoons, occurred not in Paris but in the predominantly Muslim country of Niger. There mobs targeted a number of churches, both Evangelical and Catholic, burning down church buildings and murdering several Christians – including at least two burned to death inside the church buildings.

Burning Church

Yes, it is brave to defy terrorists and extremists – but is it praiseworthy to do so when you know that your actions will cause the suffering and death of people who are already marginalised and persecuted? Because the events in Niger were all too predictable. Similar actions against Christian minorities in the Muslim world have happened before.

For example, in 2005 a Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, published cartoons of Mohammed. At first the response seemed fairly tame with Muslim nations boycotting Danish goods (key Danish exports being beer and bacon – which are prohibited by Islam anyway). Then things turned nasty. In Maiduguri, in northern Nigeria, 11 churches were burned and 15 Christians were killed.

Then, in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech at the University of Regensburg in which he made controversial comments about Islam. As a result a Christian was killed in Iraq and a Somali nun was shot dead.

In other words, the magazine editors in Paris knew that, by reprinting the cartoons, Christian minorities would suffer attacks and deaths would almost certainly occur – but they chose to go ahead anyway in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.

True freedom does not mean that you have to exercise that freedom irrespective of the consequences to others. True freedom can mean that you have a right to behave in a certain way, but you refrain from doing so because you don’t want other people to suffer. Self-control can sometimes be more important than freedom of speech. Love and concern for others in vulnerable situations can be better than bravery.

I realise that this leaves us in an unsatisfactory dilemma. Should Islam be exempted from any criticism because murderous thugs on the other side of the world will use any excuse to inflict death and misery on Christian minorities? Yet can we really live with ourselves if our actions, done in the name of freedom, result in suffering and death for others.

A few years ago I was in a Conference of international Pentecostal and Charismatic leaders. The pastor of a large and influential megachurch was urging us to sign a document which, in very belligerent terms indeed, supported the actions of Israel in firing rockets into residential areas of cities where Islamic terrorists were operating, thus causing the deaths of innocent civilians. I pointed out to him that, even if you did think it was a good thing to fire rockets into residential neighbourhoods, signing such a document could have terrible implications for Christians in the Middle East who would be the first to suffer a violent response. This megachurch pastor became quite irate – accusing me of being ‘afraid of Muslim extremists.’ I responded that I was quite happy to die for my faith if necessary, but I wasn’t happy for other people to die for my faith!

We need to stop and think before we speak. For example, when we proclaim that our western countries are ‘Christian countries,’ do we consider that we might be signing the death warrant of Christian believers in other countries?

This is nothing new. Christians had lived in Persia from the very earliest days of the Church. Parthians and Medes were among the crowd that heard Peter preach the Gospel on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9). For three centuries Syriac churches in Persia prayed and worshipped in the Aramaic language that Jesus and His disciples had spoken. But then, in the Fourth Century, the Roman Empire, which was the sworn enemy of Persia, adopted Christianity and began to style itself as a Christian Empire. Persia’s rulers, the Sassanids, decided that if their enemies were now Christians, then that made the Christians within Persia enemies as well. A fearful persecution of the Persian Church ensued. In a tragic irony the same process is being repeated in our own day in the same part of the world. Those who view Christianity as a western, or even American, religion are persecuting Christians in the Middle East.

I value freedom. I value love and compassion even more. My freedom should not be the cause of another person’s suffering.

Je ne suis pas Charlie!


The horrific attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris prompted mass demonstrations. Many of the demonstrators waved placards declaring “I am Charlie” – identifying themselves with the satirical magazine whose mockery of Islam provoked such a vicious and bloody response from the men of violence.

Momentous and tragic events seem to demand deep and profound responses. Unfortunately, if we are not careful, those responses can come across as shallow bandwagon jumping.

For example, I’ve noticed that some of the same newspapers which now proudly identify themselves with Charlie Hebdo and its mockery of Islam were the same voices that decried a prominent Belfast pastor last year when he spoke out against Islam in strident terms. That seems hypocritical. “Je suis Charlie, mais je ne suis pas James McConnell”?

Another problem with the ‘Je suis Charlie’ approach is that it misses the whole point of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not about agreeing with everyone else, it’s about allowing us all the right to disagree. Freedom of speech means that you can strongly disagree with what someone says or writes, but that you still defend their right to keep on speaking and writing.

I am not Charlie. I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks, and, from what I’ve seen of it since, I think the Charlie Hebdo magazine is crude and offensive. But I want to live in a society where Charlie is allowed to be crude and offensive with out being killed or shut down by the law.

Here in Ireland we have blasphemy legislation, including a clause in the Constitution. Moves are afoot to remove that legislation. Since the Constitution is involved that will probably take a Referendum (unless the government chooses to side-step the Constitution as it did with abortion). I personally think that the blasphemy legislation should be removed because it is unworkable in a modern society. For example, if I say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then I am committing blasphemy in the eyes of Muslims. Since legislation cannot protect all religious people from getting offended, then it should not be used to protect any. I don’t want legislation that prevents me from getting offended by anyone else’s speech. I want legislation that protects my freedom of speech to preach the Gospel and to declare my faith – and that necessarily involves giving similar freedom to those with very different beliefs.

So, je ne suis pas Charlie – but I defend Charlie’s right to free speech, even when I find that speech offensive.

Crucial Vote for Religious Freedom in Europe – Make Your Voice Count!

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is one of the two statutory organs of the Council of Europe, an international organisation dedicated to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and which oversees the European Court of Human Rights. It is made up of 318 parliamentarians from the national parliaments of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states, and generally meets four times a year for week-long plenary sessions in Strasbourg.

The Assembly is meeting 26-30 January 2015 to discuss, and vote upon, a resolution designed to protect religious freedom and to prevent discrimination against religious groups – including Evangelical Christianity. You can read the draft resolution at:
The problem is that many parliamentarians often do not attend these sessions, as they are so busy with political duties in their own countries. Therefore the attendance or non-attendance of one parliamentarian could swing the vote one way or another.

You can help by contacting parliamentarians in your country. Email them and say something like:
“Dear X, We are grateful that you take your Council of Europe responsibilities seriously. During the plenary session 26-30 January, an important resolution tackling intolerance and discrimination in Europe with a special focus on Christians will be voted on. We know you are very busy but we would be so grateful if you would attend the session and show your support for this resolution.”
Include this briefing with your email: Ghiletchi PACE Vote – Intolerance Christians – BRIEFING NOTE

The four Irish representatives on the Assembly are:
Joseph O’Reilly (Fine Gael)
Terry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Michael McNamara (Labour)
Olivia Mitchell (Fine Gael)