Je Suis a Defender of Freedoms: Why Democracies Need Freedom of Religion, Not Just Expression, Now More than Ever

Stéphane Charbonnier ("Charb"), who was killed on January 7 when a pair of gunmen stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine of which he was editor (User thierry ehrmann, Flickr Commons) As the world reflects on the indefensible murders at the office of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the attacks that followed at the kosher grocery store and warehouse, the debate has once again turned to the core characteristics of democratic societies. While many have united in solidarity around freedom of the press, the fissures around religion are once again being exposed just as others are being created.

The violence that racked Paris was not an expression of faith; it was an expression of extremism, of radical thought that draws its inspiration from a twisted interpretation of one faith. And with that violence, the terrorists did exactly what they hoped they could stop Charlie Hebdo from doing—defiling the name and reputation of Islam.

In the hours and days following the attacks, many individuals worldwide stood valiantly in solidarity with the slain journalists of Charlie Hebdo and other innocent victims, against the violence that was a clear attack on freedom of speech.

Those standing in democratic solidarity ranged from regular readers of the magazine to those who found it deeply offensive, myself included in this latter group. All stood, nonetheless, in unified support of freedom of the press, regardless of their personal views. Each recognized that the health of a democracy rests on respect for the foundational freedoms upon which that democracy is built. And each recognized the need to defend that freedom when it was so blatantly attacked.

Freedom of religion is equally central to the health of democracies. When violence is perpetrated in the name of religion, too often the reaction is a rejection of religious communities and religion as a fundamental part of a democratic society. The problem, however, is not religion writ large.  The problem is the radicalization of religious teachings and the use of violence against innocent people. Freedom of religion and the peaceful expression of religious views are as important to a democratic society as freedom of the press.

Freedom of religion does not require societies to agree about religious doctrine any more than freedom of the press requires agreement with all that is published. Just as many set aside personal views of satirical cartoons in the name of democratic freedom, societies must continue to protect religious freedom while setting aside differences in religious views for the same reason. The strength of democratic societies will be shown in their ability to respect such diversity among those who have different beliefs but share a commitment to the same democratic values.

In the coming weeks, politicians and policymakers in France, throughout Europe, and worldwide will rightfully take action to prevent future attacks. Whether that is done in partnership with faith communities or by suppressing these communities remains to be seen.

This is an opportunity for both secular and religious peoples to join together in opposition to radicalism. The danger will come only if leaders succumb to the temptation to selectively join together to selectively oppose religious expression instead.

If the message coming out of the recent events in Paris is that there is more room for satirical cartoons and less for religion, democracy will be weakened and a dangerous signal will be sent to those corners of the globe watching what democracy in practice looks like. If the message is that satirical cartoons—even those that offend—are protected within a democracy, and that religious expression is as well, democracy will have achieved a moral victory.

As the democratic world looks to defend freedom of speech, it must also come together to show that a diversity of viewpoints—from the fervently secular to the deeply faithful—is essential to pluralistic societies. When societies seek to silence those who mock faith or those who peacefully seek to express it, they fail to live up to the very principles upon which free societies have been founded.

Let us hope that democracies capitalize on this moment to show that free expression will continue to flourish in the face of radicalism—and that this promise of free expression will hold as true for peaceful religious believers as it does for secular satirists.