Opinion Columns & Blogs

Davis Merritt: The right to speak doesn’t make speech right


In Paris last week, the attackers and the attacked alike died for their opposing beliefs when radical Islamic terrorists slaughtered eight staffers of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and then were themselves killed.

By Western standards, the killers’ actions were wildly disproportionate to the newspaper’s offense, but to radical Islamic fundamentalists, the journalists’ cartoon characterizations of the prophet Muhammad required no less than their deaths, something the journalists surely understood.

Now they all are equally dead, the latest casualties of an asymmetric, endless struggle that can never be resolved, only contained, because the two cultures’ core values are wholly incompatible: the Western Enlightenment tradition of the primacy of free will, including free speech, and the Islamic tradition that puts religion at the center of a world divided into believers and unbelievers and requires the conversion, by coercion if necessary, of the unbelievers.

As Henry Kissinger explains in his latest book, “World Order,” there have been periods of peaceful coexistence over the centuries between Muslim and non-Muslin cultures as well as periods of antagonism and open war going back to Christianity’s 11th-century Crusades. But, he notes, over several centuries “the crusading spirit subsided in the Western world or took the form of secular concepts (over) religious imperatives…. The evolution in the Muslim world has been more complex (and Islam) remains in a condition of inescapable confrontation with the outside world.”

This certainly does not mean that most Muslims are radical Islamists in constant jihad, but it does mean that religious radicals and other individuals, including national leaders, who have real or imagined grievances against the secular world can find in Islam justification for even the most heinous acts.

A thousand years of experience shows that the West cannot change fundamental Islam by either force or persuasion. Only Islam can redefine, over time, its role in the world, and only Muslims can cause that to happen. Perhaps someday Islam’s religious leaders and the Muslim world’s political leaders will realize that Islam cannot vanquish freedom any more than freedom can vanquish Islam, and start to teach their religion differently.

Predictably and properly, Western reaction to the assassinations of Charlie Hebdo’s journalists has been defiant: We will not be intimidated or subdued; every snuffed-out life will be replaced by dozens; no power can be allowed to censor or chill free speech.

One does not have to agree with Charlie Hebdo’s content nor replicate it in order to support the journalists’ right to express it. But having the right to say something does not make saying it right. Self-restraint is not self-censorship; it is another, often more appropriate, way of exercising free will.

Cartoonist Renald Luzier, pen name “Luz,” who survived the attack, declared a few years ago, “A pencil is not a weapon. It’s just a means of expression.” Pencils, hammers, tree limbs – and words – are not weapons ... until they are used as such. Charlie Hebdo’s trademark was gratuitous, deliberate, self-indulgent insult aspiring, but failing, to reach the level of satire. Its only apparent purpose was to wound. That’s weaponry.

The journalists’ abuse of a precious right certainly does not justify their slaughter nor the loss of the right. But one must ask what good they hoped to accomplish – a threshold question that, in a civilized world, must be addressed by any person armed with the ability to affect other people’s lives.

Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at dmerritt9@cox.net.