Many in the Islamic world are up in arms again. The American video is now followed by cartoons in a French satirical magazine, the BBC reports. France is taking precautions at its embassies and schools in Muslim countries. We’ve been here before, and will doubtless be visiting the same territory in future. In the meantime more innocent people will lose their lives.
The principles at stake are crystal clear. In contrast, the practical way forward is about as opaque as it’s possible to imagine. So let’s start with the easy bit, and establish the principles. I have a right to practise my religion without interference or constraint, other than where such practice abuses the rights of others. So no, I can’t freely practise my religion if that religion leads me to murder (as in the recent cases of “demonic possession”) for example, but if I want to waft incense around the place it’s no business of yours. I have the right to ask that my beliefs are accorded respect, but I have no right to demand that they are. I have no right whatsoever to demand of those who do not share my religious convictions, anything at all. I most certainly do not have the right to kill and maim those who profane my beliefs no matter how hurtful I might find that profanity. Whether the Islamic world likes it or not, it seems to me that these principles are inviolate.
So what should happen in practice? This is much more difficult. It’s tempting to elevate all matters of principle to the same level. The principle of free speech may seem to be so basic that every attempt to constrain it should be fought tooth and nail. But if, in pursuing my right to free expression, I have reason to believe that innocent people may well be brutally killed, should that give me pause? If people die because of the cartoons in that French magazine, notwithstanding that ultimate responsibility must lie with those who kill, and not with those who “provoked” the killing, is it sufficient to say that those deaths are merely an unfortunate collateral damage sustained in the fight for the assertion of freedom of expression?
I am in no doubt that a magazine in a free country should have the untrammelled right to publish any cartoon it bloody well likes, to include images of the Prophet Mohammed notwithstanding the views of those who think such a thing a blasphemy, and the devil take the hindmost. But I’m not at all sure that asserting that right is worth a single drop of other people’s blood. If I want to make a stand, I should make it at my expense. It’s all a bit too easy to make a stand when other people are going to pay the price, and pay it with their lives.