Now that a few days have passed since the dreadful events in Paris, where Islamic militants savagely attacked the staff of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, perhaps we can ask some tough questions without fear of being demonized or dismissed or accused of being tasteless.
After all, we are talking about people's security here, which is surely a paramount issue in these fractious times. Surely this is as important as the grand discussions about free speech.
Of course, last week's killings at the Charlie Hebdo office, and at other locations in Paris, were absolutely outrageous and murderous and should be condemned. But surely one has to ask why the French cartoonists persisted with their offensive cartoons after they had repeatedly received death threats for doing so and had their offices bombed?
In the current climate, with militant Islamic groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda so active, is it worth persisting with publishing what are clearly blasphemous images to Muslims, just for the sake of stirring things up and trumpeting 'free speech'?
And now that so many have many killed, is it really worth persisting with the publication of such outrageous images, just to prove a point to the killers, who are anyway now dead? Is this now just playing into the hands of the killers who want an escalation of the controversy and an over reaction and even a so-called 'war of civilization'?
We have been down this road before. In 1989, the writer Salman Rushdie was subjected to a fatwa (death threat) from the Iranian Ayatollah for allegedly blaspheming Islam in his novel "The Satanic Verses." It was an outrageous death threat from Iran, but Rushdie knew exactly what he was doing and though he went into hiding, he had the luxury of a Western police force to protect him. Today, he is still alive whereas hundreds of people who were killed in the riots which resulted from the publication of his reckless novel, are not.
In 2005, derogatory cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad were published in a Danish newspaper, again resulting in numerous and pointless killings. Why? Why do we feel the need to offend and provoke such outrage? Does it make us feel superior and dominant? Of course, up until now, most of the deaths caused by these irresponsible publications have been in Third World countries, whereas the attitude seems to be that back in the civilized West, in the US and Europe, we can pride ourselves on upholding our magnificent traditions of free speech.
The reality is that for most Muslims, and for many people of other religions, a belief in their prophets and deities is absolute, real and passionate and the desecration of them is an act of outrage. But we seem to have become so inured in the West, that we can think we can put all such defilement under the heading of free speech and laugh at the 'mad believers' in 'less developed' parts of the world.
After all, Christians can do nothing now about the casual and constant denigration of their faith, and Catholics even less so. But, unfortunately, extreme Muslims have access to guns and have no problem being violent, especially when they look at the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. In this context, is it really worth the risk?
Where has common sense gone in all of this?
Try to think of it from the Muslim perspective, if you can. For the past ten years and more, you have been repeatedly told that as a Muslim, you are part of a backward religion, supporting political violence, suppressing women's rights and 'swamping' a supposedly harmonious Europe. You have seen Islamic countries invaded and occupied by Western forces. You have seen, on social media and in Western popular culture, the most amazing and casual examples of Islamophobia. (You have also seen, incidentally, the hijacking of your religion by jihadi extremists and nihilists, and this then used by most Western commentators to tarnish all of your faith.)
But you always have your faith. You can go to the mosque and read the Koran and worship, without interference or mockery. Now, however, the aggressive secularists are coming after this too. They know you take the sacredness of your Prophet literally and so they are going to mock and defile this as well.
And anyone who is any doubt about how offensive these images are should reflect on just one of them. It pokes 'fun' at the recently introduced French law which outlaws the public wearing of the Islamic veil, a deeply hurtful stricture for Muslims, who have dressed this way for hundreds of years and who are now told that their religiously-observant clothing is 'backward.'
Women are not allowed to wear the veil outside, so the Hebdo cartoon shows a naked woman, with an Islamic fabric hanging from a certain part of her anatomy, shouting 'can I wear it on the inside?' Even to a hardened secularist, this would be a pretty provocative image. One cannot even imagine the effect of such an image on a devout Muslim.
The defenders, and even advocates, of these images talk about free speech, but there is no such thing as absolute free speech. You are, for example, not allowed to publish or even look at paedophile images; you are not allowed to be racist and anti-Semitic; you cannot defame or libel people; and in France and Germany, it is a criminal offence to deny that the Holocaust happened. And thanks be to God (or common sense) for all of that, I say.
In the US, you can make much harsher allegations about people than you can in Europe where the libel laws are stricter, but you still cannot utter outright lies. In fact, there are a whole range of laws and regulations about what one can depict, say, publish or accumulate. And these are just public laws. Privately most of us constantly censor our thoughts and expressions, unless we have Tourette's Syndrome, or are employed in the lower reaches of talk radio, or work in contemporary visual arts and stand up comedy where the whole purpose seems to outrage and secure attention.
The rest of us generally try to show a bit of respect and decency and not do stuff that would needlessly draw on the crazies, just for the hell of it. And that sort of automatic self-censorship is what makes us civilized as human beings. It's not just a matter of judgment; it's a matter of common sense. Talking about some concept of 'absolute and unfettered free speech' is not only factually untrue, it also assumes the imposition of a whole range of cultural values on another people who happen to share the globe but who think differently.
Amidst the right and proper condemnation of the killings in Paris, surely it is possible that we can ask some questions, and give some context. Or is there also to be a censorship of any debate around this event, which would be a grim irony in itself. Surely, such a debate is worth having, and having urgently, given that Charlie Hebdo now plans to publish further such images and other publications have vowed to do the same, thereby surely creating further unrest – and possible killings.