Between Speech And Religion, Freedoms Often Spell Friction
Renee Montagne speaks with Suzanne Nossel, executive director for PEN American Center, to discuss how issues of free speech and religious freedom can clash.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST: Now we turn to an organization designed to protect free speech for writers and journalists, PEN. Suzanne Nossel – she’s the executive director for PEN American Center; she’s also a former U.S. diplomat who worked on issues of free speech around the globe – to talk about some of this and put it in perspective, good morning.
SUZANNE NOSSEL: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Obviously a terrible tragedy, but you would have known of this magazine. Would you have thought it to be vulnerable to this?
NOSSEL: Well, they were vulnerable. They were firebombed a couple of years ago. It’s being reported this morning that they were threatened. You know, they were provocative. They pushed the boundaries. They were fearless. And that’s what put them into the crosshairs here. And this is a pattern that we’ve seen escalating over time. It began with the Danish cartoons. Years ago, we saw it again with the “Innocence Of Muslims,” that provocative video that sparked violence. But this is kind of a new level of explosiveness and deadliness, you know, right in the heart of Paris.
MONTAGNE: Well, you speak of a new level. But put this in some perspective for us, a little history. You mentioned the Danish cartoons. Now you’re talking there of images – satirical images – of the Prophet Muhammad.
NOSSEL: That’s right, and those images are seen as deeply offensive to many people of the Muslim faith. And they do regard making images of Muhammad or satirizing Muhammad, you know, as a level of offense that I think is kind of hard to understand as a Westerner. You know, you speak to them, it’s clear that this does strike the heart very deeply in a religious sense. And so that’s something that I think is fairly widely understood among Muslims.
You know, the idea, though, that it justifies violence I think is limited to a small group. But it’s not something that’s new. We have seen, before, threats of violence, acts of violence in response to what they see as provocation and incitement that these images are sort of so incendiary that, you know, in the minds of some violence is a warranted response.
MONTAGNE: Although again – I’m just talking perspective here – blasphemy is actually illegal, a crime, in some Muslim countries in theory punishable, you know, by the worst punishment. In no way to put this at that level, but it is a very deep-seeded negative.
NOSSEL: Well, that’s true, and blasphemy remains a crime on the books in some European countries. So that idea, you know, is something that’s pretty widely accepted, that the offense to religion, you know, in some cases can be criminalized, has historically been criminalized. But in the West, you know, those crimes typically now aren’t prosecuted, aren’t punished. And you know, this is also a matter, not of a state bringing up prosecution for blasphemy, but individuals taking it into their own hands to commit an act of terror and an act of murder. And I think the overwhelming majority of Muslims, even those who might be deeply offended by these images, you know, realize that that crosses a huge line.
MONTAGNE: Well, finally and just briefly, what does this mean, though, for the future of things like, you know, freewheeling satirical magazines and free speech?
NOSSEL: Well, it’s a great question. It comes on the heels of the whole controversy over “The Interview” and the threats that may have emanated from North Korea. And it’s really hard to imagine movie studios aren’t – now we know they’re think twice about provocative movies that insult certain figures. And you know magazines around the world that publish, you know, these kinds of cartoons are going to, you know, perhaps hesitate for a moment, think about security considerations. And that has a chilling effect on free speech and is – you know, really has the potential to undermine some of our fundamental values. So it’s a pretty terrifying attack on free speech that, you know, the whole world really has endured this morning.
MONTAGNE: And actually, just stay with us. I want to bring in my colleague, Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Yeah, I have a question for you, Ms. Nossel. You’ve have given us a bit of a review of some of these attacks up to now. We heard from our colleague Eleanor Beardsley, who is on the streets of Paris, that there was a policeman posted permanently outside the offices of this satirical magazine. Do you have a sense of how well authorities in various countries have responded to the continuing threat of this kind of attack?
NOSSEL: Well, this is something that has seized diplomats and government officials at the U.N. and in places like the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is a Muslim umbrella organization. They are well aware that these questions of so-called defamation of religion can be explosive, incendiary and deadly. They’ve been working on trying to find more kind of compromised solutions, peaceful solutions.
But I think this is going to elevate all of that to a new level. It’s really, you know, made it so clear how truly deadly, violent and threatening these attacks can be and kind of going straight at the heart of speech. You know, we don’t even know who’s been killed, but we have to assume it’s probably journalists, cartoonists, editors. So that’s going to, I think, focus the minds in capitals around the world and on police forces around the world about the need for added security, the need for more kinds of alternative approaches like dialogue – responding to speech with more speech, speech that rebuts – you know, more promotion of understanding of where the offense lines and the trigger lines are so that we can deal with these religious differences more constructively.
INSKEEP: OK. Ms. Nossel, thanks very much.
NOSSEL: Thanks very much.
INSKEEP: That’s Suzanne Nossel. She is executive director of the PEN American Center talking with us on this day when we are tracking news of an attack in Paris – a dozen people reported killed after at least three gunmen attacked a French satirical magazine. Video shows the men rather calmly moving about, even shooting an additional person on the street on their way away from the scene. We’re told that the dead include four cartoonists at this magazine, which it published cartoons which were viewed as offensive by many Muslims, also cartoons that offended Jews, offended Catholics. It was a satirical humor magazine, and it has been attacked today. The gunmen drove away and are still believed to be at large in Paris. We’ll bring you more as we learn it right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.