COPENHAGEN – The attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo was an assault on democracy, on freedom, and on the ideals that underpin all free societies. As we face the forces of extremism and terror, we must have the courage to speak up for those ideals and to safeguard the right to say what we believe. But we must also take care to respect the fact that others have the same right.
Charlie Hebdo is not the first publication to have suffered for publishing images which some perceived as offensive to Islam. In 2005, when I was Prime Minister of Denmark, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten provoked international controversy by publishing twelve sketches of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims, in Denmark and abroad, accused Jyllands-Posten of blasphemy for publishing an image of the prophet. Others said that the images were an insult to Islam. There were calls for reprisals against the newspaper, against my government, and against Danish interests abroad.
Our response was founded on the principle that freedom of speech is one of the pillars on which democracy stands, and that if you undermine it, you undermine democracy itself. In free countries, every citizen has the right to say what he or she wants, believe what he or she wants, and criticize or mock what he or she wants – in writing, drawings, or any other form of peaceful expression. Every citizen also has the right to disagree with another’s opinions and to express that disagreement in a peaceful, legal manner.
In 2005, during the cartoons crisis, some commentators and politicians in the Muslim world claimed that the right to free speech had been abused and called for an apology and a condemnation of the cartoons, first from Jyllands-Posten, then from my government. To be sure, freedom of speech is a right that is best used wisely and responsibly. But we believed, and I still believe, that it would be neither wise nor responsible to attempt to limit it, and that the correct way to respond to a perceived insult is to present a counterargument, not to mount a terrorist attack. And, in democracies, you can always take the matter to court.
That principle guided us through the 2005 crisis. We did not apologize for an independent newspaper’s editorial decisions, despite great pressure from Muslim groups and governments.
Nor did we seek to justify the publication of the cartoons. We simply stood up for freedom of speech.
Despite the horror and anger we feel at the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, we must all hold fast to that principle, because to limit freedom of expression would be to weaken our own societies.
The attacks on the journalists of Charlie Hebdo were disgusting and despicable, but if we respond to them by abridging the freedom on which our societies rest, we will be playing into the murderers’ hands.
Governments must stand up for the freedom of journalists to write what they want and the freedom of every citizen to support or disagree with what they write. And journalists must continue to write and draw what they believe. Self-censorship would undermine their freedom and encourage further pressure on free speech.
In the past few days, some editors decided that the right response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was to republish the magazine’s cartoons. Others decided not to. Still others criticized Charlie Hebdo’s actions. The editors had the right to make those decisions and to express themselves as they saw fit. That is the essence of democracy. The day such decisions are made for fear of reprisal is the day our freedom ends.
For citizens, freedom of speech means having the courage to speak out for what they believe, without resorting to violence – against journalists or against the representatives of any religious belief. To shoot journalists in cold blood for printing a cartoon is a hideous crime. But so is attacking a mosque or assaulting a Muslim because of his or her faith.
There is a place for debate, even passionate debate, on the deeply moral question of how to balance freedom of speech with respect for religion. But the weapons of this debate should be words, not arms – the keyboard, not the Kalashnikov. Every one of us has the right to our opinion. None of us has the right to kill those with whom we disagree.
The march of millions in Paris on January 11 was a magnificent expression of solidarity and peace. Every leader and legislator should strive to live up to those ideals as he or she responds to the threat of extremism.
The terrorist attacks in Paris will, one hopes, be a game changer in the defense of press freedom, and freedom in general, because millions of people have realized what is at stake. We cannot take freedom of expression for granted. We must stand up for it and defend it, even – and perhaps especially – when we disagree with what is being expressed.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Prime Minister of Denmark and Secretary General of NATO, is Founder and Chairman of Rasmussen Global.