Bret Stephens on free speech and criticism of religion, and the NYT’s failure to defend “blasphemy”

October 21, 2020 • 10:00 am

The op-ed below, a pretty good defense of freedom of speech, is also weird because it’s written by Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times. I’m usually not in the business of seconding conservatives, but they seem to be mounting more defenses of free speech than do liberals these days. At any rate, the topic of his column is how writers who criticize religion (read: Islam) are cowed by violent reactions from Muslims, and wind up taking a weak-tea position.

Now readers may find many reasons to go after Stephens here: he’s a right-winger, “only right-wingers defend free speech because they feel like they’re being censored,” and “why Islam, among all religions?”.

But what Stephens says is especially apposite because of last week’s beheading of a French high-school teacher who showed his students (after giving them the opportunity to leave the class) two cartoons from Charlie Hebdo satirizing Muhammad. The teacher, Samuel Paty, paid with his life, decapitated by a Muslim terrorist. Will people start tut-tutting about the cartoons as they did after the Charlie Hebdo murders? I think they’ve already begun—in Stephens’s own paper.

Stephens draws from the Atlantic piece below by George Packer, a reprise of Packer’s Hitchens Prize lecture, and a piece is well worth reading. But I’ll skip it to get to Stephens and the NYT. The indented passages below are from Stephens:


Remember that the showing of the cartoons by the French teacher was part of a free speech class, and was considered discussable material because many people find it offensive. Remember too that Charlie Hebdo was mocking not Muslims, but Islam and its tenets. It wasn’t something I’d do if I valued my life, but the teacher did apologize afterwards. That didn’t matter, though. When Muslims call for the murder of a teacher in Sudan who named a teddy bear Muhammad (on her students’ suggestion) in her class, and she’s subsequently arrested, tried, and jailed, you know that somebody’s values are amiss.

At any rate, Stephens recounts some shameful experiences in journalism, centered on the cowardice of writers after the Charlie Hebdo murders:

In short order, the world got to see who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.

There weren’t many: the critics of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons included Jimmy Carter and, shamefully, PEN America, many of whose members boycotted the group’s award of its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.  And remember when Yale University Press published a whole book about the cartoons and their effect—without showing them? That was pure cowardice on the part of a publisher.

The result?

What these examples show, and what Packer brilliantly captures in his speech, is what might be called the encroachment of the unsayable. It’s an encroachment that, in its modern form, began with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” which was deemed blasphemous. In short order, the world got to see who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.

As in all the other instances, the immediate reaction has been heartbreak, defiance, solidarity — followed, typically, by a quiet moral concession. Often, this takes the form of a “yes-but” response in which the crime is condemned while also viewed as an answer to a provocation that is itself indefensible.

. . . The upshot of these controversies has been a kind of default to a middle position that goes roughly as follows: Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics. It’s a compromise that is fatal to liberalism. It reintroduces a concept of blasphemy into the liberal social order. It gives the prospectively insulted a de facto veto over what other people might say. It accustoms the public to an ever-narrower range of permissible speech and acceptable thought.

And, as Packer notes, it slowly but surely turns writers, editors and publishers into cowards. Notice, for instance, that I have just described the suspect in Paty’s murder as a “Chechen.” Why? Because it’s accurate enough, and it’s not worth dealing with the choice and precision of a single adjective.

Yes, of course he means “Chechen Muslim,” but won’t say that, which you might say is cowardice on Stephens’s part.  In the end, Stephens seems to include himself as a “gatekeeper of liberal culture”, which surprised me, but also decries the cowardice of publishers in taking the “middle position”:

We are killing democracy one weak verb, blurred analogy and deleted sentence at a time.

I should be more precise. When I say “we,” I don’t mean normal people who haven’t been trained in the art of never saying what they really think. I mean those of us who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of what was once a robust and confident liberal culture that believed in the value of clear expression and bold argument. This is a culture that has been losing its nerve for 30 years. As we go, so does the rest of democracy.

I haven’t seen any editorial criticism in the mainstream liberal media of the mindset that led to the French decapitation, though I don’t read every liberal site. Where are the op-eds saying that one should be able to mock religion without fear of losing one’s head? Where are the criticisms of blasphemy laws, of blasphemy mindsets? Certainly not in Stephens’s paper, the New York Times. Yes, the paper did publish a few articles on the attack by and killing of the Muslim who sawed off the teacher’s head, but with no editorial condemnation of notion of blasphemy that lead to the murder. And you know why. The NYT, being woke, dares not defend the right to criticize Islam or its oppressive doctrines. The paper’s staffers would quit in droves.

The latest piece on the French incident, below, is mainly on how the country, especially its Right, is cracking down on Muslims, and I can’t help but read into it the kind of “middle position” that Stephens mentions.  Reader Philip, who sent me the link to the piece below, was quite exercised by it, and wrote me this (quoted with permission):

Surely at least a few other readers have forwarded this to you: the NYT refulgent with concern about Islamophobia and right-wingism.  Where is the righteous concern for Islamofascism-motivated decapitation?

When I wrote him saying, “well, they did report on the murder,” Philip responded:

I congenially acknowledge the Times’s previous coverage, the tone of which seems reasonably neutral compared to that of the below article. What got me was that the latter prominently quotes those criticizing the teacher for showing the caricatures (re: the Danish cartoons), but who apparently are not similarly inclined to criticize the murder(er) and Islamofascism (a word the Times seemingly won’t print, unlike Islamophobia). To be charitable, maybe they did criticize the murder and the Times did not report that.

Read for yourself.

I think Philip is right in criticizing the one-sided slant of the article above, though I am not as exercised about it as readers may be, as that slant is pretty subtle. But I think it’s still there. Yes, the French Right is way too “Islamophobic” in the genuine sense, and perhaps the French government did overreact in rounding up people who were not suspects in a kind of “radical Muslim housecleaning”. But two bits struck me as editorializing.

The first one is this paragraph:

Thousands of people took to the streets in cities around France over the weekend to demonstrate their horror at the killing on Friday. And politicians, especially on the right, jostled to sound the alarm against “the enemy within,” as the hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, put it in a radio interview, referring to so-called radicalized Muslims.

“So-called” radicalized Muslims? I think that, in fact, there are genuine radicalized Muslims in France, one of them being the killer of Samuel Paty. I’m not quite sure why the “so-called” is there. Surely it wasn’t a characterization by Darmanin.

And despite the French support for Paty and demonstrations against his murder, the paper spends the entire last part of the article quoting those who criticized Paty’s showing of the cartoons:

Mr. Macron will deliver a solemn eulogy to Mr. Paty on Wednesday at the Sorbonne. He has already been hailed as a martyr of the French Republic. The emotion of thousands who turned out for him across France was real. A huge gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris recalled the ones held after the attacks of 2015.

But a few wondered about what had transpired in Mr. Paty’s class.

“I feel like it’s very hard to use these cartoons for strictly educational purposes,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, EHESS, in Paris.

“Secularists think that it is their right, because of the law that allows blasphemy and any form of mockery of religion. But on the other hand, there is the feeling that in doing so, it is the Muslims who are despised, not the prophet,” he said.

“By using cartoons to teach freedom of expression, we do not understand that we offend people,” Mr. Khosrokhavar said. “There are a thousand ways to express freedom of expression, so why choose this one?”

Françoise Lorcerie, an education expert at the National Center for Scientific Research, said she had never heard of using the caricatures of the prophet in a classroom setting for students of that age. And she was critical of Mr. Paty’s invitation to Muslim students that they leave the class to avoid being offended.

“Obviously these caricatures are wounding for Muslims,” said Ms. Lorcerie. “I’m not so sure about presenting these caricatures, without some sort of justification,” she said.

From the standpoint of the absolute value of secularism, “it doesn’t conform to his obligation to be neutral,” Ms. Lorcerie said. “There should be a reflection on all of this.”

And that’s the end of the piece. Only critics of the cartoons are quoted, not those who defend the right of Paty to show them—even if it was unwise. So yes, I think the NYT is occupying what Stephens called “the middle ground”, striking the Faustian bargain: “Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics.”

The NYT apparently includes teachers along with writers and artists. But how do you teach a free-speech class without referring to “offensive material”, or, better yet, showing it?

31 thoughts on “Bret Stephens on free speech and criticism of religion, and the NYT’s failure to defend “blasphemy”

  1. On the NYT piece:

    “… fury of the response had France’s right wing …”

    Trying to insinuate that opposition to Islam is “right wing”, and therefore wrong.

    “… But other groups targeted in the raids included Muslim associations previously given government subsidies for their work promoting better civic relations, …”

    European governments have long been naive in trying to befriend non-moderate Islamic groups.

    “… and only 15 of the people arrested had any connection to the gruesome attack on Friday.”


    “… as the hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, put it …”

    Is he really hard-line, or is the NYT trying to suggest that only hardliners are ever critical of Islam?

    “… referring to so-called radicalized Muslims”

    The inappropriate “so-called” was mentioned in the OP.

    “in general the tone was set by President Emmanuel Macron’s likely principal challenger in 2022, the far right leader Marine Le Pen”

    No actually, it wasn’t. The tone was very much set by Macron. Again, the NYT is trying to insinuate that only the “far right” would see Islam as a problem.

    “Mr. Macron, looking to consolidate a right-leaning electorate …”

    Ditto. Another use of “right”. In US terms, the French electorate is left or centre-left.

    “The speech reinforced the idea, current on France’s right, …”

    Yet again. See a pattern?

    “Some 51 Muslim aid organizations will also be targeted by the police this week, the interior minister said, …”

    The NYT calls them “aid” organisations, as though their chief purpose were charity. Actually, most are there to promote Islam, often hardline versions of Islam.

    1. “In US terms, the French electorate is left or centre-left.”

      Yes this is a deliberate and insidious distortion. The NYT writers *know* that most European (and Canadian and Australian etc.) conservatives are just to the left of blue dog Democrats on pretty much every economic and social issue. Labelling those Europeans as “right-leaning” is slight-of-hand intended to mislead liberal American readers. And it’s an insulting misdirection because it assumes that Times readers are parochial rubes who don’t know anything about the politics of other countries.

      1. I’d hesitate to assume that NYTs writers understand the nuanced differences of the Left/Right dichotomy within UK/AUS/USA contexts.

  2. People who wish to resist fanaticism (in whatever form it manifests itself) are at a disadvantage, almost by definition. Being moderate by nature, these folks tend to think that reason and logic will suffice to show fanatics the errors of their ways. They find it hard to believe that the fanatics, blinded by their zealous conviction that they and only they are right, are willing to take any action, legal or illegal, to advance their agenda. Intimidation, either verbal or physical, is a commonly used tactic of the fanatics. Moderate people are scared of what may happen to themselves and tend to keep their mouths shut. Hence, ruthlessness often propels fanatics to positions of power and influence. Sometimes this scenario doesn’t play out as enough moderate people have the courage to resist the fanatics. But, even if the moderates are successful, fanatics rarely go away. They go into hibernation, and when the moment is right, they emerge to be often more virulent than ever. A world dominated by Enlightenment values (at least some of them) is a worthy goal, but one most unlikely to become reality.

    1. I’ve never been to France, so take with a big dose of salt, but I suspect the middle is strong enough to fight a two-front war against both extremes. Not only that, but the fight against Islamaphobes will probably go better while simultaneously fighting against the Islamofascists. And vice versa.

  3. The Stephens column at NYT got 1437 comments. The top-rated comment by Hasan Z. Rahim is a full-throated condemnation of the killing of Paty, with no “yes-but”:

    “As a Muslim-American, I unequivocally condemn the slaying of a teacher by a Chechen refugee in France, no matter what the perceived provocation may have been…[W]ho gave [Paty’s killers] the right to act on behalf of Muslims?…[I]f we, the average citizens, remain silent in the face of atrocities, and it doesn’t matter that I happen to be Muslim in this particular context, we will lose our souls and the values that define us.”

    Of course one doesn’t know if the commenter really is a Muslim with an Arabic name, but NYT readers thought so and up-voted that comment (50% more votes than the next-highest-rated comment).

    This seems to be a common feature of the NYT commentariat: articles on woke topics often provoke thoughtful classic liberal comments that get very highly rated by NYT readers (articles on trans activism often have this feature). It seems to suggest that the readership is much less woke than the Times itself. A graduate student in a Communications department somewhere should study it.

      1. It’s the squeaky wheel syndrome. Classic liberals won’t stop reading or attempt to emargo/hurt your paper when you say things offensive to them. Wokies will. So the woke, not classic liberals, drive the paper’s coverage and financial decisions no matter what the distribution of readers.

    1. Ya funny that eh?. They do seem to take their readership for granted. And I guess the Times know their commentariat by their IP addresses and could link commenters to subscription history etc. It does not seem to make a dent in the overall woke progress, at least on the editorial side.

  4. “There are a thousand ways to express freedom of expression, so why choose this one?”

    Looked at it this way, free speech is a faux pas. The heart of the issue is that the Wokiees and their fellow travellers are actually enemies of liberal democracy. Free speech is on their enemies list.

    1. Seriously, it is beyond me how anybody can utter this line without any sense of irony.

      “Of course anyone has the right to say whatever they want, as long as it is not this particular thing.”

      1. I presume that you approve of all kinds of defamation, then, which is illegal under the First Amendment. I don’t think it’s ironic to carve out some exceptions, as the courts have done.

        1. I happen to be undecided on exceptions to the First Amendment, but I’m not American anyway. My point was that the quoted person was paying lip service to the idea that this was a type of speech would typically be protected, but that this right shouldn’t have been exercised regardless, for unstated (but obvious) reasons.

          1. As long as people are still being murdered in places that are mature, liberal democracies for showing images, there is an imperative to continue to show them. Christianity used to deal harshly with blasphemy. Over the centuries it has more or less gotten over itself. Islam is 700 years younger and behaves like an adolescent still. If Muslims get used to seeing these images, they will become desensitized to them. Moreover, we need to show solidarity and increase the attack surface to the point where the attacks become futile. It is scary, yes. But this is exactly what freedom of speech is about. It is NOT okay for people to be murdered because of causing offence. And it is NOT okay to blame the victims. Shame on those quoted in the article. Shame on you, Farhad Khosrokhavar, and shame on you, Françoise Lorcerie.

    2. Yes, the speaker is not defending free speech at all, but saying, ‘My beliefs and opinions are off limits, go offend some other person, or else…’

    3. The answer to Khosrokhavar’s question is that those cartoons comprise the greatest test of freedom of expression and demonstrate who is against it.

      Mr. Khosrokhavar whines that “By using cartoons to teach freedom of expression, we do not understand that we offend people.” Does he think education consists of making sure students go through school without encountering anything that might upset them? Sad to see the French aping woke Americans. This guy was custom made for the New York Times.

  5. “When Muslims call for the murder of a teacher in Sudan who named a teddy bear Muhammad (on her students’ suggestion) in her class, and she’s subsequently arrested, tried, and jailed, you know that somebody’s values are amiss.” We may have our doubts about the values this episode reflects, but woke doctrine demands that all cultural values be treated as equal.

    When the values inherent in a broad culture lead to something like the murder of M. Paty (or the previous victims of Islamist attacks)
    middle-grounders of the NYT variety always default to a language of bland euphemism. The massacre itself is reported in neutral terms, like a natural catastrophe, often using the passive voice (“so-and-so was decapitated in the course of…”). The story will make no distinction between the victims and the perpetrators, or not even mention the existence of perpetrators. Alternatively, the victims’ probable offenses may be enumerated as part of the story. Finally, as PCC(e) notes, any departure from this formula is tagged as “right-wing”. If any enablers of the Paty murder are charged in court, the NYT will no doubt “report” increasing right-wing tendencies in France’s judicial system.

  6. It is horrible, of course.
    My question is and has been- “How could you not expect this?”
    There is no general worldwide trend towards moderation in Islam. The big difference between what passes for a Muslim moderate and a fanatic is that the moderate believes that apostates and blasphemers should be killed, but don’t think it is their personal duty to behead them.
    I personally expect the frequency of incidents like these to slowly increase until either it gathers unstoppable momentum or Europeans take action to stop it. Either way, postwar Europe as we have known it, safe clean and tolerant, will be gone.

    1. “Europe as we have known it, safe clean and tolerant, will be gone.”

      My European relatives don’t agree with this view. What they expect will disappear is tolerance for religious fundamentalism of all stripes, including Islamists and Christian end-times extremists. Tolerance for many other kinds of difference (language, diet, non-religious culture) will not change much.

      1. Which country are your European relatives from?

        My feeling (in the UK/ROI region) is that we’re steadily importing more and more Wokeness, which is infecting everything that could possibly stand in the way of unchecked extremism.

      2. In Japan, if you do something that is against the rules, someone will usually tell you nicely that talking on your phone while riding the train is not acceptable behavior. Often the person being corrected is a foreigner, and their normal response is to thank the person who corrected them, and put the phone away.
        If you were to politely inform an Islamist that cutting peoples heads off, or machine gunning authors, grocers, concert attendees, and Jews is not acceptable behavior in Europe, it is unlikely to correct those behaviors.
        My basic point is that the process of doing what it will take to stop current and prevent future Islamic attacks will require actions that are not compatible with a safe, clean, and tolerant postwar Europe.
        I hope that, unlike last time, it will not end with inquisitions and crusades.
        I have relatives in Europe as well, and I have lived in Denmark, Germany, and the USSR.
        When the influx started a few years ago, my first prediction was that the longer they wait before taking action, the more likely that many of the best things about Europe will be lost in the effort to save it as a whole.

  7. A quote from “You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom” by Nick Cohen – which I have started reading after having been notified of existence by this website (if memory serves) – seems pertinent:

    “Free societies are not free because their citizens are fighting for their freedom. They are free because previous generations of citizens have fought for their freedom. When put under dictatorial pressure, they must start old fights anew. Once the struggle begins, you can never guarantee in advance that the citizens of the United States, Holland or Britain will be braver than the citizens of Iran, Zimbabwe or Burma. National and political differences are no protection against the universal emotion of fear.”

  8. writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics

    I don’t see much needless about political commentary, even political satire. The Charlie Hebdo cartoon linked Islam to terrorist bombings, which Islamists have actually done. It serves the purpose of pointing to a connection which the authors believe really exist, and is important to pay attention to.

    Showing M with a bomb for a hat and also naked with a small penis would’ve been needless offense. Showing him with just a bomb for a hat was, at least apparently in the opinion of the authors, needful.

    You can say the same thing about Trump, too. There are probably a lot of needless additions to the Trump-as-diaper-baby imagery which is pretty common nowadays. However the whole point of Trump-as-diaper-baby is to make the point that he can’t hold his temper and makes rash, selfish decisions. That commentary is, at least for the authors who use it, an important and needful point to make.

    Notice, for instance, that I have just described the suspect in Paty’s murder as a “Chechen.” Why? Because it’s accurate enough, and it’s not worth dealing with the choice and precision of a single adjective.

    Stephens is being a coward here, IMO. The label one chooses is typically taken by the reader as an indicator of something important and relevant about the person. Had he said “this right-handed boy…” it would’ve been nonsensical to most readers. Why? Because what is the relevance? There isn’t any. By choosing the label “Chechen” rather than “Muslim” or “Chechen Muslim,” Stephens is making an intentional decision on categorization which is probably misleading in at least two ways: it downplays the fact that the individuals’ faith was important to their choosing to murder someone, and it probably wrongly implies that being Chechen, on the other hand, is an important factor in the choice to murder.

  9. Christian fundamentalists want to take the world back to the 1950’s. Muslim fundamentalists want to take the world back to the 9th century.

  10. I think that, in fact, there are genuine radicalized Muslims in France, one of them being the killer of Samuel Paty.

    Our local newspapers report that France estimate 20,000 radicalized Muslims.

    I don’t know about any more arrests, but French authorities seem to keep 10ish of the 20ish that was suspected as actively involved. The deportations of some 200+ persons seems to be a free rider, it was decided before and they didn’t increase the number.

    French authorities have AFAIK also decided to disband – not temporarily stop as they did with an actively involved synagogue [oy!] – a militant islamist organization for involvement.

  11. Given the continuing silence over the treatment of Julian Assange I think we’ve long known “who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.”

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