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Paul Vallely: Responding to terrorism needs caution

06 November 2020

How do we balance free speech and respect for religion, asks Paul Vallely


Forensic officers gather evidence at the scene of one of the attacks in Vienna, on Wednesday

Forensic officers gather evidence at the scene of one of the attacks in Vienna, on Wednesday

UNTIL this week, Austria had not experienced a terrorist incident for decades. In France, by contrast, there have been no fewer than ten major outrages in the past five years. The contrast may be instructive as we once again consider the question: what are we to do about Islamic terrorism?

Monday night in Vienna was the last night before lockdown. It was the final chance for freedom before the country was closed for a month by a coronavirus curfew. The bars and restaurants in the city’s old quarter, which also houses its main synagogue, were busy. It was still just warm enough for drinkers to be sitting at tables outside, when the gunman, wearing a fake suicide vest, opened fire without warning.

In the aftermath, the Austrian President, Alexander Van der Bellen, condemned the attack on “life in a liberal democracy, which terrorists clearly hate deeply”. Austrians would “protect and defend our values”. He continued: “Hatred can never be as strong as our fellowship in freedom, in democracy, in tolerance and love.”

Defiance took a different form in France after the horrific beheading of Samuel Paty, the teacher who had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to schoolchildren, in a class about freedom of expression. On the day of his funeral, the controversial caricatures were projected on to government buildings in Montpellier and Toulouse, after an official memorial attended by President Macron, who had spoken out forcefully in defence of free speech.

“Our enemies must know who they are dealing with,” he said. “We will not give up.” This is the rhetoric of battle, and there are many who will applaud it, as one commentator noted.

But there are many who will not. Many of France’s six million Muslims were gravely offended by both the cartoons and the refusal of their President, in any way, to lament their publication. The director of studies at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, a graduate school in Paris, Farhad Khosrokhavar, declared that French “fundamentalist secularism” and “its embrace of blasphemy” had now evolved into “an instrument of oppression which has fuelled radicalism among a marginalised minority”.

How should we balance free speech with religious respect, so that our response is firm but fair? It is unarguable that freedom of speech has limits. The law seeks to prevent us from slander, lying under oath, inciting violence, revealing state secrets, violating commercial confidences, or shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. But there are other constraints that we enter into voluntarily, if we acknowledge that with freedom comes responsibility. As John Stuart Mill puts it, we should consent to that, voluntarily or by compulsion, when our freedoms bring harm to others.

The day after the shooting in Vienna, Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister was questioned by an over-enthusiastic interviewer on the Today programme. After outlining, with chill restraint, what he had seen from his window, he was repeatedly asked: was this an attack on the synagogue? Was there more than one attacker? Repeatedly, despite constant pressing, he would say only what he had actually seen; he would not exceed those bounds. He was cautious and proportionate. Perhaps there is a lesson to us all in that.

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