After the recent attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France, the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (‘I am Charlie’) is somehow being associated with the very concept of freedom of expression in the world. Some days ago, more than 40 world leaders attended the million march in Paris to express solidarity with the victims of the attack. Extending unqualified moral support to Charlie Hebdo, now free speech enthusiasts all over the world are speedily jumping on the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ bandwagon. Perhaps this is the reason the magazine has managed to raise its print run from just 60,000 to 7 million copies.

The modern proponents of individualism have carved many idols which have to be worshiped unquestionably in the contemporary world. The freedom of expression has become one such idol.

“Your right to swing your arm ends where the other person’s nose begins”, so goes the common quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, a prominent American jurist. Freedom, by no means, is an absolute concept. Likewise, freedom of expression is, no doubt, always important and desirable. It is, however, not a sacrosanct. States can put certain restrictions on this freedom. One important and universally recognized principle restricting the freedom of expression is the phenomenon of “hate speech”; a speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Under this principle, reasonable restriction can be imposed on the individual’s right to speech and expression. Presently, holocaust denial is a punishable offence in seventeen countries in the world including the France.

In the United States, the right to speech and freedom of expression was incorporated in the Constitution by the first amendment made in 1791. No doubt, individuals have great right to express themselves without governmental restrictions in the United States. Nevertheless, the free speech clause in the Constitution is not an absolute one, and has never been interpreted to guarantee all forms of speech without any limit whatsoever. Instead, the US Supreme Court has interpreted it frequently and has evolved the rule of time, place and manner restriction, also known as TPM restrictions. Under these restrictions, State and Federal governments can place reasonable restrictions on the individual’s right to exercise freedom of expression in the interests of administration of justice.

The world community should understand the nature of faith and culture. Islamic religious fixation rests on the substructure. This is not the first time that Charlie Hebdo has published offensive material about the Muslim faith. Ironically, we have never witnessed such controversy vis-à-vis other major religions in the modern world, and so there is a growing perception that Muslims are being specifically and deliberately targeted and victimized under the typical provoke-and-punish policy in the world.

Charlie Hebdo has sparked violence and agitation in many Muslim countries and the situation jeopardizes the security of non-Muslim minorities in these countries as well. In Niger, many churches have been burnt down by anti-Charlie protesters and the development is another blow to the already troubled Muslim-Christian relations in the world. Now, it should be realized that, just like inter-state relations, the principle of mutual respect is sine qua non for any durable and peaceful infer-faith relationship in the world. In this context, the recent statements of Pope Francis should be welcomed and appreciated. In order to avoid the much discussed clash of civilizations, the world community has to act responsibly to promote inter-faith harmony instead of naively supporting a magazine which describes itself proudly as ‘Journal Irresponsable’. There are limits to the artistic as there should be limits to the Muslim agitations of this provocation. There is a lack of justification on both ends in this situation, but the greater responsibility lies with the “free world” to redefine its hurtful freedoms.

 The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.