Thursday, 19 January 2017 17:38

Most Terrorists are Average Joes

Commentary by Phil Gurski

Just how sophisticated are most terrorists anyway?

Sometimes, I think most of us get terrorism very, very wrong.  I am not sure whether this is due to the Hollywood effect where terrorists seem to be popping up in more and more films each year.  Can anyone point to a movie from the 1960s where violent extremists played a major role?  Aside, of course, from the cartoonish Bond villains.

In many of these cinematographic offerings, the terrorists come across as cold, calculating, evil monsters who carefully plan their acts of terror and can only be defeated by the equally calculating good guys – Jack Reacher, Jack Bauer (why are all the counter terrorism heroes called Jack?), etc.  Sometimes our guys resort to unsavoury methods to stop the heinous plotters of death.  Oh well, that is how it goes in the name of keeping us safe.

It is beyond obvious that film is not always a mirror for reality. I maybe a voice in the wilderness if I were to call for more accurate portrayals of terrorism and intelligence, but it may be that our image of terrorism as it is shown to us on the silver screen does us a disservice.

Zero counter-surveillance 

I am referring here to the belief that all terrorists are high-level operatives who plan their death and destruction with the utmost secrecy, meaning that it is next to impossible for security and law enforcement agencies to detect and neutralize them before it is too late (unless they have a guy named Jack on staff!).

The reality is that this is not always accurate.  The way it really works came to light in Turkey when the terrorist accused of carrying out the attack on an Istanbul night club on New Year's Eve chose his venue randomly after he was scared off his first preference by heightened security.

You read that right. 

The terrorist who killed 39 people did not engage in careful pre-attack surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking of the place to bear the brunt of his ideological hatred.  And he is not alone.  Many terrorists, at least in my experience in Canada, are not the most sophisticated, and are frankly, incapable of carrying out meticulous planning. 

They have next to zero counter-surveillance skills, often choose their targets almost accidentally and rarely do dry runs to test security. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the terrorist who attacked the War Memorial and Parliament in Ottawa in October 2014, may have been an uncommon exception as there are indications he toured Centre Block several weeks before his ill-fated assault.

The "B-team"

Given this, an immediate question arises: who is more dangerous – the terrorist who dots all his i's and crosses all his t's or the one who shows up one day and kills?  My money is on the latter. 

Those who take the time to ensure success expose themselves to scrutiny, monitoring, eavesdropping, human source penetration, intelligence sharing, and, perhaps most importantly, time – time for state agencies to figure out what they are bent on doing.  The one who does no pre-planning is hard to identify and stop since his plot is shorter in the preparatory stages and involves fewer steps that can screw up. 

Truth be told, both types can succeed and both can be foiled, but prior warning and longer planning cycles are the enemy of the terrorist and the friend of our spies.

I think we need to challenge our view of terrorism and terrorists. They are not all supermen (and women) with other worldly powers that are next to impossible to match. Most are just average joes with little foresight and low intellect who decide to act rashly on whatever grievance motivates them. 

That does not mean we should dismiss the "B-team" – they can still do a lot of damage – but it does imply we should not give the terrorists more credit than they deserve.

They get enough free publicity already that feeds their egos and inflates their importance.  Let us not add to that.

Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at

Published in Commentary

by Kyle Duggan in Ottawa 

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made a broad appeal for acceptance at a visit to an Ottawa mosque for Friday prayers last week.

Wynne stopped by the Ottawa Muslim Association’s mosque with Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi, and addressed the violent Paris attacks two weeks ago, saying it is “now more important than ever” to show compassion towards others.

“It’s our responsibility as Canadians to make sure we guard against the fear and we resist blame that can lead to racism and to hatred. At these moments it’s extremely important we reinforce our Canadian values that are [inclusive] and based in compassion.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“It’s our responsibility as Canadians to make sure we resist blame that can lead to racism and to hatred."[/quote]

She said the Paris attacks were an act of terrorism not borne of religion “because religion has no place for hate.”

Wynne said she met Thursday night with the young Muslim woman from her own Toronto riding who was physically attacked and called a terrorist.

“I could feel the fear that is in that household because she was attacked outside her children's school. She was born in Toronto.”

“That kind of hatred is what we have to guard against at this moment in our history,” Wynne said.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Naqvi said the Premier’s visit to the mosque sends “a very strong message that we as Ontarians stand together.”[/quote]

Defeat hatred with love

There were several other acts recently in the province, including one on a Peterborough mosque that was burnt down. That incident is being investigated as a potential hate crime.

“Only love is going to defeat hatred,” she said.

Naqvi said that in the face of acts of violence and hate, the Premier’s visit to the mosque sends “a very strong message that we as Ontarians stand together.”

On welcoming Syrian refugees, Wynne said “that humanitarian crisis calls on us to demonstrate who we are in the world.”

The province aims to resettle some 10,000 refugees by end of 2016.

Federal Cabinet Ministers said today they would announce details of the refugee plan on Tuesday.

Re-published in partnership with

Published in Top Stories

by iPolitics editorial staff in Ottawa

Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo were both victims of radicalized Canadian citizens bent on killing a soldier.

So why, in the year since the attacks in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu and Parliament Hill, has Ottawa ignored counter-radicalization programs?

The federal response has focused on hard security. The Harper government increased intelligence and enforcement powers through legislation. It also never wasted a chance to boast about its modest role in the U.S.-led military effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

As Remembrance Day is an appropriate time to think about whether our support for veterans matches our willingness to empathize with their sacrifices, so should [Oct. 22’s] memorial event be an opportunity to ask ourselves whether Canada has responded to the threat of homegrown terrorism in the right way.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][Oct. 22’s] memorial event be an opportunity to ask ourselves whether Canada has responded to the threat of homegrown terrorism in the right way.[/quote]

The answer, after 12 short months, is no — we haven’t.

Slow in response

Even before Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau became violent, Canada was slow compared to other developed nations in responding to the radicalization of its own citizens, say experts.

After the Syrian civil war gave roots to the social media-savvy Islamic State, things didn’t get much better. Programs aimed at helping communities identify and help youth at risk of falling into radicalization – or deal with them once they had begun to indulge in radical views – were lacking.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]After last fall’s attacks, the federal government promised a counter-radicalization strategy. It never happened.[/quote]

After last fall’s attacks, the federal government promised a counter-radicalization strategy. It never happened. Instead, Canadians got the Anti-terrorism Act (C-51), with its increase in surveillance powers.

Experts who testified during committee hearings on the bill protested that counter-radicalization – the work of preventing terrorism rather than just responding to it – wasn’t receiving a mention. Again, they were told to wait.

The Conservatives were booted from power before a strategy could be released. The Liberal party, which won a majority government in Monday’s general election, promised to appoint a national counter-radicalization coordinator to work with religious communities and make sure on-the-ground initiatives are getting the support they need.

Hopefully, the new government will fulfill this promise and use it as a springboard to renew counter-radicalization programs. It would be a fitting tribute to Vincent and Cirillo.

A noxious atmosphere for Muslim Canadians

There is another measure the new government should take today — related to the debate over security, but distinct from it.

Intentionally or not, the militarized climate of the past year took shape while the Conservatives pursued another agenda. From unnecessary legislation aimed at curbing ‘barbaric cultural practices’ to the vilification of the niqab, the Conservatives tried to dictate the social and cultural mores of Canadians in the name of values and the rule of law.

A Senate Committee on National Security and Defence report, chaired by a Conservative, even recommended the government get into the business of licensing imams.

The security effort and the culture war combined to create a noxious atmosphere for Muslim Canadians.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Are we made less safe when we engage in this alienation narrative? Absolutely.”[/quote]

“Are we made less safe when we engage in this alienation narrative? Absolutely,” said Mubin Shaikh, the former CSIS informant who helped stop the Toronto 18 terrorist plot, in an interview with The Tyee in March.

“I was the agent on the Toronto 18, and the Via Rail plot information was given by a Canadian imam,” he said. “So why do they leave that part out? Then Muslims are made to feel like we gave the information that leads to the arrests, but it’s still our fault? What message is that sending?”

The federal terrorism response has focused too much on a single group — Muslims — instead of on the complex motivations behind homegrown terrorists like Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau.

Incidentally, understanding individual actors is the key to counter-radicalization since their motivations are poorly understood

Experts say there is no overarching theory that explains why some people commit acts of terrible violence in the name of an idea. But they do say a good counter-radicalization effort has to focus on responding to individuals. The best way to get ahead in that regard is to do a better job of enlisting communities in the effort.

Today, whether in words or actions, the incoming Liberal government should try to signal that Muslim communities in Canada must be an important part of stopping attacks like the one that happened in Ottawa one year ago.

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Published in Commentary

At least one Canadian is on a so-called global hit list of bloggers put out by Bangladeshi jihadist group Ansarullah which has vowed to take action against those it deems to have denigrated Islam.

The group named Raihan Abir editor of the Bengali-English blog Mukto-Mona, which has other Canadian contributors writing under pseudonyms among its stable of 300 writers from around the world.

Mukto-Mona started as an online discussion circle, but has now evolved into a social movement through blogs, activism and research. In English, the literal dictionary translation of "Muktomona" is freethinker. 

Prominent in the list is Bengali author Taslima Nasreen, who is presently staying under police protection in India, after fleeing Bangladesh 21 years ago in the face of death threats and fatwas from fundamentalists.

The list includes names of Abdul Ghaffar Choudhury (London), Dawood Haider (Germany), Banya Ahmed (US), Asif Mohiuddin (Germany), Ananya Azad (Germany), Omer Farooq Luqs (Germany), Farzana Kabir Khan (Germany), Naastiker Dharmakatha (Germany), Foring Camelia (Germany), Qamrul Hassan (London), Sushanta Dasgupta (London), Arifur Rehman(london), Ajanta Debroy (London), Maneer Hassan (Birmingham), Shantanu Adeeb (London), Nijhoom Majumdar (London), Rumala Hashem (London), Raihan Abir (Canada) and Nirjhar Majumdar (Sweden).

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]There have been reports in the media recently that Ansarullah activists are trying to cross over from Bangladesh to India to target Taslima Nasreen.[/quote]

At the bottom of the list, the extremist group Ansarullah has issued the following chilling threat: "Enemies of Islam and madrassa education, atheists, anti-Islamic apostates, Shahbagi bloggers, acting on behalf of India, are trying to set obstacles in the path of establishment of Islamic caliphate. We demand that the Bangladesh government cancel the citizenship of such enemies of Islam, otherwise we will liquidate them wherever we find them across the world. Our jihad will continue, Inshallah. Amen. - Ansarullah Bangla Team".

There have been reports in the media recently that Ansarullah activists are trying to cross over from Bangladesh to India to target Taslima Nasreen.
Ansarullah believes in the ideology of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based al-Qaeda activist, and has been involved in the gruesome murders of at least four Bangladeshi freethinkers and bloggers including US-based Bengali writer Avijit Roy and blogger Washiqur Rahman.

Taslima Nasreen tweeted: "Ansarullah Team that killed B'deshi atheist bloggers just published global hit list of bloggers. My name is in the list." She has attached the photo of the hit list.

Police have linked Ansarullah Bangla Team to the recent murders of five secularist bloggers in Bangladesh, and arrested seven of its members, Dhakar police joint Commissioner Monirul Islam said.

He said there was little threat to society within Bangladesh, where more than 90 per cent of the 160 million people are practising Muslims, Asia Times reported.

Fear for the future

Many intellectuals, especially among the Bangladeshi diaspora, do fear for the future however, and worry that the South Asian country could be seen as a safe destination for radical Islamists if the blogger killers are not caught and prosecuted.

Four of the bloggers were killed this year alone.

Bangladeshi-born U.S. writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death by unidentified assailants on February 26 when leaving a university book fair in Dhaka with his wife.

Oyeshekur Rahman Babu, an atheist writer, was chopped to death in central Dhaka on March 30, after he criticized Islam, followed by the killing of science writer Ananta Bijoy Das in a similar attack in the north-eastern city of Sylhet on May 12.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who campaigns for secularism beside Islam as a state religion, was criticized for requesting local bloggers and activists “not to cross the limit” over sensitive religious issues after blogger Niladri Chattapadhay was killed in another gruesome murder in Dhaka on August 7.

Writers around the world chime in

For critics, the government’s stance seems like double standards.

More than 150 writers from around the world, including Canada, issued an open letter this week to the Bangladeshi government after the killing of Ananta Bijoy Das.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][F]reedom of expression is a fundamental right under Bangladesh’s constitution and one of the rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[/quote]

The writers including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel and Colm Tóibín, in the letter said freedom of expression is a fundamental right under Bangladesh’s constitution and one of the rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It called Bangladesh to provide protection and support to bloggers and other writers at risk in the South Asian country in line with Bangladesh’s obligations under national and international laws.

Lux said the death list was nothing new, and warned that the extremists could also strike others.

Like others who received it by email, he has taken precautions, he said, and is under German police protection.

The role of the government

Religion and secularism have frequently clashed in Bangladesh’s recent history.

Secularism was one of the basic principles of Bangladesh’s constitution when the Muslim-majority part of the then Pakistan (East Pakistan) became independent after a bloody war in 1971.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Whatever the official status of Islam, the individual’s freedom of expression must be protected, says Arifur Rahman, a writer living in London.[/quote]

But military-chief-turned-president Ziaur Rahman began the process of Islamizing the constitution after the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Ziaur Rahman gave way to the Islamists, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami party which opposed Bangladesh during the war.

Military dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad, who took over shortly after Ziaur Rahman’s murder in 1981, formalized Islam as the state religion in 1988.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, brought back secularism in the constitution in 2011, while keeping Islam as the state religion.

With the political stakes high in Bangladesh’s sharply divided politics, analysts say Hasina would never put her popularity at risk by repealing the state religion.

Whatever the official status of Islam, the individual’s freedom of expression must be protected, says Arifur Rahman, a writer living in London.

The government had a duty to “create an atmosphere where everyone can express their opinion without fear,” he said.

Re-published in partnership with Asian Pacific Post.

Published in South Asia
Friday, 12 June 2015 12:29

Media Plays a Role in Radicalization

by Maria Ikonen (@Moonprl) in Gatineau, Quebec

The media is both a participant and a bystander in the ongoing debate around radicalization. On the one hand, it informs us of events that lead to violent acts of terrorism. On the other, some of the reporting and writing contributes to radicalization – the media itself can be an instigator.

The media is unarguably an excellent tool for communication and a traditional source for information. But it is also a forum for a concern about radicals recruiting youth and to debate whether media itself is a gateway for terror groups. Kavita Bedford, a Sydney, Australia writer and Mapping Frictions producer, has written about how media hysteria feeds narrower perceptions and the “demonization of Muslims in the media.”

“They [Islamic State] invite journalists to follow them through their blood rampages as shown in the six-part video series done by VICE. These are savvy, global broadcasts intended to draw a reaction from a global audience. These are messages calculated to give young radicalized Muslims a sense of power and draw from their sense of injustice,” writes Bedford

Media: Guilty or Innocent – or Both?

When I asked if media could be an agent for radicalization in Muslim communities, professor Ghayda Hassan of the Université du Québec à Montréal is emphatic: “The answer is a clear yes. Media can play a significant role as an agent for radicalization. This operates when media uses sensationalist and polarizing discourses, by stigmatizing certain communities or using portrayals or discourses that can be ostracizing for targeted communities, namely Muslims in the current context.”

Hassan adds: “It does so also when it gives too much attention and coverage to radicalization-related incidents. By doing so, it gives credibility to these individuals and the ideas they promote, and it makes them more attractive to vulnerable youth.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The media certainly contributes to the overall ‘chatter’ in the air, and is often pointed to by members of the community for why they think Islamophobia is on the rise.” - Amarnath Amarasingam, Dalhousie University[/quote]

When I sent the same question to Amarnath Amarasingam, a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, he responded similarly.

“To call the media an ‘agent’ for radicalization is going too far,” he said. “However, the portrayal of Muslims – with the niqab debate, with [Ayaan] Hirsi Ali’s book tour talking about reform, to all of the conversations happening in Quebec, and discussions of whether there is something inherent in Islam that produces violence – all create an environment that Muslim youth have to navigate in their daily lives. This happens to an extent that other communities rarely experience.”

Amarasingam widens the perspective on the issue: “The media certainly contributes to the overall ‘chatter’ in the air, and is often pointed to by members of the community for why they think Islamophobia is on the rise. Many in the community are acutely aware that crimes by other communities or other individuals are rarely covered in the same way or to the same degree.”

However, it wouldn’t be correct to completely blame the media either. Yvonne Roberts, an award-winning journalist and writer, offers a perspective on the newsroom, stating it doesn’t have time to verify sources because of the heavy volume of material. “The news agenda is distorted. No story can be sat on long enough to examine the implications – reporters in the field are dealers in the immediate,” Roberts writes in her dialogue with Charlie Beckett, “Should the media rethink how they cover disasters?”

Avoiding Sensationalism and Oversimplification

So what does the media need to do differently when portraying radicalization? “Fortunately, media can also be a protective agent. It can do so by avoiding to portray radicalization-related events or individuals in a sensationalist manner and avoid to transform them into heroes or martyrs,” said Hassan.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We use words like ‘vulnerable,’ ‘recruited’ or ‘lured,’ as if the individuals actually made no active choice to get involved. While this makes for good TV, it contributes little to understanding what we are dealing with.”[/quote]

“I think the main thing that needs to happen is to understand radicalization as a multi-faceted process. Because of the limited time and space that some news programs and newspapers have, there is a tendency to boil down these complex processes to one cause, whether it is the Internet, or mental illness, or religion,” said Amarasingam.

Amarasingam also pointed out that specific words are used to describe radicalization, which could be perceived as derogatory. “We use words like ‘vulnerable,’ ‘recruited’ or ‘lured,’ as if the individuals actually made no active choice to get involved. While this makes for good TV, it contributes little to understanding what we are dealing with.”

Professor Charlie Beckett, a journalist and director of Polis in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics, writes, “Proper hard, intelligent, critical news has to fight ever harder for people’s attention.” This echoes Richard M. Landau’s wish that “the media (especially the U.S. media) would separate news from sports and entertainment.”

It seems that media literacy skills have indeed become even more essential. Our opinions on different communities shouldn’t be based on news headlines – because feeding phobias may then prove those polarizing arguments that violent radicals are telling the youth.

Maria Ikonen has graduated with a M.A. in Media Science from University of Lapland and MSSc. in Journalism and Mass Communication from University of Tampere. A native of Finland, she is a member and active writer for Globalisti Magazine, a publication of Changemaker Finland that is an advocacy network working for global justice. She has written academic research about representations of masculinity and participated in research about religion in media culture.

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Published in Commentary

by Janice Dickson

Canada is lagging behind when it comes to prosecuting hate speech, terrorism financing and terrorism related activities, at least compared with other jurisdictions, according to Conservative senator Daniel Lang.

“A radicalized Islamist attacked and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and then entered Parliament determined to carry out his own personal jihad,” Lang said in his remarks to students attending the University of Ottawa’s Public Policy Conference.

Just last week, Lang explained, a number of young people slipped through the RCMP and CSIS nets to join ISIS.

“Many your age — at least one from your school has gone abroad to join ISIS,” he said.

Lang, who is chair of the senate committee on national security and defence, said there are a few cases in the courts — but when it comes to laying charges and prosecuting individuals for terror-related activities, prosecutions are very few and far between.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Canada has to have the ability to understand and detect threat trends and have the ability to respond. If we can’t do that, we are not serving our citizens very well,” said Colonel Tony Battista.[/quote]

“This has to be a concern,” he said.

Lang said that during its hearings, the committee has heard from experts on terrorism and many from Muslim and Sikh communities.

“They have been telling us about radicalization within their communities — being advocated in some cases in religious private schools, temples, in mosques and by preachers including foreign preachers — especially from Saudi Arabia,” explained Lang.

“We’ve also heard a testimony in our committee about foreign funding coming to Canada to spread the Wahhabi ideology,” Lang added that the committee has heard about radicalized Sikhs and Muslims.

Lang rattled off a number of recommendations “we can do” to prevent and discourage radicalization.

“We need to recognize that radicalized ideas lead to radicalized actions. It does not mean we should criminalize ideas but we need to identify them and state that they have no place in Canadian society — even at university campuses when sometimes the cloak of free speech is abused,” said Lang.

He encouraged the students to denounce those who are promoting and facilitating radicalized ideas “even if they’re done in the name of religious ideology.”

“We need to do serious due diligence when it comes to those who are speaking for communities and those who are preaching or speaking at universities and colleges — we have been told during the course of our committee hearings, that there are a number of Saudi-backed programs in many university and colleges.”

This is a concern, according to Lang, because of increased radicalization.

Colonel Tony Battista said that where Canada cannot afford to lag behind is in its response time to deal with terror threats.

“Canada has to have the ability to understand and detect threat trends and have the ability to respond. If we can’t do that, we are not serving our citizens very well,” said Battista.

A portion of the defence procurement strategy, Battista explained, has to be dedicated to the emerging problem of terrorism.

“It’s not only the Canadian Armed Forces that have to deal with [terrorism] – it’s a whole government issue,” said Battista.

After Lang’s extensive presentation on denouncing radicals in Canada, Battista described the challenges met by the Department of Defence.

“DND does not have sufficient staff – either military or civil servants with the right training and experience to effectively resource their own projects. The new defence procurement strategy is meant to increase the effectiveness of [DND’s] progress,” explained Battista.

Reducing the deficit is the government’s priority, according to Battista, which compromises Canada’s military capabilities.

“By the time we reach 2025, if we don’t get our act together within the next year or two or three we will have a significant problem with rust and equipment that we ought to have that we don’t have.”

Cyber security was the final area within the national defence and security program of the conference.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“It’s not only the Canadian Armed Forces that have to deal with [terrorism] – it’s a whole government issue,” said Battista.[/quote]

Former chief of CSEC, John Adams, described cyber aggression’s four forms: terrorism, crime, war and espionage.

Assistant deputy minister of national and cyber security branch of Public Safety, Gary Robertson, also weighed in on the topic, explaining that unlike traditional crime, cyber intrusions may not show up for months — and that intrusive hacks are not easy problems to resolve.

Re-published in partnership with

Published in National
Thursday, 15 January 2015 14:35

Holding One’s Nose to Defend Charlie Hebdo

by John G. Stackhouse (@jgsphd) in Vancouver

“Secular society” does not mean that nothing is sacred. The common good is sacred. The welfare of society is sacred. And by “sacred” in this sense I mean “of supreme value.”

Yet, of course, citizens often disagree over what the common good consists of. So we protect free speech in order that ideas will be stated by their champions as well as they can be stated. Then the public has the maximum opportunity to hear the truth amid all its rivals.

Our society therefore guarantees free speech in order to increase the common good—and thereby the good of each decent citizen.

Any compromise of free speech can play into the agenda of the powerful, so we must compromise free speech only with the greatest reluctance.

Speech that clearly harms the common good, and so badly that the very functioning of society is threatened, therefore is not tolerated—such as inciting a riot or a stampede, libel or slander, perjury or breaking contracts, disturbing the peace or uttering threats, and so on.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Hurt feelings are part of living in a pluralistic society in which what I value may be treated as ludicrous rubbish by someone else.[/quote]

We also frown on obscenity—that which is shocking with no purpose other than to cater to what society judges to be depraved desires. If no one can be shown to be harmed by it, however, we tend to allow it since history shows that even great art has been judged obscene by many people in the past. We therefore exercise the humility of forbearance even of obscenity—unless some other crucial good is compromised (such as the public peace—so we don’t allow obscene posters at bus stops—or the formation of children—so we don’t allow obscenity in schools).

Humorous speech is not sacred, either. Just because something strikes some people as funny—as the Nazi cartoons of Jews were apparently humorous to many Germans—it is not thereby protected speech. If it is in fact propaganda for a campaign of repression and violence—and not merely offensive—we would repress it. And if, again, it serves no good use but can reasonably be seen to compromise the public peace—as in posters of outrageous cartoons placed in or on public transit vehicles and therefore in the sight of citizens likely to be deeply offended by it—then a sense of mutual regard and civic responsibility should prompt public authorities to repress it in those venues.

Hurt feelings

So the question of the legitimacy of cartoons making fun of someone’s religion or prophet or deity comes down to this: Is this speech so clearly harmful to the common good that it ought to be repressed? Would tolerating such speech cause such harm to the common good — including the ideals of the society — such that it has to be silenced? Or would repressing such speech mean the compromise of liberty, restraint of the free exchange of important ideas, and the weakening of efforts to expose evil or champion the good?

Hurt feelings are part of living in a pluralistic society in which what I value may be treated as ludicrous rubbish by someone else. As a Christian, this is my experience quite frequently, in the public remarks of people such as Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher. I think that their outlook is, in fact, ludicrous rubbish. And I expect that someone of their viewpoint might have his or her feelings hurt by my saying so. But perhaps my view, or their view, really is ludicrous rubbish. Then the common good will be increased by someone saying so, however clumsily or hurtfully.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The only alternative to free speech is completely correct speech.[/quote]

Sometimes people say things in unkind ways — but what they say might still be at least partly true, or perhaps good to consider even if false. That’s part of the price we pay for having the humility to believe that we are not right about everything. And since we recognize that we may be wrong, even about very important subjects, we had better have as much free speech as we can tolerate in order to let the truth be heard.

The only alternative to free speech is completely correct speech. And only fanatics believe that they infallibly both recognize and utter only completely correct speech.

Je ne suis pas Charlie. The cartoons I have seen from that publication strike me as sophomorically cruel and stupidly unfunny. But should they be allowed to be published? Bien sûr.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair at Regent College, a graduate school of Christian studies affiliated with the University of British Columbia. He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Edinburgh, Fudan, Hong Kong, and other universities around the world, as well as coast to coast in Canada. His most recent book is “Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology” (Oxford University Press). You can read his original blog post here.

Published in Commentary

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