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Michael McDowell: Profound issues at stake over free speech and Islam

Should Ireland pursue French policy of ‘laïcisme’ or simple pluralism?

Our Constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief to all citizens and provides that the State will not endow any particular religion.

In the 1960s our Supreme Court developed a theory that the Constitution guaranteed unenumerated rights to citizens in addition to those rights explicitly mentioned in the 1937 text.

The court held that these unenumerated rights fell to be identified by the courts by reference to what was implied by the “Christian and democratic” nature of the Irish State.

What the term “Christian” meant in that context was never tied down. Whether it involved basic Christian philosophy concerning the equal worth of all individuals and the moral imperative of charity in all human dealings was never clarified.


Whatever about theology, it still seems that the great majority of Irish people would consider themselves to be philosophically Christian in the foregoing sense. That raises questions about the relationship of Irish society to non-Christian beliefs, whether ancient or comparatively modern.

Is Macron wholly sincere in championing the use of these cartoons? Or is he, perhaps, issue-surfing?

In that context, the decapitation of Samuel Paty, the French secondary school teacher, for showing his pupils Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to explore issues of freedom of speech and thought and any limits on the right to blaspheme in the eyes of some of the community, also raises questions about the meaning of republicanism and the status of religion in a secular republic.

French political culture places enormous value on what they term “laïcisme”, a doctrine which affects total blindness as to the theological and metaphysical beliefs of the citizens of their republic.

Simply horrified

French society and indeed many in Europe were simply horrified that a young Chechen might feel entitled by what he saw on social media to seek out and behead a man whom he had never met on the grounds of blasphemy.

The robust stance of Emmanuel Macron against such barbarity and for the right of Charlie Hebdo and Samuel Paty to use cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed for satirical or educational purposes excited a wave of anger across the Islamic world from north Africa through Turkey, South Asia and Indonesia directed against Macron and the French Republic.

Is Macron wholly sincere in championing the use of these cartoons? Or is he, perhaps, issue-surfing? The Muslim minority in France feels itself to be the subject of economic and cultural discrimination by the French Republic. Notwithstanding laïcisme, many Muslims believe that French society is not blind to their ethnic origins or religious beliefs. After all, it is hard to believe, in these days of face masks, that the French Republic sought to penalise Muslim women who wore face masks in public or who went bathing in full body attire just a couple of years ago.

Britain and France have different approaches but both have very poor records in dealings with the Islamic world

Bitter words exchanged between the French government and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey in recent times raise questions as well. France now charges Erdogan with attempting to re-establish an Ottoman Empire. This is a bit rich for the French state which spent a considerable portion of the early part of the last century trying to dismember Turkey itself. It is a great irony that France should believe that it still has some moral right to intervene militarily in the Middle East, given its previous desire to extend imperial control over those lands without any entitlement, good, bad or indifferent.

Killing any person

Some Koranic experts argue that nothing in the Koran itself (as distinct from other statements attributed to the Prophet Mohammad) requires or justifies killing any person for what Muslims consider to be blasphemy, apostasy or heresy. And yet Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors have kept a fatwa and a massive reward promised to any Muslim who kills Salman Rushdie on account of his allegedly blasphemous work The Satanic Verses, his apostasy, and his atheism.

Should a liberal, democratic republic afford any special protection or charitable status to any religion which seeks to justify, or fails to condemn outright, killings, judicial or extra-judicial, imprisonment or flogging of humans anywhere in the world for apostasy, blasphemy or heresy? Does any group in our society which justifies the deprivation of religious freedom to others anywhere in the world really deserve protection under our constitution at the same time?

There are profound issues at stake here. On the one hand, many in the woke generation are demanding that hate speech laws be enacted to prevent free speech from being used to cause profound offence and hurt to others in the community. On the other hand, many of the same people are wearing “Je suis Charlie” T-shirts.

For Ireland, which recently removed a constitutional reference to the crime of blasphemy by referendum but left in place provisions stating that "the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God" and undertook to "hold His Name in reverence" and to "respect and honour religion", there is a debate to be had as to whether we pursue "laïcisme" or simple pluralism.

Britain and France have different approaches but both have very poor records in dealings with the Islamic world.

Vienna, on the other hand, has not been throwing its weight around for a long, long time now. And yet, terrorism has come calling there.