We must stand up to Iran’s threats to free speech

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Days before the eighth anniversary of the massacre at its offices, Charlie Hebdo has incensed yet another target lampooned on its pages: the notoriously unamused Islamic Republic of Iran, which is issuing threats against its critics at the outlet.

The French satirical magazine is publishing a special edition commemorating the 2015 attack that killed 12 as well as supporting the pro-freedom protests sweeping Iran. It’s safe to say Iranian officials don’t appreciate the joke.

Iran’s government responded Wednesday with vague warnings, promising that cartoons mocking Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other political and religious figures “will not go without an effective and decisive response.” Iran “will not allow the French government to go beyond its bounds,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian wrote.

Iran’s threats of a “decisive response” to a series of cartoons are yet another reminder that while years have gone by since Charlie Hebdo’s innocent artists and writers were murdered, little has changed. In so much of the world, even the United States, expressing mockery, criticism or dissent against religion is a dangerous gamble — one that can result in life-altering, even deadly, consequences.

Nowhere was that more clear than in the August attempted murder of novelist Salman Rushdie in Chautauqua. He was stabbed on stage by a 24-year-old man who had not even been born when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie for “The Satanic Verses.” Rushdie was fortunate not to lose his life in the attack, but he did not emerge unscathed: He lost sight in one eye and the use of a hand.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iran’s government promising that cartoons mocking Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “will not go without an effective and decisive response.”
AP

Threats and attacks against public figures like Charlie Hebdo’s staff and Salman Rushdie tend to capture the headlines, but make no mistake: They are but a handful of the many individuals who have lost their safety, freedom or, in some cases, their lives because they dared to dissent.

In just the past year, individuals across the world have been killed, attacked, imprisoned and arrested after they criticized Islam — or were just accused of doing so. A practicing Muslim woman in Pakistan was sentenced to death for blasphemy for messages she sent over social media. She says a man intentionally entrapped her in contentious religious debates so he could accuse her of blasphemy in retaliation for her rejecting him. Students and a colleague murdered a schoolteacher in Pakistan, claiming she blasphemed.

In Nigeria, the president of the local Humanist Association was sentenced to more than two decades in prison for criticizing Islam on Facebook. Weeks later there, a mob beat a college student to death and burned her body after she asked her peers in a class group chat to stop sending “nonsense religious posts” over text.

 Charlie Hebdo
Iranian newspapers displaying headlines in response to the Islamist attacks that killed 17 people of Charlie Hebdo.
AFP via Getty Images

These stories are horrifying, but they are not uncommon. Year in and year out, those who dare to dissent from religious dogma find themselves before judges, in prison and at the hands of mobs.

The violent censors among us think the sword is an appropriate weapon to combat sharp words.

Even on American campuses, allegations of blasphemy can land a professor in trouble — and out of a job. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, where I work, is pushing back against Minnesota’s Hamline University, where administrators opted not to renew an instructor’s contract after she displayed a medieval painting of the Prophet Muhammad in a class about global art history and Islamic art. This is despite the fact the instructor had even warned students ahead of time the image would be shown and some students may not want to look.

Iranian worshippers demonstrate after the weekly Friday prayers
Iranian worshippers demonstrate after the Friday prayers on Jan. 23, 2015 to protest against a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed that was published.
AFP via Getty Images

The university’s president asserted that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” The statement turned the entire concept of academic freedom on its head: Religious sensitivities, apparently, should trump the right to speak and teach freely.

The 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo shocked the world and reminded us — temporarily — that freedom of speech is a precious but endangered right. We quickly forgot that lesson, and dissenters have paid the price. All too often they stand alone.

The Iranian regime is right that it’s time for a clear response — but not of the kind it’s threatening. Instead, we need one that fully embraces the right to free speech and rejects those who would limit it. We should leave behind mealy-mouthed equivocations about free speech that so frequently emerge after crises like the Charlie Hebdo attack and make full-throated defenses of the right to speak without fear of violence.

It’s long past time we take an unmistakable stance in favor of expression and dissent and thumb our noses at authoritarians who would threaten and harm those who choose to live freely.

Sarah McLaughlin is senior scholar, global expression, at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

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