SALMAN RUSHDIE, an Indian-born British author who has won numerous literary awards, was stabbed several times and severely injured at an event in New York on 12 August.

In a world where writers and publishers have often faced threats or worse, this has thrown a spotlight on the important issue of freedom of expression. Though no longer on a ventilator and again articulate, Rushdie’s injuries are life-changing.

He had gone into hiding in 1989, after Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran urged Muslims to kill him, claiming that one of his novels, The Satanic Verses, was blasphemous. The Iranian government later withdrew its support for this decree, supposedly based on Islamic law, though unsurprisingly, Muslim opinion had been divided. Precautions had been relaxed. His alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, reportedly said he had read only “a couple of pages” of the book.

Perhaps not surprisingly, authoritarian governments and religious or political movements seeking greater power do not always accept the right to free speech and wider communication or indeed, other universal human rights. It may be argued that tighter controls are needed to protect people’s feelings, social stability or public morality or that national symbols, such as flags, are sacrosanct. Freedom of expression is also questioned by some people on the left on the grounds that it allows oppressive views to be aired and do damage.

More generally, notions of universal rights may be dismissed as foisting Western norms and individualistic approaches on the rest of the world. In reality, those from many countries contributed to rights frameworks and these can assist in building authentic community based on mutual understanding and care rather than cowing some into silence and submission. Across continents, it is hardly unknown for governments to seek to suppress embarrassing evidence  or dissenting views. And the people most critical of a ‘culture of rights’ tend to expect basic freedoms and protections for themselves or those they follow.

This is not to say that there may not be costs to freedom of expression. I would argue however, that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, focusing on three overlapping areas: (1) meeting human needs and respecting personhood, (2) seeking truth, equality and democracy and (3) nurturing compassion and community. I believe it is a principle which should be upheld by people of all faiths and none who seek a more just, peaceful and loving world. This is not to say that there may not be some limits to what may be said, where and when.

What freedom of expression is and what it is not

Enabling authors such as Salman Rushdie to stay safe as they imaginatively explore various aspects of human experience is vital freedom of expression. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

However this does not include the right to say, write or publish absolutely anything in any context. For instance, under Article 12, people have the right to the protection of the law against unfair attacks on their reputations. More generally, rights may sometimes be constrained to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights mentions protection of national security and public health and preventing advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility or violence.

Sometimes those seeking to violate others’ rights claim exceptions which are too wide. And what a character is, as depicted by a story or performer’s stage persona, is not necessarily what that person thinks. Libelling someone, spreading deadly misinformation or whipping up a mob to attack their neighbours goes beyond legitimate free speech.

In addition, for individuals and non-statutory organisations, obligations are not the same as for the state. So, while the principles of freedom of expression may be broadly desirable in many settings, what might be accepted in different places varies. A rather staid parish social committee chair may have to accept that a comedian known for sweary ‘adult’ jokes is performing nearby, but is not obliged to book him to entertain the over-60s club she organises.

Freedom of expression also does not mean that people have a right to promote their own perspectives unchallenged: this would mean that others were not free to air their own thoughts, feelings and experiences (provided this stops short of intimidation or harassment). Confusingly, the term ‘cancel culture’ is sometimes used both of heavy-handed attempts to silence others and of freely expressing views critical of a government or ideas it favours.

There can sometimes be difficult judgement calls to make – but the key question remains of whether freedom of expression – including for those one profoundly disagrees with, or who badmouth what one cherishes (or vice versa) – is desirable, even if sometimes painful.

Why pros outweigh cons

To begin with, the experience of continually biting back one’s words on matters close to one’s heart, out of fear of the consequences or because one has internalised a sense of powerlessness or lack of worth, can be unpleasant and demeaning. Often it coincides with other imbalances of power and status, indeed sometimes oppression, which may be inflicted or reinforced by the state. Freedom of expression may be important to sense of personhood and ability to grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually and discover gifts one has which might benefit others.

For writers and others expressing themselves through the arts, freedom may be precious not only to them but also to those for whom their work illuminates something unknown before, encouraging their own imagination and creativity or, sometimes, articulating what they have struggled to put into words or visual form.

Certainly hearing or reading negative words about, or seeing unflattering images of, one’s cherished beliefs or customs or those one trusts or admires can be painful. For some in faith-based or other communities, this may feel like an insult to a family member – yet relatives of public figures must be prepared for disapproving views of their loved ones to be aired and, within families themselves, there may be varied feelings. And sometimes speech can be corrosive (some newspaper columnists and talk-show hosts build a career largely on nastiness). There may be certain works which it is best to avoid. However, in engaging with a perspective which feels uncomfortable, it may be possible to glean something useful, even if disagreeing with most of what one encounters. And learning to argue back against what is experienced as hurtful, or create works of beauty to counter ugly sentiments, can be part of a process of maturing, for individuals and groups.

Freedom of expression can also play a vital part in seeking truth, promoting equality and building democracy. It can counter spin by politicians, business leaders and tightly-controlled institutions, allow valuable knowledge and fresh insights to be shared, offer an alternative to narrow nationalism and militaristic rhetoric and highlight the preciousness of humans, other species and a planet under threat. It can help citizens of particular countries, and the wider world, to make informed decisions. And it can enable those with lower status and less power in particular situations, people whom others might look down on or seek to control by physical force or economic or social clout, to deepen their sense of dignity, question and challenge the way things are.

Of course, untruths may also be uttered, prejudiced attitudes promoted. However, cracking down on key freedoms does more damage than it prevents. State censorship (or active or tacit backing for others who censor or punish) might briefly seem attractive – but the power wielded will almost inevitably be misused at some point, by which time it may be harder to defend vital rights.

It is sometimes suggested that religious sentiments (at least those of a particular group) should not be offended, yet the history of religion suggests that founders of movements and now-revered reformers often caused offence. In today’s world, those who have exposed scandals in faith institutions, for instance around abuse, despite attempts to silence them, have opened the door to improvement and the possibility of healing. And freedom of expression can help to undermine what some might deem idolatry – when a person, organisation or concept is given god-like status, to the detriment of those who place their faith in the human rather than transcendental. What is more, claiming Divine sanction for human vindictiveness or power-seeking is far greater blasphemy that any attempt to disparage faith.

People seeking to be progressive may claim that oppressed groups should be protected from having their feelings hurt, hence that anti-Muslim discrimination means it is legitimate to crack down on books such as The Satanic Verses (even if physical violence is deemed to go too far). Certainly, it is important to be aware that criticism or ridicule may have varying effects, depending in part on social position. And for those whose upbringing included frequent reminders of the risk of punishment for stepping out of line (as is the case for many girls and for disabled children of any gender for instance) may find it harder to shrug off intimidatory behaviour such as posting violent images on social media. However, it is insulting to imply that any unjustly treated set of people should be expected to maintain sheep-like conformity, so that ‘community leaders’ can speak for all, or are uniquely emotionally vulnerable and need excessive ‘protection’.

Rushdie is himself from a Muslim background. The novel (which might be regarded as a modern fantasy) satirises British racism and a hate-filled authoritarian ‘Imam’ based on Khomeini himself, and asks difficult questions about religions’ truth-claims and ability to inspire people to good or bad deeds. Such issues resonate with those grappled with by many other Muslims and people of Global Majority heritage, and it is perhaps unsurprising that his strongest defenders when the fatwa was declared included Arab intellectuals. Rushdie has repeatedly spoken out over other threatened writers; it would be good for those rightly outraged to the attack on him to keep drawing attention to the many others, usually less well-known, who face repression by states or violent movements seeking power.

There is a further category of views which are quite often deemed (ironically sometimes by defenders of freedom of expression) as unutterable: criticisms of people threatened or physically attacked for their opinions. It is important to avoid giving the impression that a writer, translator, publisher, speaker or artist was ‘asking for it’, yet subsequently treating them with uncritical awe is also a failure to engage seriously with their work. For instance the murderous attack on those producing the French magazine Charlie Hebdo was appalling. But condemning some of its cartoons, such as that of the drowned child Aylan Kurdi, which are known to stoke potentially deadly racism among some readers, even if others may take these as satirising racist views, is legitimate.

Overall, freedom of expression can enable important knowledge to be shared and allow people to gain deeper insights into the experiences and feelings of their neighbours, as well as to be attentive to – and maybe share – their own. This can encourage compassion and build genuine community, based not on suppression of dissent but rather mutual care and dialogue.

Upholding this and other human rights has an important part to play in building a better world.

© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016)  and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.