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Do Western Muslims face a free speech double standard?

The Charlie Hebdo shooting has sparked debate about the protections and limits of free speech. Judy Woodruff talks to Bertrand Vannier of Radio France and Daisy Khan of the American Society for Muslim Advancement about whether Muslims face a double standard when it comes to free expression and the reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s controversial post-attack cover.

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    Today's events in France, from the arrests to the rush to buy the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, raise a number of questions about the limits of speech.

    We at the NewsHour have made the decision not to show the cartoon on the new cover of the satirical magazine depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The reason? We believe the offense it could cause outweighs the news value.

    We want to explore these questions of freedom of expression now with longtime radio France journalist and current senior editor Bertrand Vannier. And Daisy Khan, she is executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

    And we welcome you both to the program.

    Bertrand Vannier, how much of a debate is there under way today in France about what has happened with Charlie Hebdo, with the new cover, the decision to show it or not to show it?

  • BERTRAND VANNIER, Radio France:

    I think that there are two different debates now, one on the political side. National unity is still working, if I may say so.

    And there's a different debate in the society and mainly in the Muslim — five million Muslims in France, which start to say, look, there is a double standard here. You let the Charlie Hebdo print the cartoons of the prophet and you leave the mosques and the Muslim school in France unprotected. And there have been 54 incidents against mosques and Muslim schools in those — the last three days.

    So, there's a double standard to — towards the Muslim population in France — we start to hear that kind of reflection.


    Daisy Khan, is it a double standard, from your perspective, as a0 prominent Muslim here in the United States?

    DAISY KHAN, American Society for Muslim Advancement: Judy, the problem is that Muslims who live in the West are largely judged by the lens of national security.

    Certainly, here in America, we are largely defined by what happened on 9/11. And so whatever Muslims do is scrutinized, since many Muslims complain in the United States that there is a double standard for them, that free speech is not — they don't enjoy free speech. If they criticize their government, they are seen as unpatriotic. If they criticize the policies of Israel or even question them, they are called anti-Semites.

    And if they, you know, call for examining the root causes of terrorism, they are seen as aiding and abetting. So there is a sense that free speech is not for Muslims, and that it's only to be enjoyed by Westerners.


    BERTRAND VANNIER, how do you as a news editor see it? Do you see a different set of standards when it comes to portraying Mohammed, when it comes to the Muslim community?


    As a professional journalist, I don't think so. I hope not.

    But, you know, I'm a journalist. I'm not the one who listened to what — what I say on the radio. So it's very difficult — different, depending on the side you are on. I can understand that, if I were a Muslim today in France, which I am not, I could feel that there is definitely a double standard.

    Look, there was a law voted in France a few years back which forbid the young Muslim women to wear the burqa in the public space. And the young Muslim women said, you forbid us to wear the burqa, but you authorize — you authorized Charlie Hebdo to print the cartoon.

    So that's a new example of double standards. I hope — I hope — I don't know — I hope that we journalists, we are not doing the same. We're trying to find — to work equally.


    So, Daisy Khan, pick up on that. Is it seen as unfair because Muslims are being, as you said, lumped in with this national security debate? Is it possible to separate what's going on right now out and say, well, this is a conversation about journalism, about what is written about in the news media, what pictures are drawn?


    I think the most important conversation we need to be having right now is about the rise of terrorism.

    You know, since 9/11, we have seen an increase in terrorism, in spite of all the wars we have gone to and in spite of all the money that's been spent by Western nations. Just look at America. We have a footprint in many, many Muslim countries right now, and yet this terrorism seems to be flourishing.

    So, what needs to be done right now — and we don't have enough time to go into a deep commentary, but I would say that what needs to happen right now is the kind of beautiful display that we saw in Paris the other day, when everybody came out hand in hand and were — basically, we need to take that to the next level to see how we could collaborate together, law enforcement, and Muslim communities and government, to see how we can really push back on terrorism, which is just flourishing everywhere.

    And, by the way, Westerners are not the only ones that are getting killed by these terrorists. Muslims are the biggest victims of terrorism. So, I know that Muslims in France — I visited Lyon recently. I was there. I heard many perspectives.

    They are very anxious to work with law enforcement to prevent their communities from being harmed, not only being harmed physically, but really it's having a deep effect on the psyche of Muslims. And that's dangerous.


    BERTRAND VANNIER, is it possible to separate the kind of unity that Daisy Khan is describing, the need to focus on terrorists, the terrorist threat, from this other debate that's going on? You described it yourself about what is and isn't permissible in the media.


    I don't know if it's possible to separate the two debate and the two conversations.

    These days in France after the Charlie Hebdo attack, it's not possible to separate the two debates. It has to be separated, because, if it's not, you start having a conversation about different views and different ideas within the Muslim community, when were seen or shown as too close to terrorist activities or terrorist ideas.

    So there's a very thin line. And that thin line is very well seen today in France, that there is a risk to put the Muslim community on the bad side of the debate.


    Daisy Khan, just finally, I want to ask you, a number of news organizations in the United States argue that it was acceptable to show this new cover of the magazine Charlie Hebdo because they say it's a more acceptable portrait of the Prophet Mohammed. It shows him weeping. It has the statement "All is forgiven" over it.

    How do you as a Muslim answer that?


    Well, I personally don't take offense to anything whose intent is to provoke or push people over the edge.

    However, all the previous caricatures that I have seen are just that. They're caricatures. They don't resemble the prophet at all. But today's — the publication, the cover today was the closest to his character. And I think this is why you don't see the kind of outrage from ordinary Muslims that might have said this is offensive.

    I think they're saying, finally, we're — we're acknowledging who the prophet really was. He was sent as a mercy to humankind and he was very forgiving of his enemies and he tried to transform his enemies. And I think this is — what we need to be discussing right now, are the actions of the terrorists really the teachings of the prophet or are they teachings of some ideology that nobody understands or recognizes?


    Well, it is certainly a discussion that continues.

    We thank you both, Daisy Khan, the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Bertrand Vannier with Radio France.


    Thank you so much for having us.

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