“All religious ideas should be open to criticism, mockery and ridicule”

Professor of Religion and Theological Studies at the Concordia University, in Montreal (Quebec, Canada), André Gagné gave me this interview, included in an article (published in Portuguese) on freedom of expression, after an attack against Charlie Hebdo newspaper. “If anyone feels insulted by caricatures or satirical comments, they can retaliate with the ink and paper, not by trying to extinguish the life from those who disagree with them”, he said.(Read more…)


© Cartoon Movement

The attack against Charlie Hebdo has been generating an intense debate on the freedom of speech versus the right of respect for others’ religions. It looks like both claims are sacrosanct, untouchable. Are there any red lines that must not be crossed (in what circumstances?) or everything should be permissible?

Freedom of expression should not be contrived in any way. Ideas should be open to criticism, mockery and ridicule. There is nothing sacrosanct or untouchable.

One should never prevent the criticism of ideas, especially notions purported by religions. Such claims are for the most part empirically unverifiable. A secular society could choose, however, to limit the freedom of expression of people who incite others to violent actions against individuals.

If  freedom of expression shouldn’t have any limits, why are you implying that there is at least one exception. In this case, Muslims might argue that Muhammad’s cartoons are also “incitement to violence”, no? 

The kind of limit would be if someone called people to kill and commit violent actions directly against other individuals. When people use words that threaten your security, they should be denounced to the authorities and arrested.

The call to violence must be a clear one; no sentimentality issues like hurt feelings or making someone look like a fool counts as violence.

Pope Francis seems to agree that not everything is permissible: If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.

There is nothing in the Pope’s example which gives him the right to punch someone. In fact, he is calling people to violent retaliation because of hurt feelings, which in my opinion is quite a bad thing to say. He might feel hurt, but no one is threatening him or his mother with violence!

“A call to violence would be something like: “Let’s exterminate Jews, Christians or Muslims. Let’s kill all who worship other gods.”

It would therefore be incorrect for Muslims to see caricatures as “incitement to violence” because no one has called people to commit violent actions against them.

What the caricatures are doing is rather mocking the ideas in Islam, not saying that we should violently hurt Muslims. The only “hurt” Muslims can feel is one related to their religious ideas, no life threatening statement was given.

© Plantu

© Plantu

To illustrate my point, I would like to mention an event we recently encountered in Montreal. A self-proclaimed imam ask the city to grant him a permit to open a Muslim community center for religious activities on the East-end of the city.

After investigating the kind of activities and message this “imam” was proclaiming, the city decided to deny the request by saying that the he incited young people to embrace a radical brand of Islam.

If fact, this “imam” had himself been shown the door by another Muslim community in Montreal because of his radical ideas (justification of sharia law such as cutting the hands of robbers; degrading comments on women, etc.).

This “imam” is now accusing the city of limiting his “freedom of expression”, saying that he has never incited people to radicalism (but there are taped recordings which say differently).

Can we limit someone’s public discourse when he acts a possible agent of radicalization toward young people? I think it is our duty and responsibility to shut down such individuals before it’s too late. We need to denounce them publicly, and prevent them from inciting others to harm.

What does satire really insult: the “sacred” or the ideas and images of what is sacred in the minds and hearts of the believers?

There is nothing sacred in itself. Traditions and communities attribute “sacredness” to books, rituals, people, supernatural beings, and places.

What is “sacred” for one group of individuals is not for other people. Those who use satire do not consider the object of their critique to be “sacred” in any way.

originally thought to be by Graffiti artist Banksy, was liked more than 82,000 times on Instagram. It appears to be the work of illustrator Lucille Clerc © Daily Mail

Originally thought to be by graffiti artist Banksy, was liked more than 82,000 times on Instagram. It appears to be the work of illustrator Lucille Clerc
© Daily Mail

People say: in case of disagreement or offense, you can always go to a court of justice and fill a complaint, but you do not have the right to kill”. Is it possible to find an explanation (not an excuse) for religious fanaticism in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Koran since all these texts have multiple references to violence?

The Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and Qur’an all contain texts which refer to some form of violence. There are stories in the Hebrew Bible where God ordered the Israelites to exterminate pagan nations, in order for them to inherit the “promised land”.

The New Testament also speaks of destruction on those who reject the gospel message. Here the violence is differed after physical death, at a time when God will judge all humankind.

The Qur’an also contains violent texts, where it is ordered to kill apostates and those who wage war against Allah. All three of these “sacred” texts contain references to violence. Now the question is whether or not people believe they must re-enact such violence in today’s world.

Some Muslims, offended by Muhammad’s caricatures, argue that satirists are more respectful of other religions, and of Judaism in particular, to avoid anti-Semitism accusations. Is this a fair critique?

This is not a fair assessment. Caricatures and satirical comments of Judaism and Christianity are found everywhere. Here in North America, both of these religions are constantly criticized for their actions and beliefs.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there is more restraint on the part of certain newspapers to reproduce caricatures of Muhammad. They fear of being texted with racism or Islamophobia. There can also be a fear of retaliation by Islamic extremists.

First of all, we need to understand Islam is not a race, so the charge of “racism” cannot be labeled against those who criticize or satirize on this religion.

Second, ‘Islamophobia’ literally means “fear of Islam”. It is not those who speak against Islamic ideas who are “’Islamophobic”, but rather those who censor themselves by fear of retaliation.

If anyone feels insulted by caricatures or satirical comments, they can retaliate with the ink and paper, not by trying to extinguish the life from those who disagree with them.


Muslims also complain that after any attack by extremists there are always demands that “moderate Islam should distance itself” from the criminals, as if they were representatives of their religion and not citizens, while the same pressure is not applied on Christians or Jews. What’s your assessment?

If “moderates” do not wish to be associated to particular acts, they must denounce them loud and clear! This would be expected of “moderate” Christians and Jews if violence emerged from their own ranks. The issue of “moderate” versus “radical” Islam is an important one.

We often hear proponents of the “moderate Islam” say that the violent actions perpetrated against Charlie Hebdo are not reflective of “true” Islam. But there is really no such thing as a “true” or “false” Islam.

When it comes to religious ideologies, people like to pick and choose from their holy books what fits their own needs and justifies their ways of living. It is not surprising for people to say that their religion is “peaceful” and all who act violently misrepresent the “true” essence of their tradition.

Either way, holy books do contain both the good and the bad. Remember that Muslims fighting each other in the Middle East all claim to represent and act according to the “true” Islam, even if they belong to competing factions of the tradition.

© Dave Brown | The Independent

© Dave Brown | The Independent

The discussion about Muhammad’s caricatures also revealed religious fault lines on the Muslim side. Many believers insist that the representation of Islam’s prophet is sacrilegious and should be punished with death. Some Muslim academics, on the other hand, tried very hard to demonstrate “a rich tradition of devotional Islamic art that began with miniatures from the 13th century”, depicting the “God’s Messenger”. How can education play a role in shattering doctrinal misunderstandings, no only in Muslims countries but also in western countries with Muslim communities?

The right to education is a constant battle in Muslim countries; just remember Malala Yousafzai’s fight for education, and last December’s attach against a school in Peshawar.

Education needs to start with the leaders of Muslim communities. In Western secular societies, leaders of mosques or community centers should be required to have a recognized university degree.

For example in France, anthropologist and philosopher Malek Chebel, in his most recent book entitled, Changer Islam (“Changing Islam”), stresses on the importance of training for the “profession” of imam.

Many religious groups already require leaders to earn a university degree related to their field of work. A person cannot simply proclaim himself to be an imam, priest, pastor or rabbi strictly on the basis of “God’s calling.”

Without training, there should be no certification, nor any recognition! In short, a person should not be a member of the clergy without the required skills. Is this not what is expected for most other professions in the Western world? Why should it be different for leaders of religious groups?

After a big demonstration in Paris, many observers noted the hypocrisy of having on the front row despotic leaders marching in support of “freedom of expression” while in their own countries journalists, bloggers, artists… are in jail or sentenced to death. Those same leaders would later on condemn the first edition of Charlie Hebdo after the brutal assassination of their staff because its cover depicted, once again, a cartoon of Muhammad. Where is the rationality here?

It was extremely hypocritical on the part of representatives of oppressive countries to pave the streets of Paris alongside François Hollande after the Charlie Hebdo attacks!

No true dialogue will be possible until these countries abandon their archaic worldviews; their ways of life incompatible with the realities of the 21st century.

The West needs to understand that the battle is ideological in nature. Our modern secular societies need to uphold a critical stance toward all oppressive religious ideologies and political systems. Ideas that promote violence should be denounced and resisted.

This is why Islam, or any other religious tradition which stifles human dignity, should be critiqued. Human rights should guide our principles.

We need more than ever political leaders who will have the courage to dissociate themselves from leaders who baffle our democratic values. It is the only way we can protect ourselves and the future generations from destructive ideas.

André Gagné, Professor of Religion and Theological Studies at the Concordia University, in Montreal (Quebec, Canada) © All Rights Reserved

André Gagné, Professor of Religion and Theological Studies at the Concordia University, in Montreal (Quebec, Canada)

Parts of this interview were included in an article published in the Portuguese magazine ALÉM-MAR, March 2015 edition

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