By Professor Tommy Koh: Islam and Europe: Should caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad be protected by the freedom of speech?

November 30, 2020


On 30 September 2005, the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 editorial cartoons.  Most of the cartoons depicted the Prophet Muhammad.  The newspaper stated that it was an attempt to contribute to the debate about criticism of Islam and against self-censorship.

When the cartoons were published, the Muslims in Denmark protested against them.  The protest was taken up by the Muslim communities all over the world.  Some of the protests became violent and led to the death of 250 individuals.  Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East, organized a boycott of Danish products.


Charlie Hebdo

On 2 November 2011, the French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, published an issue with the Prophet Muhammad, as the alleged guest editor.  A day after its publication, the premises of the newspaper were firebombed.

In September 2012, the same newspaper published a series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, in very bad taste.  Speaking at the UN, soon after the publication of the cartoons, the US President, Barack Obama, said:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.  But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied. 

On 7 January 2015, two gunmen forced their way into the premises of Charlie Hebdo.  They opened fire and killed 12 members of the staff.  The world reacted in horror to this outrage.  Many of the leaders of the world, including those from Muslim countries, joined the President of France, in a public display of solidarity.


Samuel Paty

Samuel Paty was a French school teacher.  He taught at a junior high school in a commune called Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, not far from Paris.  In early October 2020, Paty was teaching a class on the freedom of expression.  He showed his students two cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, from Charlie Hebdo.  Some of his students and their parents were unhappy with his action.

On the 16 of October 2020, an 18 year old Muslim immigrant from Russia, Abdoullakh Abouyezidovitch Anzorov, went to Samuel Paty’s school.  He asked a number of the students to identify Mr Paty.  He followed him, killed him with a knife and decapitated him.  Anzorov was shot dead by the police.

In a speech made on 2 October 2020 against “Islamist separatism”, President Macron described Islam as a religion that is currently in crisis. On 21 October 2020, at a national memorial in honour of Samuel Paty, at which the Legion of Honour was conferred posthumously on the slain teacher, the President said that France would not disavow the cartoons.  Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, from Charlie Hebdo, were also displayed on some public buildings in two cities in the south of France.

On 31 October 2020, in response to criticisms about his remarks, Macron gave an interview with Al Jazeera to emphasise that there is no stigmatisation of Islam in France, although the government has the duty to uphold French values of freedom of expression. He also published an op-ed in the Financial Times on 4 November 2020 to make similar points.



On 2 November 2020, a teacher at a high school in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, went into hiding after receiving threats following a classroom discussion on the killing of French teacher Samuel Paty. During the discussion, some students took offence with a satirical cartoon hanging in the classroom and a photo of the image began circulating on social media within a day. A young woman has been arrested on suspicion of inciting threats. There was a similar incident at another school in Den Bosch on 5 November and the offending teacher was also subject to threats.  The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has called the threats to the teachers, “absurd” and “intolerable”. 


The Central Question

Almost all the countries of the world, including Muslim countries, have condemned the killing of Samuel Paty.  At the same time, many thoughtful persons, outside Europe have appealed to Denmark, France, the Netherlands and other European countries, to refrain from insulting Islam and its prophet.  The central question is whether the freedom of speech includes the right to slander Islam or any other religion.


The Secularization of Western Europe

Over the past 50 years, Christianity has been on the decline in northern and western Europe.  In a 20 May 2018 report, by the Peace Research Centre, it was stated that the majority of European Christians are non-practising.  Western Europe has become one of the world’s most secular regions.

The report found that only a minority, about 22 percent of the Christians of Europe, attend monthly services.  In every country, except, Italy, the non-practising Christians outnumber those who attend church regularly.

The secularization of western Europe may explain why Europeans see nothing wrong in mocking the prophet of Islam and naming bars and restaurants after Lord Buddha.  Europeans must understand that while western Europe has become less religious, this is not the case in all parts of the world. 

For example, there is increasing religiosity among Muslims.  Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.  At present, Islam has 1.9 billion adherents, accounting for 24.9 percent of the world’s population.  Christianity has 2.4 billion adherents, or 31 percent of the world’s population.  Islam is projected to overtake Christianity as the biggest religion of the world by 2070, according to Peace Research Centre.


Limits To Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is an important human right.  It is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International  Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

All legal systems, however, recognise certain limits to the freedom of speech, such as, defamation, perjury, incitement to violence, pornography, obscenity, sedition, blasphemy, etc.  In 16 European countries, including France, the denial of the Holocaust is not protected by free speech.  The Holocaust led to the death of 6 million Jews.  To deny that this tragedy had happened is deeply offensive to the Jews of the world.  For this reason, the denial of the Holocaust is made a crime in those countries.  This is laudable.


Europe and the World

Both Asia and Europe do not exist in isolation. We are   part of the world and we want to live in harmony with the rest of the world.  In order to do so, both Asia and Europe must consider the feelings of the other regions and countries of the world.

We live in a very diverse world.  We have peoples of different races, religions, languages, cultures and ideologies.  We live on the same planet and we must learn to live at peace with one another.  For this to happen, we must show tolerance and respect for the faiths of others.

Religion seems to be less important to many western Europeans, it is, however, very important to the followers of many religions, including Islam.  In Singapore, we value religious harmony. 


Appeal to Europe

In order to preserve that harmony, we show respect for all religions, even if we are irreligious.  Your freedom of speech must not violate my freedom not to have my religion satirized or mocked.  I make this sincere appeal to my European friends to reconsider the wisdom of recent actions which might be misconstrued as disrespect for Islam and its prophet.

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