Freedom of speech is essential to a liberal, western society, but elements in Muslim society—even “moderate” elements—are saying we don’t have this right.

It is a right written into our Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights. But it is under attack and, if we don’t defend it vigorously, we may find this right abridged.

This bedrock freedom is something that is not as widely-embraced in the Muslim world. A “moderate” imam in France, for example, recently told Le Figaro that freedom of speech is fine—so long as you don’t say anything that might offend Muslims.

Mature people in the West recognize that none of us has the right to go through life free from being offended. This recognition enables us to live in a pluralistic society, and, moreover, it is part of who we are. The Bill of Rights–like, say, the Magna Carta–is one of those great milestones in human history. 

Theodore Dalrymple examines the moderate imam’s take on this basic freedom in a City Journal article headlined “Freedom of Expression, Without the Expression:”

Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, president of the imams association in France, rejects the use of violence as a response to cartoons or movies that offend Muslims. But he nevertheless regards makers of such movies or publishers of such cartoons as responsible for such violence. In other words, the imam is comfortable with blaming the violence not on the violent but on those who have engaged in free expression.

This is contrary to the way we do things in the West (so far):

If a Republican physically attacked a Democrat, or a Democrat a Republican, after one said something with which the other strongly disagreed, would it be any defense for the attacker to say, “He knew perfectly well that I detested his views”? Freedom of expression requires not so much the exercise of self-control in what is said as its exercise in reaction to what is said. I can hardly look at a book these days without taking offense at something that it contains, but if I smash a window in annoyance, the blame is only mine—even if the author knows perfectly well that what he wrote will offend many such as I.

Interestingly, the imam did not excuse or even explain the conduct of Charlie Hebdo [which published cartoons offensive to Muslims] by claiming that the magazine may have been provoked into publishing the cartoons by those who reacted violently to the film made in the U.S. In other words, Frenchmen act, violent Muslims merely react.

As far as Hassen Chalghoumi is concerned, then, you can have any freedom you like—so long as you don’t exercise it.

It’s interesting that our current travails in the Middle East include a challenge to our own constitutional rights. We are being told by people thousands of miles away that, nope, we can't exercise the right of freedom of speech. It was thus disturbing that President Obama’s defense of freedom of speech before the U.N. earlier this week was so tepid.

The news that the man allegedly responsible for the film that was used as a pretext for riots throughout the Muslim world has been arrested by the feds is another cause for concern. It may be that there are legitimate reasons to pick him up on unrelated matters. But this doesn’t look good. James Madison and George Mason, authors of the Bill of Rights, must be turning in their graves.