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Opinion: Charlie Hebdo attack challenges the roots of Western democracy

The attack on the satirical French paper Charlie Hebdo reveals once again the different views held in the West and a certain section of the Islamic world about freedom of expression, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.

The freedom of speech is a right which is deeply embedded in Western culture. We are taught at school how brave men and women fought against autocratic rulers in Europe over the centuries to gain us the rights of free expression and the freedoms which we enjoy and cherish today. These are the very foundations of our secular democracy, which we are committed to defend come what may.

The freedom of speech is so important to us here in Europe because it provides the press with the right to watch over governments and challenge their activities where necessary. Perhaps the most famous example of the watchdog role of the media in the West was the Watergate scandal in the United States, which brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.

But there have been many other cases too, cases in which elected politicians were forced to resign for their wrongdoings after extensive media reporting. In Germany the most significant incident of this kind was the resignation of Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss in 1962 after he abused his powers to shut down a magazine critical of his policies and lied about his actions.

Deutsche Welle DW Grahame Lucas

DW's Grahame Lucas

At an individual level, the freedom of expression is vital to defend the rights of individuals to criticize government policy or anything else for that matter. And it is also at the core of everyone's right to voice political opinions or to promote his or her religious views. And logically, it is this right which lies at the heart of the discussion about human rights in general. The freedom of expression is thus rightly described as a cornerstone of democratic society.

The freedom of expression is enshrined in a key ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 1976. It reads as follows: The freedom of expression "constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a (democratic) society, one of the basic working conditions for its progress and for the development of every man. [...] It is applicable not only to ‘information' or ‘ideas' that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society'."

This includes criticism of religion and satirical depictions of such beliefs. In this regard, the Christian religion has been a target for many years. Christians find such satire shocking, but they have to live with it because criticism and satire are a vital part of public discourse.

With regard to the interpretation of rulings in this vein, the West and parts of the Islamic world have been at odds before. There was the Fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeni against British writer Salman Rushdie for his 1988 book "The Satantic Verses" in which he made fun of the teachings of Islam. After threats to his life by fanatical Islamists, Rushdie lived under police protection for many years.

In 2006 a Danish newspaper published satirical cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. Death threats were made as well as assassination attempts. And now, the murderous attack on the satirical French paper Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people including a Muslim policeman were shot dead by two deranged Islamists.

But this conflict can be overcome, of that I remain convinced. In this context, I recall the recent words of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who has called for a "religious revolution" in Islam and for Muslim leaders "to fight extremism." And I would like to close this commentary with the words of a representative of Germany's Council of Muslims: In a statement, he writes that this "brutal act" by the perpetrators had ridiculed and insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. "This attack is a crime against humanity and at the same time an attack on the values of Islam." That says it all.

While I respect the religious beliefs of others, the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression must be paramount. Je Suis Charlie.