Obama weighs in on freedom of speech after Charlie Hebdo massacre

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Obama weighs in on freedom of speech after Charlie Hebdo massacre

President Barack Obama n’est pas Charlie Hebdo.

Obama, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, offered a response of sorts to critics who accused him of turning his back on freedom of speech by skipping a massive demonstration that saw hundreds of thousands of people march in Paris under the slogan #JeSuisCharlie ("I am Charlie").

The outpouring of support came after terrorists murdered some of the French satirical newspaper’s best-known artists and editors in response to the paper’s decision to publish cartoons portraying Muhammad.

Obama warned that, around the world, “we've seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good but also twisted and misused in the name of evil. ...

“From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith — their faith — profess to stand up for Islam, but in fact are betraying it,” he said. In his harshest public remarks yet about the so-called Islamic State, Obama described the group as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.”

The president went on to discuss tensions between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and said that citizens of “modern, complicated, diverse societies” who care about those rights should “exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another's religion, we're equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities, who were targets of such attacks,” Obama said. “Just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean that the rest of us shouldn't question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. ...

“Our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome — that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries,” the president declared.

That observation echoed Obama’s little-noticed contention, during a recent visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron, that the United States is safer from terrorist attacks because it has done a better job of integrating Muslims into society.

“Our biggest advantage is that our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans,” the president said at a joint press conference with his guest on Jan. 18.

Obama’s speech to the prayer breakfast came after a long public debate in which news organizations felt pressure to show their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo by publishing cartoons that showed (and sometimes mocked) the Muslim prophet, something followers of Islam find offensive.