Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Freedom, Tolerance, and Respect

Stephen V. Monsma


By Stephen V. Monsma

January 26, 2015


News reports have been filled the past weeks with reports and comments on the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris. Among the seventeen persons killed were editors at the magazine Charlie Hebdo, police officers, and Jewish shoppers at a kosher grocery store. There is no possible justification for the murder of these individuals. One searches for words strong enough to condemn these wanton acts of violence.

But that does not say all there is to be said. The murders of the editors at Charlie Hebdo in particular raise important questions for those of us who believe in principled pluralism, a basic commitment of the Center for Public Justice. Principled pluralism recognizes that all societies—including French and American societies—are marked by a diversity of ideological, political, ethnic, racial, and religious groups. The need is for these millions of diverse people nevertheless to live together in peace in one society. 

Principled pluralism holds that for this need to be met, society must be characterized by three equally important elements: freedom, tolerance, and respect. Freedom means all must be able to express their differing views and debate them vigorously. Tolerance means more than simply refraining from taking legal sanctions against those with whom one has deep differences—or engaging in violence against them. It means accepting them as fellow citizens bearing the image of God with a right to hold and follow their views in the life of the nation. Respect means showing them and their views a certain deference, even while disagreeing with them in important ways and having different beliefs. This is especially true with religious differences, since religion touches on many people’s deepest feelings that do much to define who they are as human beings. 

Given this perspective, I thought one of the more insightful comments made in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack was that of a seventeen-year-old French Muslim high school student, Hamid Abdelaali, as reported in the Washington Post. He said, “I know some kids agreed with the attack. I did not, but I also cannot say that I support what Charlie Hebdo is doing.” 

This is the kind of position to which a commitment to principled pluralism leads. Principled pluralism supports freedom of thought and action, and it condemns violence towards those with whom one disagrees. But if a people are to live together in one society with their deepest differences, that freedom must be balanced by tolerance and respect. As Stanley Carlson-Thies and I write in our forthcoming book: “A true commitment to diversity involves allowing the differing groups present in society the freedom to express and practice their beliefs and to try to convince others to their point of view while living and working together in a spirit of mutual respect.”

Clearly, the Islamist terrorists did not meet this standard of tolerance and respect. But neither did Charlie Hebdo. Knowing that the Muslim faith holds any pictorial representation of its revered prophet Mohammed to be sacrilegious and blasphemous, the magazine persisted in doing just that, at times in a negative, degrading fashion. It showed disdain and contempt, not tolerance and respect, for fellow Muslim citizens.

That is why I join with Hamid Abdelaali in saying that I do not support what Charlie Hebdo is doing and what it stands for. However, Charlie Hebdo should not be legally stopped from publishing the inflammatory, disrespectful caricatures for which it is famous--I do not support censorship of this nature. But with freedom comes responsibility, and a democratic society, with its diversity of beliefs, groups, and religions, should be marked by a tolerance that includes respect for its fellow citizens with whom others have deep differences.

There is a lesson here for the United States and for all democracies. We can and should stand firmly for what we believe. We should defend our faith and the political and social conclusions to which our faith leads us, whether we are Christians, Jews, or Muslims. We need vigorous debate; we can work forcefully to convince others of the rightness of our cause and the flaws in their causes. This is freedom in action. But freedom also means showing respect to others, especially to others’ religious beliefs since they touch on their deepest feelings and most heartfelt convictions. Only then can we not only hold to deep differences and debate them vigorously, but we can also live together in peace as one people.


- Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University. He is a trustee of the Center for Public Justice.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”