ON MONDAY in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s volatile region of Chechnya, hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets to decry the French publication Charlie Hebdo. Earlier this month, two militant jihadists killed 12 people at the French satirical weekly over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that the attackers deemed offensive. In Paris, the incident prompted massive public demonstrators supporting the publication — or at least its cartoonists’ right to speak their minds, even if crassly. Among the dignitaries who showed up in solidarity was Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
But the peculiar counterprotest this week in Grozny, led by the region’s Moscow-backed president, sent a far more ambiguous message.
In theory, the Internet brings open debate to closed-off corners of the world. In practice, a globalized media environment exposes Western-style free speech to two emerging challenges — from religious groups seeking to enforce their strictures upon the world; and from authoritarian rulers who, for their own political ends, are willing to target expression even outside their borders.
These trends converged at the rally in Chechnya. “You and I see how European journalists and politicians under false slogans about free speech and democracy proclaim the freedom to be vulgar, rude, and insult the religious feelings of hundreds of millions of believers,” President Ramzan Kadyrov told the crowd, according to the Guardian. By Kadyrov’s line of argument, echoed in recent demonstrations elsewhere in the Muslim world, a society that allows blasphemous images to be published is in effect endorsing them.
Protests and counterprotests, when organized by private citizens with the freedom to speak their minds, are a healthy thing. Yet the prominent role of Kadyrov, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — not to mention the slick signs in English carried by many demonstrators, including the one in the photo above — raised speculation about the Kremlin’s intentions. As Putin repositions himself as a guardian of conservative Eurasian values against erosion from the West, making common cause with Charlie Hebdo’s Islamic critics hardly seems out of the question.
The United States remains an outlier in allowing speech that other countries criminalize, says Timothy Zick, a William and Mary law professor and the author of “The Cosmopolitan First Amendment.” Much as Americans might assume that our protections on expression reflect universal human values, they need a more deliberate sales pitch elsewhere in the world — because there are powerful currents in the opposite direction.