The story of the Bangladeshi writers who were hacked to death has not drawn as much attention as the Charlie Hebdo attack even though they share some similarities. The Bangladeshi writers wanted to write about atheism and to question the dominant religious views within their country. They believed in the right of free speech and thought they should be able to speak freely and openly about the issues. Despite death threats, the writers continued to publish on the topic and were killed.
Some commentators have expressed concern about the attack on the freedom of speech; a freedom they believe is sacrosanct for decent liberal democratic politics. In the West, there is wide acceptance that writers should be free and are free to write on a variety of topics without fear of government censorship or persecution. For the most part, the market decides whether the public will read what is written not the government. The market does not keep people from writing and publishing, especially on social media, if they want. The constraints that do exist are relatively limited as few topics, such as national security, are off limits. Thus, there is a widespread belief that the only alternatives are free speech or suppressed silence. The Western writers, long indulged with near unlimited freedom, have lost any sense of restraint or moderation. They forget that writers were able to flourish in earlier ages where persecution and censorship was widespread. By contrast, writers face being ignored more than they face being persecuted. However, this was not always the case.
Liberal governments and repressive societies
The demand for and acceptance of freedom of speech is a relatively recent idea. The idea of free speech is not one that had complete or even extensive acceptance around the world. Even though states may sign up to its ideas as part of UN membership, many contain societies that only pay lip service to those ideas. In these cases, the government acts hesitantly or is passive when a writer is attacked or threatened. The government might act to track down the attackers but that is tempered by a societal willingness to accept cultural codes of behaviour will be enforced. In this behaviour, we see that the government condones persecution without officially sanctioning it.
A public domain safe for discussion is rare
What we find in these states is that instead of a government censor, the community is the censor. The state continues to be arbiter or judge as it does in the West without taking a strong position for the individual rights over the community’s wishes. The Western democracies have accepted religion and politics are separated and have made the public domain safe for citizens to criticise religion and the government. Other states have not followed this path even if they ascribe to liberal democratic principles. Thus, religion and traditions continue to play a dominant role in the public domain, which limit the right of freedom of speech as understood in the West.
Is it brave to act rashly in the face of threats?
In such a society, it would seem foolhardy to demand they display and encourage Western liberal democratic freedom of speech. The society has neither the western liberal democratic background nor culture that values individual rights and freedom of expression. However, some will consider these writers brave. I would suggest that they chose to be martyrs. They knew the risks and did not seek to moderate their writings. They could have continued to write and still discuss the issues they wanted to discuss. Instead, they chose an immoderate path by insisting society and culture change to accept their beliefs or at least tolerate their beliefs openly.
Persecution in the past did not stifle all writers
In the past, writers who faced such persecution found a way around it. To do this, though, they chose a moderate path. In liberal democratic societies, the moderation is imposed by other means. When faced with persecution, the ancient writers chose topics and styles that would avoid the censors. They wrote in a way that the community accepted their writings. What they used to avoid persecution was to write esoterically. In the West, writers have lost touch with this moderate writing as they are allowed to write openly and aggressively on all topics. They have no need to write moderately and yet they do write moderately. By contrast, the Bangladeshi writers needed to write moderately yet they chose an immoderate path. They confused rashness with bravery. What they failed to understand is that persecution need not stop the public expression of their views. As Leo Strauss argued, writers can escape persecution if they are willing to write carefully or between the lines
“Persecution cannot prevent even public expression of the heterodox truth, for a man of independent thought can utter his views in public and remain unharmed, provided he moves with circumspection. He can even utter them in print without incurring any danger, provided he is capable of writing between the lines.” PAW p. 490.
Do we encourage others to be brave so we can feel good about our freedoms?
Perhaps it is time for writers to revisit Leo Strauss’s work. There they can find an introduction into methods to avoid persecution. We can encourage states to defend freedom of speech yet it is our responsibility to encourage writers to act prudently in the face of threats. To encourage their immoderate behaviour seems to be irresponsible when other paths are available. We appear to encourage others to be martyrs for our beliefs so we feel better about our freedoms.
 http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/terrorism-security/2015/0227/Atheist-US-writer-killed-in-Bangladesh-familiar-attack-on-free-expression (accessed 23 April 2015) and http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-bangladesh-blogger-killed-20150330-story.html (accessed 23 April 2015)
 See for example George Packer’s article. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/13/mute-button (accessed 23 April 2015)
 http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo18692306.html (accessed 23 April 2015)
 http://thenewschoolhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/strauss_persecutionartwriting.pdf (accessed 23 April 2015) Strauss, Leo, Persecution and the Art of Writing , Social Research, 8:1/4 (1941) p.488-504
 http://straussonline.org/essay/on-a-forgotten-kind-of-writing/ (accessed 23 April 2015)