Some thoughts on insulting sanctities and how it relates to free speech:

Firstly, just to get this out of the way: what that man did in Paris is not sanctioned by Islamic sharia. And this is not a new age hippie sharia I am referring to but conventional Islamic jurisprudence.
Having said that, why is there such an aversion in the Islamic tradition, to insulting sanctities?

What's the big deal about a cartoon caricaturising the Prophet?

It's just a cartoon, after all. Right?
The short answer is no.

Insulting sanctities is not a light or trivial matter. Whether it is a cartoon mocking the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) or a degenerate artist whose idea of "art" is to place the likeness of Jesus (pbuh) into a vat of urine.

These are both heavy offenses.

Prophets of God are universal paragons of morals, virtue, and justice. By trying to demean these holy personalities, in effect what someone is doing is rejecting the very notion of ethics / morals.

You cannot stand for ethics and then demean the personification of ethics.
This is why those who are inclined towards making such caricatures or crass gestures towards sanctities, are generally rather ill-mannered. Their inclination toward demeaning holy persons is rooted in their contempt for the morals and virtues which these personalities upheld.
So... where does free speech fit into all of this?

Well for one, there is a difference between academic realm, and the realm of altering and manipulating public discourse through cheap methods.

e.g. my country is Iran. Uh oh. Very strict Islamic law-governed country, no? Well..
You walk into a book store and all the books by all the atheist European thinkers are there. Freud, Marx, Hume, Nietzsche, Russell, etc. etc.

You will find far more of these in Iran than you would ever find Molla Sadra or Farabi, in your typical American or European book store.
And this is not just limited to dead European thinkers, either.

There was a well-known Iranian "intellectual" in the 20th century named Ahmad Kasravi, who made some very serious and heavy criticisms of our sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq (pbuh).
All Muslims have a deep respect for Imam Sadiq (pbuh), but for the Twelver Shia school of thought (which the majority of Iranian people belong to), he is believed to be infallible. So a statement against him is akin to a statement against the Prophet.
Nonetheless, walk into any bookstore in the Islamic Republic of Iran and you are guaranteed to find some books of Mr. Kasravi.

And I imagine it is similar in most Islamic societies. I am only using examples from Iran because this is what I am familiar with.
So... What is the difference between the academic realm and other realm? Why this distinction? Why is there more room for so-called "free speech" in one, than the other?

The academic realm is (ideally, anyway) a realm of the exchange of ideas based on reason and logical proofs.
There is a need for openness in this process.

However, political cartoons, popular TV shows, etc., are a means of bypassing that process entirely and poisoning public discourse without even having to use logical proofs or engaging in intellectual discussions.
Be very wary of anyone who says "nothing is sacred." Such a person is either lost, or he is totally committed to falsehood and to imparting falsehood upon others.

The role of sanctities in human society is to serve as a model for how we must live; how we must conduct ourselves.
Without these sanctities, what exactly are we doing?

If nothing is sacred - not even the holy personages of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), of Jesus (pbuh), and the like - then what are the boundaries? What is the framework for correct human ethics and morals?

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