Charlie Hebdo, free speech and peacemaking

February 6th, 2015

The French 9/11?

On January 7, 2015, two gunmen stormed into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, France, and killed 12 people, many of them cartoonists who had drawn cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad. The attacks were followed by two days of terror, as the gunmen were at large and robbing and killing as they went until they were surrounded by police in a print office and then killed. Some commentators compared this attack and the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. They were coordinated, specific and, for many Parisians, brought violence to a place they used to think of as safe from terrorism.

Other resemblances to 9/11 were evident in responses to the attack from around the world. Just as a September 12, 2001, headline in Le Monde, a French newspaper, declared, “We Are All Americans,” so the phrase “We Are Charlie Hebdo” became the rallying cry at a march that took place on January 11. Over two million people demonstrated together on that day, including many world leaders.

Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden attended the rally and received a great deal of criticism for not doing so. In fact, the White House issued an apology for not sending an official higher than the ambassador, saying security was a concern at the hastily planned event. Certainly, the questions surrounding the attendance or nonattendance of certain leaders did not take away from the power of such a large display of solidarity.

Free speech versus religious dignity

The glaring issues illuminated by the attack are the issues of freedom of expression versus respect for religious belief. Charlie Hebdo published an issue just days after the attack, which they called the “survivors’ issue.” The cover showed a Muslim man, presumably the prophet Muhammad, weeping and holding a sign that says, “I Am Charlie.” The caption above the picture says, “All Is Forgiven.” It is poignant and provocative.

Demonstrations by those who were offended by the cover of the magazine “turned violent in Algeria, Pakistan and Niger, where at least two Christian churches were set on fire.” In a sense, this is a continuation of the violence experienced in Paris on January 7, which was purportedly sparked by outrage over the magazine’s previous depictions of Muhammad. Therefore, the cover art on the issue immediately following the attack was not only poignant and provocative, but it was also defiant.

And France’s president, Francois Hollande, wouldn’t have it any other way. “France has principles and values, in particular freedom of expression,” Hollande said. He characterized those who protest Charlie Hebdo as unaware of how highly France values freedom of expression.

For many, particularly in the West, the emphasis has been on freedom of expression. In a blog post for Psychology Today, Izzy Kalman uses the attack as an opportunity to talk about the ways in which free speech is hindered in the United States. “The U.S. has been passing increasingly restrictive and punitive laws against offensive speech,” Kalman writes. He calls free speech an essential part of democracy and lists societal ills from the past, including slavery, that were ended as examples of free speech in action.

Francois Hollande would seem to agree with Kalman, but Pope Francis does not. The Pope made comments about the attack and the latest Charlie Hebdo cover, saying, “There is a limit. . . . Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” He further explained that violence in the name of God is an “aberration,” but it may be likely to happen when one insults the deeply held beliefs of another.

In an opinion piece for USA Today, DeWayne Wickham agrees with the Pope. He likens Charlie Hebdo’s continued satire of Islam and other faiths to the hypothetical crying “fire” in a crowded theater, cited in a 1919 Supreme Court decision as a “clear and present danger,” and therefore not protected as free speech. If it was not in this category before, Wickham argues, it definitely is now.

It is clear that even though Izzy Kalman and others decry the limitations they perceive on the freedom of speech, in practice, there are limits in place, even in France. Questions have emerged about the French government’s commitment to free speech because of the way the government reacted to the attacks. CBS News reports that French authorities cracked down on people accused of spreading hate speech and defending the attacks. Also, a French comedian known for pushing the envelope of free speech was arrested for racist and anti-Semitic remarks.

Responses from around the world

The attack on Charlie Hebdo evoked strong responses around the world. In Paris and other cities, there were marches to express solidarity for those who were killed and the freedom of expression the magazine represents. In other parts of the world, demonstrations were held to protest the disrespect inherent in violating a sacred rule in the name of satire.

“They force their world view onto us: ‘We are the arrogant West and you Muslims have to accept our world view, you have to accept our freedoms … to insult your prophet,’ ” Sufyan Badar, a speaker at a protest in Australia, said. This statement reveals a bit of the underlying tensions inherent in the attack, which, in the Muslim world, go beyond freedom of speech. Some with that worldview believe that the West is attempting to impose cultural values on others. Also, some writers have pointed out that behind the free speech rhetoric of the West may be hatred or fear of Muslims. Indeed, a January 18 article in The Christian Science Monitor challenged the Western notion that the attacks were just about free speech. The author, Robert Marquand, traces the proliferation of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad to Denmark, “where a darkly racist politics arose, stoked by its most important daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten (JP), more than five years prior to its own 2005 publication of 12 cartoons of the prophet.”

Marquand says that there began to be a “clash of civilization” mindset, which focused its criticism on Islam more than anything else. When negative reactions arose, it became an issue of free speech in the West. In the Muslim world, the underlying Islamophobia was apparent.

Marquand’s article is interesting in that it begins to uncover a bigger picture that certainly doesn’t excuse the violence that occurred in Paris but might, in some ways, give a clearer explanation of its origins. By understanding the underlying ideologies of these horrific acts, we might begin to root out the mistrust and hatred that launches a descent into violence.

“Happy are people who make peace”

Irshad Manji is a writer who has called for reform in Islam, particularly in the way women are treated, the ways Jews are vilified, and the ways the Koran is interpreted literally in some corners of the religion. She points out that “there are many reasons for why something like this crime could’ve happened. Not the least of which is that, you know, these young men, who were petty criminals to begin with, had become hardened and calcified by a much older man who gave them a narrative that, you know, suggested that the world is out of control.”

Even though she admits the attacks are a setback for Muslims in Europe, she feels optimistic about the future. “If we remember to look for the hope rather than simply ingesting what’s in the headlines, we’ll find that … these crimes … are actually the exceptions, not the rule.” In order to be peacemakers, as Jesus calls us to be in Matthew 5:9, it would be good to remember Manji’s words and “look for the hope” while working to understand and challenge the underlying causes of violence and fear. Also, as Pope Francis and other religious leaders have done, perhaps we ought to use the opportunity presented by these horrific attacks to advocate for respect for the dignity of all religions.


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