Freedom of Speech and the Charlie Hebdo

In early November 2011, the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo printed a caricature of the prophet Muhammad on its cover with the comment “100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter”. The publication also named the prophet “editor in chief” and renamed the magazine “Sharia Hebdo”  for its next issue, to ‘celebrate’ the victory of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party in the September election. The reaction to this: the paper’s offices were destroyed at the hands of enraged Islamists, resulting in the publication’s editor stating, “We no longer have a newspaper. All our equipment has been destroyed.”

The response to this attack has been varied with some voices in the world press insisting that the media has to remain respectful of pluralism in society, and that because the paper disrespected a major faith, they inevitably got what they deserved. Bruce Crumley, Time Magazine’s Paris correspondent, expressed little sympathy for Charlie Hebdo, stating that the magazine had “published another stupid and totally unnecessary issue mocking Islam”. Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, an assistant producer at France 24, lambasted the paper for “burgeoning anti-Muslim sentiment”.

However, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine which mocks all manner of people and institutions, from political leaders to Christianity, not only Islam. The paper is part of a long-standing anti-clerical satirical culture, in a nation that is proudly secular. The paper did not do this just to upset Muslims, but to make an important political point, that “No religion is compatible with democracy from the moment a political party representing it wants to take power in the name of God”. As the editor stated  “What would be the point of a religious party taking power if it didn’t apply its ideas?”

So we are left wondering if overzealous minorities within some religions have taken away the right to freedom of speech. After all, this is by no means the first irrational reaction of its kind.

The first major example that lingers in a lot of minds was the global outrage sparked in 1989 by Salman Rushdie’s now infamous novel The Satanic Verses. Similarly to Charlie Hebdo, the novel was considered by many Muslims to be an affront to the religion, and Rushdie was accused of blasphemy. The repercussions were unprecedented. Rushdie was forced into hiding as a fatwa ordering his death was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. The case of The Satanic Verses has greatly impacted on how freedom of expression has been viewed in our society thereafter. More recently, the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy caused uproar in 2005, where the prophet was depicted in 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper. The depiction of the prophet is strictly prohibited in certain strands of Islam, and the result of this publication was yet another violent storm of outrage worldwide.

Ironically, the radical religious reactions to such cases are self-defeating, resulting in more exposure to the offending items. This has been the outcome in all three episodes. Donations to revive Charlie Hebdo are now flooding in, the Danish cartoons were reprinted in more than 50 other countries, including in the Charlie Hebdo, to demonstrate solidarity, and The Satanic Verses became a worldwide bestseller.

So given these past cases, should the editors at Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten have still printed the offending material? Certainly the editors were courting controversy when they released these pieces, printing pictures that go against the beliefs of a religion, but the violence that ensued was disproportionate and unnecessary. As Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the minister of economy, stated: “You don’t negotiate the freedom of the press with bombs…If you are not happy with what’s in a newspaper, you take it to court”. Caving into the demands of the repressive few not only presents a serious threat to freedom of speech, it also grants legitimacy to a minority that is unrepresentative of their religion. The majority of religious believers in our country value freedom of expression, and would object to the hijacking of their religion by the actions of a violent handful. Thankfully, the editors of the Charlie Hebdo have not bowed to these pressures; the first issue that came out after the firebombing showed a Muslim man and a Charlie Hebdo writer kissing passionately. Writing from a liberal stance involves a certain amount of tolerance of intolerant people, but we must begin to question the extent to which we remain tolerant of atrocity if we want to avoid trapping ourselves in a Catch 22 situation.

Sedef Akademir and Helena Murphy

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