Je Suis Charlie: Is freedom of speech worth dying for? Is antipathy worth killing for?

Je-suis-CharlieBy LSS member Jay Marshall


“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

― Thomas Paine

The French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo had attracted attention in recent times for its depictions of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, and it had caused a good deal of controversy.

On 7 January 2015 two masked men attacked the magazine’s offices. The assailants were armed (with weapons including an AK47 assault rifle). They killed twelve people, including the magazine’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier and two police officers. They injured eleven people.

The killers shouted “Allahu Akbar”. This is the “Takbir” of Islam and it translates as “God is [the] greatest” or “God is great”.

Over the course of a couple of days other attacks were committed around Paris including one at a Kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes.

In the wake of these events which shook the world, there have been a number of gatherings and protests in many western states all under the banner of the slogan “Je Suis Charlie”, openly showing disgust at the attacks, glorifying the right to freedom of speech, and lionising the magazine Charlie Hebdo.

However, certain Islamic states, such as Iran, have openly condemned Charlie Hebdo, claiming that the prevention of blasphemy is more important than freedom of speech. What can we learn from all this?

Freedom of speech and expression, or freedom from it?

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

― Source unclear, often misattributed to Voltaire

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

― Salman Rushdie

What is freedom of speech and expression? It is a freedom which dates back as far as the Roman Republic. It is the right of an individual to express and communicate their opinions whether verbally or materially.

It is not absolute. Like all rights there are limitations – such as when an opinion turns into hate speech or some form of threat which impedes other people’s rights. What we need to ask ourselves, then, is: does offensive material count as hate speech?

Winston Churchill once witted, “some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage”. Opinions, whether they are critical or comical, are by their nature targeted to an audience. But if you don’t like those opinions because they contradict your own views or offend you, does that mean you have the right to silence them? I should think not. Let’s make some distinctions.

There are three individuals called A, B and C.

Person A says, “I don’t like The Fried Chicken Shop. The food they sell is disgusting.”

Person B says, “The Fried Chicken Shop causes people to get AIDS.”

Person C says, “I’m going to blow up the Fried Chicken Shop.”

Person A has the right to say what he says, as it is his opinion and it is harmless. If someone is upset by it, so what?

Person B has made a speculative statement, which is potentially defaming another. If The Fried Chicken Shop does actually cause people to get AIDS he would have a valid legal defence.

Person C has made a statement of his future intentions which are violently threatening his potential victim’s rights.

So therefore persons B and C don’t have the right to make their statements without some form of legal consequence.

Now this distinction has been made, let’s look at it in the context of Charlie Hebdo. Whether the magazine intended to cause offence, or actually caused offence, quickly becomes completely irrelevant to the question of whether they should be allowed to print their publications. There is no evidence that the magazine ever displayed articles which threatened Muslims in any shape or form. I don’t know whether Charlie Hebdo have ever defamed anyone, but even if they have, the legal remedies would not have involved an AK47. However, the attackers most certainly breached the rights of the people they murdered and injured.

Funny papers, or troublemakers?

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”

― Christopher Hitchens

“The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it.”

― Professor Brian Cox

We have established that Charlie Hebdo had the right to print its images of Mohammed. The next question which needs to be asked is whether they should have printed them.

Some have argued that they shouldn’t have been putting up such images in the first place as they were, in essence, “asking for it” – especially when they released a picture of the prophet Mohammed sobbing whilst saying “C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons” (“It’s hard being loved by jerks”).

We have stumbled into a world where criticism and even mockery of political, economic and other ideas is absolutely fine, whereas criticism or mockery of religion (which is simply another set of ideas) has some form of impunity. Criticism or mockery of religion is seen somehow as improper, disrespectful or “offensive”.

Karl Marx said in the introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Criticism of religion has plucked the flowers from the chain, not in order that man shall continue to bear the chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he will cast off the chain and pluck the living flower”.

The freedom to critique ideas, whatever they may be, and however offensive some people might find it, is just as important now as it has ever been. A troublemaker or a contrarian is simply someone by nature who doesn’t follow with the consensus of the general population unless there is reason to. So the magazine may well be both troublemaker and a funny paper. The magazine staff were well aware of the risks of their endeavours; a fire-bombing of their offices in 2011 having failed to deter them from depicting Mohammed. They clearly held strong beliefs, and they had every right to continue challenging the status quo.

The magazine had a clear right to depict the images – and there is no onus on them or their supporters to justify the decision to do so. The onus of proof is on others to explain why they shouldn’t.

Good Muslims, or terrorists?

“Democracy is in the blood of Musalmans, who look upon complete equality of manhood and believe in fraternity, equality and liberty.”

― Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan

“I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”

― Qur’an (8:12)

What is a good Muslim? When you ask most westernised Muslims this question they might say things such as remembering to be good to others, to be humble and modest, to value everything we have in life, and to recognise the existence of Allah, whose power is beyond our imagining and whose prophet is Mohammed. If you ask whether they believe apostates ought to be killed, many might automatically say “no”, even though one can find justification in the Qur’an for doing so.

If you were to ask a more radical Muslim what their idea of a good Muslim is, they might say to remember that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, and that every word is to be taken as truth, otherwise it mocks Allah. If you were to ask a radical Muslim if apostates ought to be killed, they might say “If it is Allah’s word, my opinion doesn’t matter”.

Cherif and Said Kouachi were the two assailants that attacked the Charlie Hebdo building. Both have been linked to participation in jihadi operations and organisations. But here’s the issue: were they devoted Muslims? Or were they just thugs looking for an excuse? Or is Islam itself violent in its nature?

Well, there can be no denying that they were devout to their faith, as it is part of jihadi fundamentalism to be willing to dedicate (potentially even give) your life to destroying ‘The West’ for global reformation and to proselytise Islam. To say that they were just monsters that wanted an excuse to kill already brings an assumption that people by nature desire the death of others. This kind of view can be just as dangerous as theirs, as the method of dehumanising the assailants only draws out the violent nature in people’s minds which makes them demand vengeance. It also demands the question, if all they wanted was to kill, why is a religious excuse necessary?

Which brings us to the final question: is Islam a violent religion? It is fair to say that Islam does provide a justification for violence in the Haddith and in the Qur’an; however violence is not unique to Islam. All the Abrahamic faiths have some justification for violence and other crimes in their holy books. Today, though, their scriptures don’t tend to be applied at the point of an AK47.

Sit in silence, or cause a fuss?

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

― John F. Kennedy

“Despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle.”

― Vladimir Ilich Lenin

What can we learn from this travesty? It is apparent that France’s secular policies are undoubtedly effective and upstanding. They show that government and politics are far more operative without religious affiliations. But what should the legacy of the Charlie Hebdo shootings be? Those working for Charlie Hebdo are not afraid of speaking up for themselves. They’re not afraid to express their views whatever the intimidation and indeed the consequences. They have tremendous courage. Maybe we all ought to follow in their example and begin to stand up for what we believe in. We should learn never to put up with hate and intolerance, and we should challenge any views we want to. We should learn to think for ourselves.

But mostly, we should consider just how important secularism is, as a way of bringing religious ideologies and religious practices firmly within the bounds of criticism and scrutiny. The essential ingredient for that task is free speech – and plenty of it.

“I am not afraid of retaliation. I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”

― Stéphane Charbonnier

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS. You can follow Jay Marshall on Twitter @j4ymarshall

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