Editor's Pick

Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Speech?

View From a French

On January 7th, 2015, at 11.30am, two masked gunmen entered the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing eleven and wounding at least another eleven people. Among the victims were some of France’s best known cartoonists and a police officer who was in charge of the editorial team’s protection. During their escape, the terrorists killed another officer after shooting him in the head at point-blank range. And two days later, after taking a hostage in Danmartin-en-Goele, a town about 50 kilometers northeast of Paris, followed by a tense stand-off with the police, the two brothers suspected of the Charlie Hebdo attack were killed, and the hostage they were holding was freed.

This was the worst terrorist incident in France in forty years. The French president, Francois Hollande, declared the next day a day of national mourning for the country, and millions of people took to the streets days after. Meanwhile in cyberspace, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie became one of the most popular in the social network’s history. And as people around the world are currently commemorating the martyrdom of the French cartoonists for the right to draw and express, France is starting a new chapter in its fight against terrorism, and most importantly, in its identity as an increasingly diverse nation.

Before I changed my Facebook profile picture to the viral picture with Je Suis Charlie on it, I did think hard about the choice I wanted to make. In recent times, the integration of the Muslim community into French society has been flooded with tensions and animosity because of the huge fear of the cultural change that the crowds of Muslim immigrants bring to this predominantly Christian country. Even from my own perspective as a French Christian, I believe that the average Muslim person in France would face much more discrimination than I would for practicing our respective faiths (simply by looking at the numbers, there’s only an 8% Muslim population in France, while the average French citizen believes the number to be 31%). Consequently, the cartoons that insulted various aspects of Islam had a far too deleterious potential on the already fragile relationship between the different groups of French society. Thus in my opinion, these cartoons should not have been published. That is not to say that I am not a firm advocate for freedom of speech. Indeed, it is one of the most precious rights that democracies can benefit from. However, I do also believe that freedom comes with responsibility. In an increasingly interconnected world, in which people from all kinds of backgrounds become neighbors, we have more responsibility than ever of how our words affect the people around us. Therefore, the editorial team at Charlie Hebdo abused their right to freedom of expression, as they showed irresponsibility of their own right in publishing cartoons that have already dangerously aggravated the delicate relationship between Muslims and the wider French community. They shouldn’t have turned into demagogues, risking starting a conflagration throughout French society just to sell a few more copies of their magazine. It is only after France will have shown the pacifist Muslims that the practice of their religion is fully accepted and respected among its society that drawing satire against them will not have the many repercussions it has today. I would have only asked the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo to wait until the oil has gone before playing with matches.

Hence, my most feared repercussion of this event is that it will deepen the animosity that already exists in France between the Muslim community and the wider French society. Although some Parisians did imitate the Australian reaction to a terrorist hostage-taking crisis in mid-December 2014 by offering to travel with Muslims afraid of using public transport with their traditional clothing, the focus of the aftermath of the attack among French politicians, journalists and cartoonists alike, has been a depiction of the pen being at war with the gun. The promotion of authentic harmony between all French people has been dangerously overlooked. Yet this is the hardest challenge France will have to face many years after this event. In spite of the strong disapproval of Muslim extremists in France and throughout the world of such acts of terror, it is very likely that the French people, in looking for someone to blame for all these events, will name the French Muslim community as the scapegoat and associate the terrorists with the everyday peaceful believers. Unfortunately, in many ways, this twisted ideology has happened: Dozens of Muslim Mosques across France and the European world has been firebombed or otherwise attacked in the recent days, and in response many Muslim nations have begun attacking the Christian Churches in their nations, creating an endless cycle of violence. It is critical that France works to prevent this. Otherwise, fear of an inherently pacifist religion will proliferate, and the integration of Islam into French society will become impossible. In the end it’s the French Muslim community who would pay a heavy and unjustified price for their beliefs. This will incite fundamentalism to thrive among the French Muslims as they try to give an answer their hardships, which will arouse the common anti-West sentiment and inflame the Muslim communities across the world, providing what the terrorists have always wanted: instability and hatred. And by then, France’s war on terror will be lost, and the world will be involved in another religious firestorm.

Going back to that profile picture of mine. I did change my picture to the Je Suis Charlie one, not because I appreciate what they published, because I look up to Charlie Hebdo’s innate stance against terrorism for ideals they have stood for. I am against the terrorist’s aims to censor conversations through terror or death threats, just like the Editor Team at Charlie Hebdo. However, we have to use our voices in a responsible and productive way to work united humanity towards ending the proliferation of terrorism and promoting understanding between people of all religions.

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