Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Speech

Charlie Hebdo Cover, 14 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo Cover, 14 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo has come out with their first issue since their offices were so brutally attacked by Muslim fundamentalist terrorists. Unsurprisingly, they took an unrepentant tone.

When the cover image was first released to the press, I heard a brief interview on the BBC World Service with a Muslim cleric who said that while he was not overly offended by the cartoon on the cover, he wished that they had chosen for the sign to read, “Je suis Ahmed,” honoring the Muslim French-Arab police officer who died defending people who had insulted his prophet and his religion. I can appreciate his desire to honor Ahmed Merabet, but I think he misses the point.

In my opinion, the point is that murder is an offense against most believers in all major religions, including Islam, and that (therefore) Muhammad would have stood against the Charlie Hebdo attackers. It also makes a strong statement that despite threats and attacks, the magazine will continue to stand up for its right to free speech, including the freedom to offend.

There is a further question here: how do we know that this is a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad? With the turban and the Semitic features, it is pretty clear that his is a male Arab, but unless you know from another source that this is meant to be any one person (living or historical), that’s really all you know. Yes, considering Charlie Hebdo’s history, a guess that it is intended to be Mohammed is likely to be accurate, but anyone viewing it needs to keep in mind that (unless informed otherwise by the artist) they are making an assumption.

To add one final point, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are intertwined (which may be a part of the reason that the first US Congress confirmed them together in the same amendment). The same freedom of expression that allows you to practice your religion gives me the right to insult it and, in turn, gives you the right to peacefully protest that insult. In that context, from what I have heard, many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons said to be depicting Muhammad have been childish, pornographic, racist, and Islamophobic, and made no real comment on Islam but instead set out to needlessly offend Muslims. That said, the editors of Charlie Hebdo were well within their rights to publish that material, just as people would be within their rights to peacefully protest them for it. To take away one of those rights is to take away them all.

Were people to surrender the right to free speech, the question immediately raised (but usually not discussed) is to whom would they surrender the right? I would rather not surrender my rights to freedom of press, speech, religion, assembly, and petition to anyone, but would be particularly offended at having Pat Robertson monitor the same for me. Likewise, a conservative might take particular offense at having Hillary Clinton monitor their freedoms of expression. This is not a small issue. We often forget that whenever rights are restricted, there will be somebody managing those restrictions, and that person or organization will have their own agenda, one that will influence what is discussed in the political dialogue. So, while I may consider so many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons offensive and childish, I will speak up for the right of the publisher to print them.


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