Thursday, 5 February 2015

Je Suis Charlie and the Freedom of Speech

Events of January 2015
On the morning of 7 January 2015 three masked men armed with automatic rifles stormed the offices of the French Satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo killing 12 and injuring another 11. After shooting an injured police officer at point blank range they then escaped by car. The incident itself, and the aftermath over the next two days played out in a manner reminiscent of a Hollywood movie. As well as this brazen attack, a police officer in the Paris suburb of Montrouge was also shot before the perpetrator, Amedy Coulibaly, stormed the Jewish Hypercacher supermarket and held staff and customers hostage. After the police stormed the supermarket four of the customers, one police officer, and Coulibaly, were dead.
The perpetrators of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi fled to the north-east, stealing a second vehicle after their getaway car was involved in an accident. They then proceeded to rob a service station before taking refuge in a signage company, Création Tendance Découverte, in the village of Dammartin-en-Goële. The siege lasted eight to nine hours before the brothers attempted to flee and were killed in the ensuing gun battle.
In a way, over these three days, it appeared that all hell had broken lose in France, and despite initially storming the wrong address (while the offices were located at number 10 Rue Nicolas-Appert, the first address they stormed, number 6 Rue Nicolas-Appert, was the location of the archives), the initial attack, and the ensuring chaos involving Amedy Coulibaly, suggests that this was a well orchestrated event.

Who in Charlie Hebdo?
Charlie Hebdo is a weekly French satirical magazine in which nothing is sacred. In effect anything and everything is a target. The name originated from a comics magazine named Charlie Mensuel, in which the cartoon Charlie Brown was published. Hebdo is short for hebdomadaire, which is French for weekly.
The magazine first appeared in 1960 under the name Hari-Kiri. During these early years the magazine was banned twice due to controversial articles, briefly in 1961 and for six months in 1966. However, in 1970, after the death of President Charles de Gaulle and a fire at a nightclub Club Cinq-Sept, which left 147 people dead, the magazine produced a satirical edition mocking the main-stream press' coverage. As a result Hari-Kiri was banned. Side stepping the ban the authors released a new magazine entitled Charlie Hebdo. However, in 1981 Charlie Hebdo ceased publication due to a decline in circulation.
The magazine resurfaced in 1992 after the original editorial staff got together to work on a project in reaction to the First Gulf War. Initially Charlie Hebdo was launched too much anticipation selling 100 000 copies of the first edition. However the magazine had not been without controversy in these early days, with writers being sacked after protests against cartoons suggesting the Palestinians were uncivilised and accusations of anti-semitism. However, the current controversy arose from a publication in 2006 in which included a picture of Mohummed on the cover bemoaning extremist Islam. This resulted in a number of Muslim organisations suing the publication, as well as a stiff rebuke from the then president Jacques Chirac.
The current controversy arose from later editions depicting caricatures of the Prophet Mohummed, including a cover in which the prophet declares '100 lashes to those who don't die laughing'. This resulted in a bombing of the offices in 2011, and in 2012 security was tightened around a number of French embassies, and the offices of Charlie Hebdo, after the release of a film called 'The Innocence of Muslims'
Of course this all of this can be found on Wikipedia, and the attacks are common knowledge, but I felt that the background is important when considering the question of freedom of speech, and its limitations.

Freedom of Speech
It is clear that there is a debate about whether the publication was wise in its use of the caricatures. White House press Secretary Jay Carney said 'a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad, and obviously, we have questions about the judgement of publishing something like this' while the French Foreign minister said 'In France, there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined'. Thus the question arises as to whether there should be limitations on freedom of speech.
In reality there is. There are certain things that we cannot say or print. For instance the law of defamation and libel clearly provide civil penalties for publications that are simply not true. We cannot say what we want about people that will undermine their character unless there is truth behind that statement. Then there is also hate speech and we cannot incite people to commit illegal acts.
However, this is where the debate arises. Early in the 2015 Queensland Election campaign, a man that goes by the twitter handle @can_do_campbell was arrested after standing next to some campaigners wearing an 'I'm with stupid' T-shirt. Ironically this occurred a day after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Mind you, it is not the first time @can_do_campbell has caught the attention of the media, with questions as to whether he could actually use such an account. The media even used statements such as 'Fake Twitter account'. While I don't use Twitter myself, I do have questions as to their response to this particular account. Is it not that case that his handle is satire, and when he was arrested in Brisbane was he actually committing a crime? The charge was 'causing a public disturbance', but could it not also be the case that by standing there he is making a political comment, and is it not the case, especially in Australia, that we have the implied freedom of political speech? Of course he was released, and the court hearing had not been scheduled until after the Queensland election, but it is once again a case in point - to what extent do we have freedom of speech, and to what extent can this freedom be curtailed?

The right to cause offence?
So, considering the above, the next issue that arises is whether we have the right to offend other people. Since I am not a Muslim it is difficult for me to understand their reaction to caricatures of the Prophet, however when I did speak to a Muslim friend about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, his response was that he was horrified about the events in Paris, yet was also deeply offended at people's portrayal of the Prophet. His words where 'why don't they leave the Prophet alone?'
As a Christian, I must admit that there are images of Jesus that I find deeply offensive, and that there are also caricatures of the Christian God that I find quite offensive as well. However, surprisingly, most of what causes me offence is the actions of some people who claim to be Christian. On the other hand there are images from American pop-culture at which I simply cannot help but laugh. For instance, Jesus was a semi-regular feature on Family Guy (particularly their spoof of The Passion of the Christ, entitled 'Passion of the Christ II - Crucify This').

You can even meet God on Facebook, who also goes under the Twitter Handle of @TheGoodGodAbove. I must admit that I do follow him on Facebook (and am really interested in knowing the person behind him, especially since he has something like 1.6 million followers and seems to be able to easily handle himself in debates) and despite the fact that I don't agree with everything that he posts, it is still quite amusing to see what new commandment he comes up with from time to time.
Yet while I don't take all that much offence at some of these caricatures, there are a lot of people who do, and sometimes I do not think the statement 'toughen up and get over it' is the best response to these people. However, we must also remember that we do live in a society where freedom of speech is sacrosanct, and despite the limitations above, we must be prepared to accept that people are going to say and do things that cause offence.

Response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks
I am sure many of us have heard the saying 'violence never solves anything' and in many cases that is true, and this is moreso when we look at the response to the brutal massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. On the day of the attacks there were mass world-wide vigils to remember those who were killed, which culminated in a march by over a million people through the streets of Paris. Okay, while I might not have agreed with what Charlie Hebdo was publishing, it is clear that these attacks had the completely opposite effect. Granted, many of these extremists come from countries where they live under a dictatorship that controls the population through the use of thought police. I see this with people who come from some of these countries who live in fear even though they are thousands of miles away. In many cases they have family back home and if the wrong thing gets out their family could be in danger.
However that is not the case here in the Western World. We have grown up being free to express ourselves, and even though at times governments attempt to limit our freedoms we do not live in fear of repercussions based on what we say, do, or publish (as long as they are within certain limitations). To us, if the government seeks to curtail our rights or limit our freedoms we get out onto the streets and we protest, and while some protests turn violent and the police use tear gas to attempt to keep order, in the end we have the freedom to stand up to the government.

The events of January 7th made me wonder whether these acts of violence are committed in an attempt to limit offence through fear and intimidation since the perpetrator's understanding is that fear and intimidation works. Clearly this has not worked the way they had intended. Instead it has had completely the opposite effect. We Westerners have grown up in a world were we will not submit to fear and intimidation, but rather respond otherwise. Not only have the world-wide vigils demonstrated that we are all willing to stand with those who were slain, but the plethora of cartoons and caricatures that have appeared in the days after have demonstrated that not only that we will stand up to intimidation, but we will continue to do so all the more.

Criticisms of Charlie Hebdo
While there was solidarity over the horror of the attacks, and a general consensus that this is not how one responds to offence, not everybody actually supported Charlie Hebdo, and were willing to criticise the magazine for the publications that led them to this point. Look, I am not suggesting anybody actually said 'it serves them right' - I personally don't think so - but they still were willing to say that they did not necessarily agree with what they were publishing. Pope Frances said that the publication 'went too far' and that 'you cannot insult another person's faith'. However, he also backed this statement up by saying that it was an aberration to kill in the name of God.
David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times was also quick to point out that while we were all jumping up and crying Je Suis Charlie in reality many of us would actually be quite offended at what they were writing. He then goes on to point out that lecturers have been sacked and groups banned from university campuses for taking intolerant positions, and that if Charlie Hebdo were published on such a campus it would not last all that long before a barrage of complaints brought it to an end. He is also right when he suggests that a lot of offence that Charlie Hebdo published is the type of stuff that we find funny as teenagers, and that when we become adults we begin to take a different approach.
Joe Sacco, in the Guardian, produced his own series of cartoons questioning the limits of satire, and also questioning the line between satire and offence. Why, he asks, is it okay to offend Muslims, but it is not okay to offend Jews or African Americans? Why don't we show the same respect to Muslims that we do to others, and learn to hold our tongue? Jacob Canfield, in the Hooded Utilitarian, points out correctly that while we should condemn the attacks, it does not necessarily mean that we should respond by doing more of what Charlie Hebdo was doing. Yes, it was satire, but it was also puerile and offensive. However, it is also interesting to note that despite all of the claims in support freedom of speech, a teenager was jailed for the offence of supporting terrorism by posting a Charlie Hebdo cartoon on Facebook (sorry that the link is in French, but it is the closest that I could get for a legitimate source).

Is religion violent?
I would like to say no, but unfortunately that is not the case. For centuries religious authorities, even in the West, have used fear and intimidation to maintain the status quo. For instance the Catholic Church went to great lengths to attempt to silence Martin Luther who wrote a series of tracts criticising the established church of the day. William Tyndale was executed for the crime of blasphemy simply because he translated the Bible into the common tongue. However, Christianity has not always been a dominant religion, for when it was a fledgling cult, they suffered the full brunt of the Roman authority. The problem with religion is that it is an ideology, and ideologies tend to be very dogmatic in their world view in that when things arise to challenge that ideology conflict will inevitably occur.
The examples listed above were not necessarily a challenge against an established ideology, but rather a challenge against the status quo. William Tyndale was executed because by translating the Bible into the common tongue meant that ordinary people could have access to its teachings, which would have the effect of undermining the power of the church. However, while Galileo and Copernicus died of natural causes, their works were not accepted by the Catholic Church and were placed on the list of banned books as they were considered to be contrary to scripture.
However, it is interesting that some have suggested that Atheists aren't violent and do not commit acts of terrorism, I would have to suggest otherwise. For instance, the League of Militant Atheists was an organisation that developed in Soviet Russia, and there are some instances of other organisations committing attacks against religious institutions. However, what the events of January 7th have cemented is the idea that religion is violent, and that challenges to one's ideology will result in violent repercussions.
Yet is it also the case that freedom of speech should also allow those of us who are religious to be able to practice our religion in freedom? Should those of us who are peaceful, and who do not wish to cause harm to our fellow humans live in fear of being attacked and incarcerated? What if we start of find our churches being bombed, or our faith violently attacked by those who do not agree? What if we are silenced because of our religious convictions? While I do believe that Richard Dawkins and the like are entitled to their views, if their opinion gains the ascendancy and they ban religion all together due to its perceived violent nature what does that mean?
Me, if that were to happen then that only has one meaning - the terrorists who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo have won. Our freedom of speech and our liberty have been curtailed, and those who died, in the end, have died for nothing.

Creative Commons License
Je Suis Charlie and the Freedom of Speech by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
All images on this post are © and/or ™ their relevant owners. If you are the owner of any of the images used on this website and wish them to be removed then please contact me.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: (c) Lucille Clerc 2015 Bored Panda
Le Nouveau gourvernment: (c) Charlie Hebdo 2010 Impression Graphique 
Family Guy Jesus: (c) Twentieth Century Fox 1999
To Arms: (c) Engin Yildiz 2015 Blackbook
Protesters in Pitsburg: use permitted under Creative Commons attribution-share alike unported 2.0

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