Charlie Hebdo & the importance of free expression.


For the most part, the response to the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week, has been one of staunch solidarity with the values that separate the civilised from the barbaric. The freedom to express ones thoughts and ideas, the right to criticise and satirise ideas, the rule of law; values that were attacked that day in the centre of Paris. This includes the freedom for religious folk to believe and express ideas that I myself find incredibly offensive. But every so often, we hear voices referring to themselves as liberal, or as progressives, making excuses for the violence whilst trying desperately to insist that they’re not making excuses for the violence. As the new edition of Charlie Hebdo went on sale this week, with a picture of Muhammad on the front, Sky News apologised for showing it live on air, and several commentators referred to it as needlessly ‘provoking‘ Muslims. The excuses tend to start with a line like “There can be no excuse for murder, but….” followed by a tirade of victim blaming. For example, Mehdi Hasan’s obscene article for the Huff Post here in which he begins by suggesting it is those who pronounce “Je suis Charlie” who are playing an “us vs them” game, and then himself goes on to play that very game far better than anyone else, by manipulatively implying that Charlie Hebdo focused entirely on Islam, when in reality it mocks the Pope often, Judaism, and Christianity, along with political figures across the World… Here:

“And why have you been so silent on the glaring double standards? Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark? Were you not aware that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would “provoke an outcry” and proudly declared it would “in no circumstances… publish Holocaust cartoons”?
Muslims, I guess, are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren.”

– He must have been asleep (or, as he puts it “so silent”) when Charlie Hebdo printed this:

charliehebdo5
– He must also not be aware that Catholic organisations have attempted to sue Charlie Hebdo on countless occasions for ‘offending’ them. So you see, contrary to Mehdi’s false game of us VS them, Islam is one in a list of ideas that Charlie Hebdo satirised. After this manipulation, Mehdi then proceeds to inform us that he isn’t sure why we’d feel the need to mock religions, but not the Holocaust. One being a 7th Century idea, the other being 6 million people murdered less than a century ago.

There are then several issues I take with the response outlined above. Firstly, I think it is vastly counter-productive. It implies that Islam is in some way different, and must be treated differently to other ideas, and that a protected space must be carved out specifically for one ideological framework of power (in this case, Islam), that no other system of belief is granted. That sort of subtle demand, is then backed by false narratives, like Mehdi’s. There was no anger or claims of racism when Charlie Hebdo mocked Catholicism. If Have I Got News For You mock conservatism, it isn’t usually followed by the suggestion that the show has ‘taken free speech too far’, nor Mehdi Hasan suggesting that Have I Got News For You should consider satirising 9/11 just for some balance. These ideas – Catholicism, conservatism, liberalism, Hinduism, capitalism – are all rightly granted no implied protection. Thus, they are considered on a level playing field, open as they should be, to criticism, mocking, and satire (despite the Pope’s bizarre insistence today that we shouldn’t ‘offend’ religious beliefs). There is no legitimate reason to protect religion – or a single religion – from the forms of criticism that all others are open to. It is in fact vital, that all religions – and in fact, ideas in general, be open to that criticism and mocking. Contrary to what detractors may assume – anti-Muslim hate (that is, the abuse of Muslims, the denial of rights, the demand for denial of equal rights, dehumanising) is not in any way to be compared with mocking the religion. One is violence aimed at human beings, the other is dis-empowering an ideological narrative, & system of morality. To conflate the two, is deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons, and the complete antithesis of secular, liberal inquiry and free expression.

In other words, it is not those of us who openly criticise, or mock Islam that create a taboo around that particular faith. On the contrary, we treat it like any other ideological framework of power. We do not seek to deny Muslims equal rights, we believe those who commit anti-Muslim hate, those who attack Mosques, are grotesque human beings lacking any sense of decency, and we will always defend equal rights & dignity for all, including Muslims. People deserve that, not ideas. Ideas must be open to critique and satire. It is those who seek to protect Islam from mockery (whilst themselves defending the freedom for the religious to continue to believe and express a belief in offensive ideas to the rest of us), that not only create a taboo out of the faith – hence, counter-productive – but also give credit to the extreme idea that one must be a little less forthcoming with our expression on one particular idea, if it might ‘offend’ believers in that one particular idea.

I would also suggest that it is a betrayal of those Muslim voices fighting for secular, liberal values, & free expression against a poisonous narrative within their faith, for liberals who should be on their side of the fight, instead choosing to give credit to the narrative on the extremes.

Secondly, it is a reflection of the authoritarian nature of a religion, when its followers suggest we should either unquestioningly respect the faith, or else keep quiet. Which, in turn, means it is vital that it be open to criticism and satire. If satirising that religion is even a matter of debate, it already has far too much power.

Indeed, your freedom to believe that non-believers are destined an eternity of violent torture in the pits of hell – alongside our apostate and LGBT friends – is my freedom to openly mock that ridiculous (and frankly, offensive) belief. The freedom for Mehdi Hasan to refer to believers as keeping the moral high ground, whilst non-believers as those who “live their lives as animals“, is my freedom to express a distinct lack of respect for that particular moral anchor. Any less, implies that your belief that I am morally lacking, to be eternally tortured, is deserving of a level of unquestioning respect, that my objection (however I express that objection) simply isn’t. Further, if your religion – or political ideal – in any way, extends beyond the individual, to the lives of others (be it non-believers, apostates, the LGBT community) – not only in belief, and writing, but also in practice in many countries on this planet – then it is absolutely vital that that religion be open to the same criticism and satire as every other system of oppression. Indeed, the greatest indicator that a religion so desperately requires being opened up to free expression in all its forms, is if it can result in your murder for doing so.

Islam – like Christianity – is a system of power, regardless of how it is framed by those seeking to protect it. When it has any sort of political power, it is oppressive. This is why it is vital to stand up for the necessity of free expression. But on a purely individual basis; if your religion insists that I am to be burned for eternity in hell for non-belief, then I’m afraid you’re not going to get away with telling me that it is I who is the one being ‘offensive’ for mocking that belief. The freedom to express one, is the freedom to express the other.

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6 Responses to Charlie Hebdo & the importance of free expression.

  1. Dave Day says:

    It would seem to me to be in bad taste to have cartoons about the holocaust, or to attend a march in support of Charlie Hebdo and wear a T-shirt with the name of one of the attackers on the front. It might also be argued that it is in ‘bad taste’ to mock any religion.

    However, the reason for the ridicule of various religions, especially Islam is not just that it is ridiculous… deserving of ridicule. No, it is not that it makes incredible claims, and should surely supply extraordinary evidence for those claims, but rather daringly offers either very bad evidence or none at all. This is not an issue for me, nor I imagine, any other non-believer in the religion of Islam.

    No, the issue is that a large minority of Muslims believe that I should believe this rubbish too, along with everyone else, and if we are not convinced by their rather pathetic reasonings as to why we should believe in their prophet, then we should ideally (in their minds) be forced to believe, or at least be forced to change our way of life to allow Muslims to run our world following their rules.

    This, in my mind, is the reason why cartoonists do what they do. They are not seeking in most cases to offend, but to point out how ridiculous religions are… some more so than others. Islamists also don’t seem to acknowledge the huge disparity between themselves and others when taking offence. Islamists seek to impose Sharia and the caliphate, so people write articles and draw cartoons because they find Islam and the actions of its followers offensive. Islamists murder innocent civilians out shopping, drawing cartoons, etc. and the majority of people respond by drawing cartoons and marching to demonstrate solidarity with those who were murdered. Government dispatches police and troops to protect Muslims and Mosques along with targets Islamists may seek to attack, such as Synogogues, schools, supermarkets and media offices.

    I think it’s way past time that some people understood that if a religion is good enough to seek to impose itself on others, it should be good enough to stand on its own two feet without special protection or consideration of any kind. If people think it’s ridiculous, then maybe it isn’t so good and shouldn’t be imposed on anyone. If you’re a Muslim and you find what people say about your religion offensive, then that’s your problem, not mine or anyone else’s… and I’m still waiting for you to make your point. “I’m offended!” does NOT constitute an argument!

  2. ptholome says:

    the problem is the manipulation of the minds religious radical muslim usually do. They interpret the Coran in the way they want. A religion who give the right to kill people deserve to be criticised… I understand their anger is they walk on the streets with a sign. Stop killing people in the prophet’s name… thereafter you can ask to stop publishing the images. this is the only right we have; the right to disagree. Not the right to kill.

    So I agree completely with this blog author’s text.

  3. Dave Day says:

    Ptholome, whilst it is true that every reader of any material, religious or otherwise, places their own interpretation on any text, it would not be true however to say that Islamists who resort to extolling, or practicing violence MISS-interpret the Koran. That argument does not stand up to scrutiny, and as a point is worthy, I think, of pointing out.

  4. John edser says:

    The central tenets of all religions are metaphorical so they cannot be taken or critiqued literally.

  5. I see no reason to suspect that the authors of Holy texts considered the stories to be metaphors rather than literal.

  6. Dave Day says:

    I have to agree that John’s comment seems slightly ridiculous. For instance, when religions call for the stoning to death of people for various crimes, I’m not sure how that can be considered metaphorical. There have been arguments in Islam about whether you should throw stones at victims, or tie them up and push a stone wall on top of them to kill them, but I haven’t heard much from even the most liberal Muslims about the metaphors in the Q’ran. Some Muslims follow the teachings very literally. Others reject the teachings and live their lives as secularists, broadly speaking, but I haven’t heard this teaching about how the Q’ran, or any of its teachings are just a metaphor. Maybe, John, you could direct us to those Muslims that share your point of view?!

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