This appeared in Republica on January 13, 2015.
The recent attack on Charlie Hebdo and killing of 12 journalists has provoked intense debate on the limits of freedom of expression. While a civilized society can never condone the taking of human lives, incident at Charlie Hebdo is not as simple as it appears.
That Charlie Hebdo lampooned one and all without discrimination is partially true. In recent years, the weekly was disproportionately irreverent against Muslims who comprise just seven percent of the French population. It misused the name of free expression to toe the French far-right party National Front’s line in ridiculing the minorities. It had been giving voice to the deep-seated fear of the majority against the surging number of immigrants. Some cartoons showed pregnant Muslim women crying for their welfare rights, the underlying meaning being that they drain French resources by producing many babies. This bordered on hate speech against the minority but French Muslims kept their silence.
Jacob Canfield in the Hooded Utilitarian minces no words in exposing Charlie Hebdo’s reality. He says, “Its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.” The cartoons were in bad taste and lacked satirical values. They were rather sketched to see how far the limits of the freedom of expression could be stretched.
Then there was the deliberate provocation of Muslim fury by producing crude cartoons on Prophet Mohammad. Despite knowing well that the Islamic faith prohibits the depiction of any images of the God and His prophet, the provocateurs at Charlie Hebdo sketched Mohammad’s naked body and exposure of his genitals. The faithful were naturally angered. This militant approach against religion was bound to invite militant response. The right to offend will inevitably entail the right to be offended.
But killing even a single person cannot be justified by any means. The Holy Koran condemns the loss of any innocent life. In fact, the attack suspects at Charlie Hebdo office spared female reporter Sigolene Vinson caught in the crossfire saying that their religion forbade them to take a woman’s life.
It is unfortunate that militant Islam’s barbarism has grown by the day with new and newer outfits trying to outdo the other by orchestrating gruesome murders in the name of the faith. Because the violence catches the headlines, many people have come to believe that Islam itself is an inherently violent religion. The imposition of medieval sharia laws and appalling treatment of women and people from other faiths in many Islamic countries too have fanned flames to the accusation. The peace-loving believers have not got as much prominence as necessary.
Some people have tried to portray this unfortunate episode as the clash between Islam and the West. This is too simplistic a binary to indulge in. The lunatic murderers in no way represent the whole Islamic faith, despite their claims to the contrary, and I don’t think Charlie Hebdo represents the whole West, which seeks to respect all faiths. If the latest statistics by the Pew Research is to be believed, French hold respect for Muslims more than other Europeans. It means Charlie Hebdo does not even represent the whole French. After all, secular values are all-embracing rather than alienating. This is a clash between two fanatics.
What then to make of overwhelming response to Charlie Hebdo massacre and the twitter-fare of Je Suis Charlie? I believe it’s the show of solidarity against the mode of response (taking lives) to affront in a civilized society. But this solidarity march should be viewed in a dispassionate manner. Why do the same bleeding hearts not gather when the powerful western countries kill thousands of innocent people in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan? No large-scale demonstration in support of the innocents killed in drone attacks has been observed.
Now that the terrorists have struck at the very heart of the west’s cultural center, all this show of solidarity has appeared. But has anyone thought about what French Muslims are going through? Having been ridiculed as economy-sapping leeches, their cultural dress being banned in the name of secularism and their deep-held faith being mercilessly lampooned, even a moderate Muslim feels cornered. But the majority French Muslims remained calm. The charge against Muslims that they all are squeamish holds no water.
The British and American responses to Charlie Hebdo incident expose their hypocrisy. These two countries don’t allow any offense against religion, de jure or de facto but rush to offer support to the irreverent newspaper in France. In 2006, the UK government promulgated Racial and Religious Hatred Act and introduced “incitement to religious hatred” as a penal offense, which not just incorporates the majority Christianity but all faiths. Many have been jailed for the offense. The US campuses where supposedly the discussion of all issues is held without discrimination don’t entertain radical figures who have challenged religious clerics. As The New York Times’s columnist David Brooks argues in his latest article, “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.”
Many newspapers around the world showed their respect to Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by reproducing less provocative cartoons from the weekly. This can’t be interpreted as them being afraid of a terrorist attack. Rather, it is their respect for Muslims’ religious sensibilities which disallows depiction of religious figures in images. It is a case of responsible journalism rather than self-censorship.
While the loss of human lives shakes my conscience, we should also remember not to misuse the freedom of expression to hurt others’ faith. After all, freedom of expression is not absolute. I am certainly not Charlie Hebdo.