What Charlie Hebdo Taught Me About Freedom of Speech

January 7, 2017   •   By Jacob Hamburger

charlie hebdo freedom of speech essay

Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student and writer living in Paris.

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Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Expression and Its Responsibilities

On a January morning in 2015, two gunmen forced their way into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and, in a fusillade of bullets, murdered the editor as well as 11 others. Still others were wounded but survived. The attackers were radical Muslims whose stated goal was revenge against the magazine for publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad nine years earlier, an act that most Muslims regard as sacrilege.

Over five years later, the Charlie Hebdo murders are again in the news as 14 accomplices of the two killers are now on trial in a Paris courtroom for their role in the killings and four related slayings in a kosher supermarket several days later. The two Charlie Hebdo assassins and the supermarket killer died at the hands of the French police at the time of the two attacks.

When the murders took place in 2015, it spurred an outpouring of sympathy and support for Charlie Hebdo as well as condemnation of the assassins with “Je Suis Charlie” (“I Am Charlie”) signs appearing around the globe as well as public marches and rallies, the largest of which, in Paris, attracted well over a million people.

Charlie Hebdo freedom of expression

Those who attended the demonstrations and held up the “Je Suis Charlie” signs were standing up for more than one magazine. Most people understand that a free press and free expression are essential to a democratic society that upholds the rights of the people and that the Charlie Hebdo killers were striking at one of the most basic pillars of a free society. “This is serious, this was an attack on freedom, we cannot allow this,” said one marcher adding that “our values are liberty, equality and fraternity and we cannot allow terrorists to dictate to us.” Some demonstrators held up pencils.

Muslims, however they may have felt about the cartoons, joined the demonstrations, including the King of Jordan who appeared with other heads of state in Paris and a group of Muslims in Madrid displaying signs that said “not in our name.”

Charlie Hebdo has continued to publish. Its current staff work in a confidential location and maintain tight security. The newspaper commemorated the start of the trials by republishing the original cartoons with the headline “Tout Ça Pour Ça?” (“All That For This?”).  According to the current editor, “To reproduce these cartoons in the week the trial... opens seemed essential to us.” The head of the French Counsel on Muslim Worship advised his co-religionists to ignore the cartoons and condemned violence, stating that the right to caricature is protected as well as the right to like or dislike it.

A society that values and upholds freedom of expression and religion cannot make blasphemy a crime.

It is absolutely necessary that all who participated in the killings be brought to justice. The horrific violence perpetrated against a roomful of people for publishing something the killers found objectionable is a threat to any society that wishes to encourage freedom of expression and of course also freedom of religion. Had the murderers and their accomplices stopped and thought about it for a minute, the same concept of a free society which allows magazines such as Charlie Hebdo to exist also enables Muslims to practice their religion as a minority openly in France and other Western countries.

Commenting on the republishing of the articles, President Emmanuel Macron stated, “There is in France a freedom to blaspheme which is attached to the freedom of conscience.”

I agree with President Macron that a society that values and upholds freedom of expression and religion cannot make blasphemy a crime. I also feel compassion for the Charlie Hebdo victims and further believe the refusal of the current staff to be intimidated should be acknowledged and respected. However, Charlie Hebdo ’s publishing of cartoons that members of a faith regard as blasphemous and offensive needs to be viewed not from the perspective of whether it should be illegal or whether it should be met with violence, but from the perspective of an honest inquiry: what ethical restraint should a media outlet exercise on itself and what should be the public response when it violates its responsibilities to society?

One of the four guiding ethical principles of journalism according to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is “Minimize Harm. Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

Did Charlie Hebdo follow that precept by publishing the cartoons?

Satirists, as do all members of the media, have a responsibility to minimize the harm that could be brought about in the process of their reporting.

There is a question, of course, as to whether satire should be judged by the same standards as regular journalism. After all, no one in the United States who reads The Onion thinks they are looking at regular news. But that is splitting hairs, since satire has as much potential to create harm as straight reporting.

Satire is valuable to a society. In addition to the humor it provides, it can often point out the illogic of a situation more clearly than matter-of-fact reporting. But it has the capacity to wound and those who engage in it need to evaluate whether the social value of what they are doing is greater than the harm. Is there some social value in denigrating the beliefs of a billion plus people about God? I can’t see it any more than I can see value in insulting people because of the color of their skin, their height or their weight.

Furthermore, as critics of Charlie Hebdo have pointed out, the Muhammad cartoons are not the only time that the magazine has gone beyond the bounds of a decent regard for others. To cite one of many readily available examples, in 2016 a Charlie Hebdo cartoon portrayed the victims of an earthquake in a small Italian town as types of pasta .

Rubble after an earthquake

Satirists, as do all members of the media, have a responsibility to minimize the harm that could be brought about in the process of their reporting. However, as the above examples illustrate, sometimes they don’t. What should the rest of us do when cartoonists and writers get too enamored of their dexterity with their pencils and forget that their words and pictures negatively affect the lives of real people? The same question also applies to ordinary journalism when it oversteps the bounds of honest, straight reporting and is used to malign or to pursue vendettas or hidden agendas.

While there is no rote answer to that question, I believe that upholding free expression has two sides. One side, of course, is keeping it free. The other, perhaps not as obvious, is insisting that expression contribute positively to society or at least not weaken the social bonds that make freedom possible. There’s obviously subjectivity about what is good and bad and it would be all too easy to resort to censorship in the name of protecting the public welfare, but there is no reason to stand by and watch people be denigrated for their religion, race or anything else in the name of freedom of the press. In the case of the Muhammad cartoons, many Muslim sources have explained calmly why the cartoons are an affront to their beliefs. They may not have been as widely publicized as the murderers, but they quietly helped create dialogue and understanding. 

All of us should learn to recognize journalism that breaches its responsibility to treat its subjects with respect and seek to persuade its creators to develop the ability to see things from a broader viewpoint. Groups and individuals that have been maligned have a responsibility, not just a right, to present their own story and undercut the false or negative impressions put out by those who would intentionally make less of them.

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Charlie Hebdo and Free Speech

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The terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris have led to widespread global outrage and have led to fervent discussions regrading the nature of free speech, the need to defend it and the way in which it relates to existing social inequality. This paper will reflect on two aspects of the incident and claim that it both draws attention to the importance of free speech and to problems associated with it.

It is clear that the attack has drawn attention to the idea that freedom of speech is something that is not politically neutral and that the incessant pursuit of it can often put people in danger. The magazine had become controversial for printing satirical images of the prophet Muhammed, something that is explicitly forbidden by the laws of Islam. As such, the attack has been framed as a conflict between freedom of speech represented by an innately rational and democratic institution and an innately irrational and violent extremist attitude. In this sense, the attack draws attention to the fact that ideals of freedom of speech are, generally speaking, inseparable from ideas of liberal democracy its own belief in sovereign reason.

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On the other hand, however, the mass defence of freedom of speech actively covers up existing inequality. Muslims in France are frequently subject to racist attacks and the country became the first in Europe to ban traditional face coverings for Islamic women. In essence, the attacks actively draw attention to an inequality of social standing. Freedom of speech, if it is to function as an ideal, assumes that two or more parties exist on an equal footing, and therefore are in a position whereby speech by each would mean the same thing. The second feature of the attacks is to show that this is manifestly not the case.

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Unmournable Bodies

By Teju Cole

Charlie Hebdo has often taken particular joy in flouting the Islamic ban on depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. But in...

A northern-Italian miller in the sixteenth century, known as Menocchio, literate but not a member of the literary élite, held a number of unconventional theological beliefs. He believed that the soul died with the body, that the world was created out of a chaotic substance, not ex nihilo, and that it was more important to love one’s neighbor than to love God. He found eccentric justification for these beliefs in the few books he read, among them the Decameron, the Bible, the Koran, and “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,” all in translation. For his pains, Menocchio was dragged before the Inquisition several times, tortured, and, in 1599, burned at the stake. He was one of thousands who met such a fate.

Western societies are not, even now, the paradise of skepticism and rationalism that they believe themselves to be. The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies. Witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition shaped Europe, and these ideas extended into American history and took on American modes, from the breaking of slaves to the censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

More than a dozen people were killed by terrorists in Paris this week. The victims of these crimes are being mourned worldwide: they were human beings, beloved by their families and precious to their friends. On Wednesday, twelve of them were targeted by gunmen for their affiliation with the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo . Charlie has often been aimed at Muslims, and it’s taken particular joy in flouting the Islamic ban on depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s done more than that, too, including taking on political targets, as well as Christian and Jewish ones. The magazine depicted the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in a sexual threesome. Illustrations such as this have been cited as evidence of Charlie Hebdo ’ s willingness to offend everyone. But in recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations, and its numerous anti-Islam images have been inventively perverse, featuring hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, variations on the theme of sodomy, and mockery of the victims of a massacre. It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try. Even Voltaire, a hero to many who extol free speech, got it wrong. His sparkling and courageous anti-clericalism can be a joy to read, but he was also a committed anti-Semite, whose criticisms of Judaism were accompanied by calumnies about the innate character of Jews.

This week’s events took place against the backdrop of France’s ugly colonial history, its sizable Muslim population, and the suppression, in the name of secularism, of some Islamic cultural expressions, such as the hijab. Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo : one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.

On Thursday morning, the day after the massacre, I happened to be in Paris. The headline of Le Figaro was “ LA LIBERTÉ ASSASSINÉE. ” Le Parisien and L’Humanité also used the word liberté in their headlines. Liberty was indeed under attack—as a writer, I cherish the right to offend, and I support that right in other writers—but what was being excluded in this framing? A tone of genuine puzzlement always seems to accompany terrorist attacks in the centers of Western power. Why have they visited violent horror on our peaceful societies? Why do they kill when we don’t? A widely shared illustration , by Lucille Clerc, of a broken pencil regenerating itself as two sharpened pencils, was typical. The message was clear, as it was with the hashtag #jesuischarlie: that what is at stake is not merely the right of people to draw what they wish but that, in the wake of the murders, what they drew should be celebrated and disseminated. Accordingly, not only have many of Charlie Hebdo ’ s images been published and shared, but the magazine itself has received large sums of money in the wake of the attacks—a hundred thousand pounds from the Guardian Media Group and three hundred thousand dollars from Google.

But it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions. The A.C.L.U. got it right in defending a neo-Nazi group that, in 1978, sought to march through Skokie, Illinois. The extreme offensiveness of the marchers, absent a particular threat of violence, was not and should not be illegal. But no sensible person takes a defense of those First Amendment rights as a defense of Nazi beliefs. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not mere gadflies, not simple martyrs to the right to offend: they were ideologues. Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology.

Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo .

The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible.

The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And, even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.

France is in sorrow today, and will be for many weeks to come. We mourn with France. We ought to. But it is also true that violence from “our” side continues unabated. By this time next month, in all likelihood, many more “young men of military age” and many others, neither young nor male, will have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. If past strikes are anything to go by, many of these people will be innocent of wrongdoing. Their deaths will be considered as natural and incontestable as deaths like Menocchio’s, under the Inquisition. Those of us who are writers will not consider our pencils broken by such killings. But that incontestability, that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté .

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charlie hebdo freedom of speech essay

In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism

On Wednesday morning, the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by three masked gunmen, armed with kalashnikovs, who stormed the building and killed ten of its staff and two police officers. The gunmen are currently understood to be Muslim extremists. This attack came minutes after the paper tweeted this drawing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.


(“Best wishes, by the way.” Baghdadi: “And especially good health!”)

An armed attack on a newspaper is shocking, but it is not even the first time Hebdo has been the subject of terrorist attacks. Gawker has a good summary of past controversies and attacks involving Hebdo. Most famously, the magazine’s offices were firebombed in 2011, after they printed an issue depicting the Prophet Muhammad on the cover.

In the face of such an obvious attack on free speech, voicing anything except grief-stricken support is seen by many as disrespectful. Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter , one of the first American comics sources to thoroughly cover the attack, quickly tweeted this:


When faced with a terrorist attack against a satirical newspaper, the appropriate response seems obvious. Don’t let the victims be silenced. Spread their work as far as it can possibly go. Laugh in the face of those savage murderers who don’t understand satire.

In this case, it is the wrong response.

Here’s what’s difficult to parse in the face of tragedy: yes,  Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper. Its staff is white. (Update:Charlie Hebdo’s staff it not all white. See note below.) 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.

Here, for context, are some of the cartoons they recently published.


(Yes, that last one depicts Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens.)

These are, by even the most generous assessment, incredibly racist cartoons.  Hebdo’s goal is to provoke, and these cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking: France’s incredibly marginalized, often attacked, Muslim immigrant community.

Even in a fresh-off-the-press, glowing BBC profile of Charb, Hebdo’s murdered editor, he comes across as a racist asshole.

Charb had strongly defended Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he told the Associated Press in 2012, after the magazine’s offices had been fire-bombed. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.”

Now, I understand that calling someone a ‘racist asshole’ after their murder is a callous thing to do, and I don’t do it lightly. This isn’t ambiguous, though: the editorial staff of  Hebdo consistently aimed to provoke Muslims. They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong . White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.

The response to the attacks by hack cartoonists the world over has been swift. While many are able to keep pretty benign:


Several of the cartoons sweeping Twitter stooped to drawing hook-nosed Muslim caricatures, reminiscent of Hebdo’s  house style.


Perhaps most offensively, this Shaw cartoon (incorrectly attributed to Robert Mankoff) from a few years back swept Twitter, paired with the hashtag #CharlieHebdo:


Political correctness did not kill twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices. To talk about the attack as an attack by “political correctness” is the most disgusting, self-serving martyr bullshit I can imagine. To invoke this (bad) Shaw cartoon in relation to the Hebdo murders is to assert that cartoons should never be criticized. To invoke this garbage cartoon is to assert that white, male cartoonists should never have to hear any complaints when they gleefully attack marginalized groups.

Changing your twitter avatar to a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad is a racist thing to do, even in the face of a terrorist attack. The attitude that Muslims need to be ‘punished’ is xenophobic and distressing. The statement, “JE SUIS CHARLIE” works to erase and ignore the magazine’s history of xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. For us to truly honor the victims of a terrorist attack on free speech, we must not spread hateful racism blithely, and we should not take pride in extreme attacks on oppressed and marginalized peoples.

A call “TO ARMS”


is gross and inappropriate. To simplify the attack on the  Charlie Hebdo offices as “Good, Valiant Westerners vs. Evil, Savage Muslims” is not only racist, it’s dangerously overstated. Cartoonists (especially political cartoonists) generally reinforce the status quo, and they tend to be white men. Calling fellow cartoonists TO ARMS is calling other white men to arms against already marginalized people. The inevitable backlash against Muslims has begun in earnest.


This is the worst.

The fact that twelve people are dead over cartoons is hateful, and I can only pray that their attackers are brought to justice. Free speech is an important part of our society, but, it should always go without saying, free speech does not mean freedom from criticism. Criticism IS speech – to honor “ free speech martyrs ” by shouting down any criticism of their work is both ironic and depressing.

In summary:

Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons.

Fuck those cartoons. ________

Update by Noah: Jacob initially stated that Charlie Hebdo’s “staff is white”. In fact, CH did have non-white staffers, including copy editor Mustapha Orrad, who was murdered by the terrorists, and journalist Zineb El Rhazoui. Jacob said that his point was that Charlie Hebdo’s chief editor was white, and that “The controversial cartoonists being mourned as free-speech martyrs are all white men.” For all HU posts on Satire and Charlie Hebdo click here.

67 thoughts on “ In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism ”

I would also add that freedom of speech is not freedom from responsibility for that speech either.

Yes…though obviously being responsible for you speech doesn’t mean in any way that you deserve to be violently attacked for it.

A well-written and intelligent response to a stupid, evil situation. Those cartoons were drawn to increase circulation and make money. They were bait and the bait was taken, with horrific results. The resultant repugnance and anger of civilized people around the world is precisely what the terrorists desire more than anything else … they too are building circulation and making money …

Yes. I think it’s not exactly right to say that the terrorists don’t want people to draw cartoons like this. Radical Islamic groups depend on anti-Islamic sentiment to gin up outrage and support, just as right-wing hate groups depend on atrocities like this one to justify rhetoric/actions against all Muslims. Terrorist violence is a giant, festering boon to those who hate on both sides.

i am not for #jesuischarlie. i think they deserved it. muslims don’t go around making offensive drawings of any other religion and then post it to the world. they basically asked for an early gave. people who follow any religion other bar Islam don’t realise how disrespectful it is to draw something that is forbidden in their religion.

Noah Burgly, that’s the exact opposite of what I’m arguing in this piece. No drawing is worth murdering someone over, as offensive as it is.

My impression of the Shaw cartoon was that it was making the point (or claim) that it would be impossible for a political cartoon to be completely universally inoffensive.

I assume Noah will delete “noah burgly’s” shitty comment.

I’m not sure whether I agree with Jacob’s article. The anti-Islam rhetoric of people like Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, and Sam Harris becomes a problem when they advocate for things like invading Iraq, discriminating against British Muslims, continuing the Israeli occupation, and bombing Gaza. But for a non-Muslim to aggressively mock Islam seems okay to me, and these horrifying murders kind of make me want to join in. I don’t see what’s racist about changing your profile picture to a drawing of Muhammad or how Charb comes across as a racist asshole in that quote. Admittedly, I don’t understand the cartoons because I don’t speak French.

Yeah; I really disagree strongly that they “deserved it”. Lots of Muslims have condemned the killing too; it’s not like Islam as a whole sees murder for cartoonists as a good idea. It’s a small group of radical assholes, who thrive on death and hate, and make the world worse for everyone, not least for Muslims.

HU, a venue that promotes its own Hate Week, is hosting one of the few civilized and genuinely intelligent discussions of this atrocity that I’ve read, at least. Congrats, Noah.

We must learn to cultivate our own gardens and respect the interior worlds of other humans, no matter how silly or idiotic we think they are. And above all, eschew — and expose — the deliberate provocations of those who profit from hate.

I thought about deleting burgly’s comment…but seemed weird since we’re talking about free speech here. So I’ll leave it for now at least.

Actually, Mr. Burgly, it might surprise you to learn that Muslims do not hold monolithic beliefs.

What Muslims Really Believe About Cartoons of Muhammad

by no means was I trying to imply that they got what they deserved or that the responsible action was to kill the journalists. But I also strongly feel that too many people use the excuse that it is “freedom of speech” and they can say whatever they want and there is no consequence. Unfortunately and horrifically in this case the consequence was markedly extreme. I certainly agree with the poster’s point that the mark of good satire is not that you be executed for it, however, you do need to be prepared for the fall out of putting out purposefully inflammatory perspectives.

Jacob — You certainly beat the white guy/racist horse to death in your essay, but in doing so you display ignorance of exactly what constitutes a “white” guy.

According to anthropologists, the US Census Bureau, and others, most Southwest Asia (i.e., “Middle East”) peoples are classified as “white” as well. In fact, many Persians are proud of that fact, and quick to point out that they are Aryans (yeah, THOSE Aryans) — hence their country’s name “Iran,” which literally means “Land of Aryans.” So are others in the region that was once the Persian Empire.

Now that’s not to say there was no racist underpinnings to some of Charlie Hebdo’s material. It just means that your repeated pejorative usage of the term “white” is technically incorrect.

By the way, murder is not “criticism” of free speech. It’s murder.

Russ: are you serious?

Thanks for debate, Jacob, I’m glad we’re having this discussion, even though 1/ I’m not sure what you’re saying, and 2/ I think I disagree. I am French, and of course, a white male. I am perfectly open to the notion that I may be talking from a position of privilege, and I wish your article had showed me more clearly in what way. Basically, I do feel that “nothing’s sacred”, or rather that “nothing sacred can be made less so with a joke”. Is that racist because culturally insensitive ? Because “Enlightenment-centric” or something ? Also, I fail to see what’s racist in most pictures. Especially the two first. The third one is obviously meant as pure provocation, the 4th one says “Muhammad overwhelmed by extremists. ‘It’s not easy being loved by idiots!'” (if it’s not clear enough, the French expression means ‘some who love me are idiots’, not ‘all who love me’). The series of cartoons is more problematic, I admit, though I found the Bardot joke hilarious. The last one may be in poor taste, but it’s absurdist and certainly not an attack on… anybody (not even Boko Haram, who I’d expect to be fair game).

I guess what I mean is that some of these drawing can be seen as racist in their depiction of arab or middle-eastern people because of their aesthetic short-hand (turbans and scimitars and the like). But if you think that making fun of the Prophet is racist because devout Muslims can feel hurt by it, I think I disagree.

As an aside, Charlie Hebdo is not all white, Islam is not their favourite target, and their biggest enemy is the far right : https://charliehebdo.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/affiche-lepen.jpg (the text reads “Le Pen, the candidate that suits you.”)

So, Jordan, I think I still kind of disagree with that. People really shouldn’t have to be, and can’t be, prepared for violent thugs responding to their cartoons with terrorist violence.

Russ, I think there is a common confusion about Muslims and race. Race isn’t real; it’s a social category, not a biological fact. “Race” can be defined in lots of ways, not just by skin color or ethnic background. Generally it’s defined by a range of things; Jews, when they’re defined as an ethnic group, are defined through both hereditary background and religion, for example.

Since 9/11, the U.S. and Europe have moved towards defining Muslim as a racial group in a lot of ways. So saying, “this isn’t racism because some Islamic people are white by some definitions” — it’s nonsensical. It doesn’t matter whether some people have classified Iranians as white for some purposes in the past, because racism isn’t based on scientific classifications. It’s based on defining certain groups as a certain race, and then caricaturing and discriminating against them.

Okay? In addition, Jacob’s background is Iranian, so lecturing him on the correct racial classification of Iranians is both condescending and really not helpful.

Thank you for writing this, Jacob. I knew nothing about Charlie Hebdo before today, but even while shocked and upset by the coverage, felt something was off. I’m saddened for the editors and their families, but ultimately grieved over the state of enertainment-news, and the vicious idiocy of biased satire.

Noah, I think that in an ideal, utopian world, people would not have to fear violence for purposefully offensive behavior. But in an ideal, utopian world, people wouldn’t be purposefully offensive. Freedom of speech allows for us to be purposefully offensive in our communication, and unfortunately, freedom of speech has often resulted in what we would consider unjustified violent reaction.

Again, not excusing the behavior. It is deplorable. But do you feel that Charlie Hebdo was naive enough to believe that they could continuously mock a religion whose extremist factions are known for extreme violence with no repercussions? Did they honestly not consider the threat of death or violence when they published the cartoons?

I know it may sound like I am defending the aggressors, or saying that the cartoonists were asking for it. I am not. But if I were in their place, I would seriously consider whether or not my actions could somehow result in the violence that ended up taking place. And then decide from there. That’s being responsible. It isn’t as if they were reporting accurate news or pushing for social change in their satire and their journalistic integrity was at stake.

Here’s a great supplemental post.


My understanding is that there was an awareness by them and the authorities that they might be targeted.

They presumably made the decision that they did not want to be silenced by terrorist shitheads. I would say that that’s brave and admirable. At the same time, the bravery was in defense of racism, and was also in part probably inspired (as Mahendra says) by the fact that controversy sells. So…it’s a complicated issue, but I would suspect that yes, they did feel their journalistic integrity was at stake.

I have to admit my first thought was that this attack would add fuel the fire that the racist European far-right is. A sad and doubly ironic thing in that the paper attacked was leftist (if perhaps also racist) and in that the far-right isn’t generally very fond of freedom of speech or of the press.

Brilliantly done, Jacob — to employ parody to defend freedom of speech at a moment like this. Granted, your spoof, slyly adopting the voice a of hand-wringing leftist instantly jumping to condemn the victims of a terrorist attack for inappropriate or insensitive speech goes a little over the top: would even the most mealy-mouthed thought-police officer find “The prophet isn’t sacred to me… I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at the jokes” racist assholery? Or the cartoon of the prophet bemoaning being loved by idiots, or “love is stronger than hate…” “incredibly racist”? LOL. Perhaps not, but never mind, you’re mostly right on the mark. And of course, you provide a tip-off by using vicious hate speech against the victims (referring to them as “white” and “white guys”). Mind you, good satire is always dangerous. Some on the Right could think you meant it, and use quotes out of context to caricature the Left… while some on the Left (perhaps Mr. Burgly is an example), could take it too seriously to the extent of appluding the attacks! But since most of the comments above skilfully adapt your droll tone, it seems you’ve gauged your audience perfectly

I emotionally see where Jordan is coming from, without agreeing. I understand the desire to protect journalists from harm, and how that morphs into a frustration when they can’t protect themselves (and relatedly, frustration that they’ve dedicated their lives to spawning racist propaganda.) No one asks for this, no one deserves this… Jacob said it perfectly that these are dumb cartoons no one should have died for. Still, I resonate with the frustration that they ‘should’ have taken better care of themselves… and taken better care of the world by extension, by being less hateful cartoonists and journalists.

I don’t think there’s really a ‘should’ in this situation though. Perceptive journalists will understand when they are threatening and when they are being threatened… naive journalists will not. Its tragic human behavior, and ultimately cause and effect.

I’m afraid you’re very mistaken. Charlie Hebdo was anything but racist, they just loved to poke disrespect at anything and anyone. Just google charliehebdo for images and you’ll literally see what I mean. Being satirical cartoonist, they got a rise from irritating those that were most provoked by their drawing. In the words of French tweeter: “Charlie Hebdo makes fun of Muhammad. [It’s] in the press. Muslims complain. [It’s] in the press. Explosion of sales. Classic”. Just basically what msm does everyday, and what satirical cartoonist are paid to do. To their credit, Charlie Hebdo also published a non humorous biography of Mohammed the prophet, so that non-muslims can know more about the man and his works. So no, they’re not racist. Or sadly, should we say, they weren’t. Now they’re dead.

I can see that. With me not being a journalist, I don’t know how far I would have been willing to push the satire, especially with a knowledge of possible violent reaction. In some ways I understand the bravery of standing up for what you want to do and not being cowed by your opposition, but I still feel that bravery becomes recklessness at some point if it isn’t tempered with some caution.

It IS a complicated issue. If you are talking integrity, how does one justify their racist behavior? Kind of an oxymoron…a racist with integrity.

on the bright side, I think the conversations going on here are great, so kudos to you for publishing this.

Well, that link you shared, Jacob, confirms my impression that a lot of the images can only be understood by those who follow the French news. Christiane Taubira with a monkey’s body is an attack on the Front National pretensions that it’s not a racist party, the “2 Moms, 1 sextoy” is about religion (here catholicism) uniting that same FN and the supposedly center-right UMP against gay marriage… “The Qu’ran is shit, it doesn’t stop bullet.” is about muslim-on-muslim violence, and the “Quenelle” one I won’t even try to explain, but it’s a “fuck you” gesture towards antisemites.

The most frustrating for me is that I don’t even like Charlie Hebdo. I often find their humour more tasteless than funny. I like even less Hara Kiri, the cult counter-culture magazine which was banned by the De Gaulle regime and reborn as Charlie Hebdo. But the authors of these accusations seem either not to get the jokes, or to think that it’s in such bad taste that it makes you question freedom of expression. Which is sort of baffling.

Ah, S. Larea, your amusing impersonation of a naively cynical free speech idealist realist is spot on. The self-congatulatory denunciation of self-congratulation; the “you’re another” reverse racism canard, deftly clinging to identity politics while claiming they’re irrelevant; the sneering reference to “thought-police” as you duplicitously suggest that Jacob’s dangerous post has led some to applaud the attacks; it’s all there, in so, so clever dollops. Superb trolling!

Seriously, could you cut the condescending bullshit? Folks are for the most part here having a civil discussion. You’re welcome to join us, if you can stop patting yourself on the back for a second.

From The Financial Times:

“A year later, a group called the Syrian Association for Liberty filed a legal complaint, accusing Charlie Hebdo of provoking racial and religious hatred after it published a series of cartoons mocking Mohammed. The magazine coincided with another global crisis over the release of a low-budget US film that vilified Islam. Issues of the magazine quickly sold out.

Then, in January 2013, Charlie Hebdo published a 65-page comic biography of Mohammed, which Mr Charbonnier billed as a way to educate people about a religion which he, himself, had not known well enough.

“We have put into pictures the life of Mohammed as it is recounted by Muslim chroniclers. Without added humour. If the form seems to some blasphemous, the foundation is perfectly halal. Up to you to decide,” he wrote in a note on the back page.

Outraged members of the French Muslim community were not convinced and demanded that the government condemn the book.”

Michael— I don’t know enough about this biography to decide whether it was truly meant to be reconciliatory or fair. Considering Charbonnier’s tone in the above quote, it seems like he was just attacking from another angle, while making it more complicated to outright criticize his ‘adding fuel to the fire.’

Dismissiveness and aloofness are pretty horrifying ways to respond to tragedy. They’re the mark of faux intellectualism and… very bad satire! I don’t think you considered anything Jacob wrote above, or has been discussed here.

Another point of view on the matter : http://www.vox.com/2015/1/7/7507729/the-satirical-cartoon-cover-that-defines-charlie-hebdo

“Part of Charlie Hebdo’s point was that respecting these taboos strengthens their censorial power.”

Contra some of the nonsense being mouthed today by fools on Twitter, these weren’t some kind of Andrew Dice Clay acts looking for ever-more vulnerable minorities to kick; Cabu, for instance, is most famous for creating the provincial, typical-French character Mon Boeuf, who he mocks for being crude and bigoted toward minorities. My French father-in-law, whose Gaullist-flavored politics were certainly satirized by Cabu over the years, said that today felt like being stabbed in the heart.

– Matt Welch

“Charb had strongly defended Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he told the Associated Press in 2012, after the magazine’s offices had been fire-bombed.

“I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.””

..supposed to make that person come across as a racist asshole? Criticizing Mohammed is racist? Is criticizing the pope racist? What about evangelicals or atheists?

No. While several of those cartoons are horribly racist and are worthy of criticism, I think you are dangerously on the edge of acting like figures like Mohammed should not be criticized.

Just as shitty cartoons should be criticized, shitty ideologies and religious leaders should be criticized.

Josselin– I vaguely consider myself to be a Vox fan, but I think this article misses the mark somewhat. For one, this imagery is already very cliché, and is a pretty deliberate take off of an Art Spiegelman cover for The New Yorker (which may not have even been the first use of this imagery.) They’re parodying a cliché that shows that two enemies can be dramatically reconciled, not suggesting that they can be. On another level, I think that cover IS stating how the Charlie Hebdo and the extremists are locked in a kind of romance– a romance of sensationalistic news cycles. The smoldering office in the background shows that they’re kind of dismissing their own misfortune, even acknowledging their own complicity in it. It sure is a ballsy cover, and rather self-aware, but I’d say its self-destructive too.

TTR, I think it’s tricky because, as I said earlier, Islamic identity is in the process of being reified and racialized. The attacks on Mohammad above use racist caricature to make their point. The line between making fun of the religion and racist attacks on Muslims can be pretty thin.

I don’t know that I’d call the editors comments racist either…Jacob, could you expand on why you feel what he said is racist?

It’s racist because he’s equating a desire for respect on the part of Muslims to Muslims taking over the country and imposing “koranic law.” So, the only time he would consider the feelings of an oppressed minority is if they literally took over and imposed their evil laws on him.

By itself that comment would be racist, but in the context of the things Hebdo published, it is extremely racist.

Okay, okay, if my satire was leaden & condescending, I apologize. But Jacob’s piece truly angered me. I spent the day feeling, like the French father-in-law referenced above, devastated by the murders of Cabu and Wolinski, who have created beautiful and important work over the past five decades (I’m not so familiar with the younger cartoonists). As several other responders have pointed out, Canfield’s understanding of French culture and cartooning seems pretty limited and he’s propagating a very biased view of what Charlie Hebdo represents. I honestly question the impulse behind Jacob’s lumping together of all of those cartoons as “incredibly racist,” most of which clearly targeted at only the evils of Islamist bullying, not the religion or the “race.” Besides, even if some of them are offensive, today we are reminded that there are things so much worse than offensiveness — even offensiveness that includes racist caricature — that they make offensiveness seem noble by comparison. No, no one here has literally applauded the attacks. But I get the feeling that Jacob and others are eager to make sense of this crime against humanity in a way that lets them return to their comfortable thought patterns of finding fault (on a gut level) only with white, European culture. I dislike resorting to accusations of “reverse racism.” I understand perfectly well that it doesn’t exist on a systemic level, but the reflexive need to be comfortably offended by a bunch of old white guys rather than the POC’s that gunned them down is what I read in this post and some of the comments. (By the way, there was a prominent Arab-French cartoonist on the Charlie Hebdo staff as well) I appreciate Noah’s moderation of his comments aimed at me, and the sincere invitation to join the conversation. But if you could think better of calling me an asshole for some lame trolling, shouldn’t Jacob reconsider calling a satirical cartoonist who was gunned down today a “racist asshole?”

They do Noah Burgly..remember the innocent Armenians..the worst genocide ever..they lived in Turkey for centuries making the greatest contributions to the Ottoman empire and Christendom was there first and the Armenian churches were plastered over, theirBibles burned and women and children bludgeoned for being Christians and highly educated. They have no country ..the men were murdered..outnumbered 10 to 1 and most were unarmed. This cannot even be discussed without denial. The Middle Eastern countries have the same horrific past as most countries and often against each other.

Thanks Jacob. I think it’s at least a little tricky because, obviously, they were actually facing threats from individuals who wanted to impose some twisted version of Koranic law. But his comments do seem to lump those few in with the entire community, as you say.

S. Larea, thanks for your thoughts.

This is a flawed analysis given in the cause of messed up priorities. 12 people are dead over drawings, I’d say the gunmen were “punching down”. But let’s spend our attention on how the drawings were bad, and their capacity to hurt people’s feelings? Incidentally I see that one supposedly racist cartoon has “Islamic Extremism” printed on the caricatured guy, and somehow according to this piece this is supposed to be problematic and akin stereotyping all Muslims. Are you serious?

The point missed is “hack cartoonists” are all standing against violence as a tool to suppress speech, no matter how offensive. This is not a commentary on the offensive speech, this is not a declaration that even mere criticism of offensive speech is unacceptable. It is a commentary that the speakers should be able to say it without force acting as a threat against it. There is no “but” that comes after. I say this as a Christian, which I’m aware that publication also has absolutely no deference for.

Here the token words are spoken about how the murders are wrong and then they are undermined with chatter about how offensive speech was inviting it, as though the real tragedy is that the murdered cartoonists weren’t more tactful and respectful. But if you don’t back free speech and freedom of the press even when it comes to speech that greatly offends your sensibilities (or those of ones you sympathize with), then you don’t really believe in it. If a principle is put aside when put to the test, it’s not a principle.

To wit, this piece is spot on. The #1 consideration here isn’t the feelings of any group that you claim to know about, it’s about drawling a line against the gun as a veto. You don’t have to feel that anything goes and that satire is above all reproach to see the threat this kind of thing poses to all of as, as Mr. Douthat demonstrates. I’ll quote a big part of it, but the whole thing is worth the time.


“And similarly, in a cultural and political vacuum, it would be okay to think that some of images (anti-Islamic and otherwise) that Charlie Hebdo regularly published, chosen entirely for their shock value, contributed little enough to public discussion that the world would not suffer from their absence.”

“But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense and outrage for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.”

“In this sense, many of the Western voices that have criticized the editors of Hebdo have had things exactly backward: Whether it’s the Obama White House or Time Magazine in the past or the Financial Times and (God help us) the Catholic League today, they’ve criticized the paper for provoking violence by being needlessly offensive and “inflammatory” (Jay Carney’s phrase), when the reality is that it’s precisely the violence that justifies the inflammatory content. In a different context, a context where the cartoons and other provocations only provoked angry press releases and furious blog comments, I might sympathize with the FT’s Tony Barber when he writes that publications like Hebdo “purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.” (If all you have to fear is a religious group’s fax machine, what you’re doing might not be as truth-to-power-ish as you think.) But if publishing something might get you slaughtered and you publish it anyway, by definition you are striking a blow for freedom, and that’s precisely the context when you need your fellow citizens to set aside their squeamishness and rise to your defense.”

Typical. 12 murders are carried out by a group of delusional psychos and your response is “but how are white men responsible this time?” Fucking white knight press. Wake up.

I’m sorry, this is not your finest work. It just flails at its target with the biggest ideological words you can muster: “incredibly racist”; “white men punching down”; “assholes” “attacking marginalized groups.” But mainly you employ a spirit of argument that tries to capture everything in its accusatory grasp, producing an argument that ignores all particulars and distinctions (see Noah’s last note, e.g.), and conflating all sorts of people, ideas, politics, and groups.

Perhaps this is because you don’t really have an opponent whose words or images you can present. You say you’re arguing against the idea that “white, male cartoonists should never have to hear any complaints when they gleefully attack marginalized groups.” But who, in this context , is saying that — or has ever said that? Recent statements of “solidarity” are in the face of murder and terrorism, not the right to call out distasteful stuff. To ignore that is to conflate criticism with murder — to pretend that we’re talking about one thing, when we’re really talking about another.

And you conflate and elide distinctions just as much in the opposite direction, allowing you to turn attacks on one idea into attacks on all ideas, into attacks on all people who hold them — and finally into attacks on a “race.”

Take, for example, your over-the-top reaction to the cartoon with a “call to arms,” visually marshaling a weapon made of pens and pencils. You take this metaphorical martial langauge — which is EXPLICITLY a rejection of weapons and violence in favor of further words and expression, a call to meet violence with renewed speech — and turn it into a racist attacks on marginalized people (an actual incitement to actual attacks).

See how that series of silent equations works? A statement against violence becomes a statement that endorses violence (and therefore, why not a statement met with violence?). Or to take the equations further (as you do): a statement against terrorism = a statement against Islam = a statement against Muslims = a statement that all Muslims must be punished = a statement in support of racism.

I think this is why so many of the comments here have shifted towards satire and dismissal, themselves. It’s because you — even if you were speaking from the heart — do not seem to be taking the particulars of the case, of your argument, of the politics, and even of these cartoons and cartoonists seriously.

Some have noted all the things you have missed, even in the examples and quotes you provided. I’ll add one more. The first cover you provide was published just days after their offices were bombed in 2011. They met deadly force and terror with … a picture — a provocative picture of the terrorist and the cartoonist kissing amid the rubble. “Love [is] stronger than hate,” it says. And while I don’t think they mean it, the image and the sentiment are perhaps the strongest of the bunch — and given the context (and context matters) — show the most bravery.

Racist? Homophobic? Hateful? In this case again, wrong all all counts, and it seems your willingness to only see those things is downright perplexing.

I’m not losing sleep over dead racists. End of. I feel more sympathy for the dead Muslim officer than I do for anyone else in that building.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when gunmen go on a rampage but I’m not going to excuse the renewed calls for turning the middle east into one giant glass sheet. Or of the complete silence over the attacks on Mosques throughout Europe over the month of December. Or the gleeful sharing of stories of torture in Guantanamo Bay. People like Todd Dubois only want outrage when it suits their political agenda and they’re getting it.

No tears shed.

I’m a little busy being afraid of the next white supremacist group that gets away with bombing a black civil rights org here in the states, thanks.

Todd: “But if you don’t back free speech and freedom of the press even when it comes to speech that greatly offends your sensibilities (or those of ones you sympathize with), then you don’t really believe in it. If a principle is put aside when put to the test, it’s not a principle. ”

But…Jacob’s not saying Hebdo should be censored. He’s saying they should be criticized. That’s not the same thing.

I find Douthat’s formulation really confused. Anti-semitism in Europe can be policed and prosecuted; therefore we need more anti-Semitic speech in Europe? Letting whacko extremists with guns set your agenda for you is letting whacko extremists with guns set your agenda for you. The idea that the Islamic militants are damaged or even defied by anti-Muslim caricatures is the exact opposite of the truth. Hate feeds on hate.

Brave, timely, necessary post. I would only add that in a society that uses racism to delineate who’s worthy of life and protection and who’s worthy of exclusion, heightened policing and invasions, it’s impossible to frame expressions of “free speech” that targets specific demographics for violent misfortune as “peaceful” or “innocuous.” There’s a level of interrelation between racist violence and reproducing/creating the logic that justifies racist violence that gets ignored when we offer blanket denunciations of people who see the consequences of oppressive framing against themselves and against their people/culture and respond in kind.

While I’m not prepared to offer a specific defense for these people (since I don’t know them and may not agree with their motives), I do want to leave both the rhetorical and empathetic door open for a perspective on racism that internalizes the need for a collective self-defense that responds appropriately to oppression and chooses its targets accordingly.

Arguments are not meaningfully changing minds or saving lives here. Empathy is not operative for the demographics suffering. The presumption of shared humanity isn’t being equally granted and in places like France, aren’t likely to be. Right now, there’s an incredible, swift and predominately white mobilization around a conception of the west that’s not just actively hostile to Muslims, but that sees their presence as inimical to its existence/definition of “civilized.” Furthermore, concepts like “free speech” and “freedom of expression” are being used in ways that both show how power is concentrated spread and show who’s supposed to be crushed by that concentration. It’s not adequate to say that the status quo is just racist and mean when the logic of everything that’s going on is leading straight to a President Le Pen.

That’s a violent conclusion that’s being engaged in democratically, foreshadowed democratically and expressed democratically and I’m not sure “drawing cartoons” should be divorced from what drawing these cartoons cements in the consciousness of a west where such practices have concrete consequences for those tasked with grinning and bearing them. The violence did not start today, and the onus is not on Muslims to seek peace or to internalize definitions of “acceptable violence” that speaks to white/western conditions and consequences instead of their own.

Just want to say thank you to Jacob Canfield for writing this article and for also responding to comments too. Very brave

And I want to condemn Jacob for his caricaturing of the victims of the shooting as racist assholes, giving dead-souled horrors like Julian and Grue a champion to rally around.

Grue, I get your point…but I have to stop at suggesting (or even hinting at suggesting) that the violence was somehow self defense. If anything opens the door to Le Pen, it’s incidents like this. Muslims who are condemning the attacks do so in the full knowledge that violent attacks like this put them more, not less, at risk.

Charlie was attacking the idiocy of extremism of all religions and belief systems. I’m of the belief we should be allowed to mock and satirize religious beliefs especially if they lead to violence. It is at these moments as well that the harsh light of satire be cast upon these murderous extremist that took the lives of humorists and artists. Further we should be asking the non-violent Muslims WTF? Why is it so easy for your belief system to devolve so quickly to control through violence. Call me racist, but I will always condemn and make fun of people that do acts of violence in the name of a make believe friend. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Satanist, Pagan I don’t care. Nous Sommes Charlie

Shayne, I’m with those who don’t think non-violent Muslims have anything to answer for. If their interpretation of Islam (which I know little about) is peaceful, that’s good enough for me. I don’t believe a religion can make people violent; people can make a religion violent.

Jacob — I’ve been around a long time and have lived all over the world. Yes, I’m absolutely serious.

Noah — I took exception with Jacob’s assertion that anti-Islamic cartoons are inherently racist. Generally, charges of racism usually revolve around color, and Muslims come in all colors — just as Christians come in all colors.

I don’t disagree with his xenophobic charge, but I can’t really fault the French for that, since most countries I’ve visited are xenophobic to some degree. The homophobic charge may or may not be true, but it’s hard to tell for sure with a publication that ruthlessly skewers everyone and everything.

Regarding Jacob’s Iranian background — if that’s the case, then he should know exactly what I’m talking about with the entire Aryan thing. He’s not the only one who is familiar with Iranian culture.

“Changing your twitter avatar to a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad is a racist thing to do, even in the face of a terrorist attack. ”

No it isn’t. Offending someone is not the same as being “racist”.

Drawing a pictorial representation of a historical figure is not a racist act just because it offends religious muslims, anymore than Gallileo was “racist” for making claims contrary to the catholic church’s beliefs of heliocentricism and published them in a book.

I agree with the gist of the piece, and I largely agree with Jacob’s analyses of the cartoons.

I think if free speech is supposed to mean anything at all, it’s fucking nuts to call Charb a “racist asshole” in the context of his quote above. Being governed by secular and democratic rules rather than by religious sensibilities, as Charb insists he is, is the very foundation of freedom of speech, not some unfortunate offshoot of it.

Blasphemy is not racism. Blasphemy is not even necessarily in bad taste. If morally justified, ruthless blasphemy is a virtue. Satire that pussyfoots around religious sensibilities is rubbish satire; it doesn’t just NOT further free speech and freedom of expression – it’s an active contribution to suppressing them.

I know too little about Charb to determine if he’s a racist. The citation above certainly doesn’t make him one.

Others have alluded to this, but I have a big problem with the line in this post: “Changing your twitter avatar to a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad is a racist thing to do”. Overall, I do agree with several of the points the author raises in the post, and I do agree that some of the cartoons might qualify as racist. That said, suggesting that it is racist to depict the prophet Mohammed IS ACTUALLY (and no doubt unintentionally) RACIST ITSELF. Islam is not a race. It is a religion. It has specific doctrines (such as the non-depiction of the prophet) that are shared by people of a number of ethnic and national groupings. To suggest that caricatures of the prophet are racist is to imply that Islam is indistinguishable from race (presumably the Arab race?). And that is racist. I am sure Persian, Turkish, Bosnian, Indian, Malay and Filipino Muslims might find such depictions offensive, but I don’t think racism would be their first concern. To call caricatures of the prophet “racist” is to denude the word of any meaning.

What a joke of an article. More ‘look what whitie made me do’. If you dont like Charlie hebdo and/or think it is racist – then campaign for a change in law. Sue them. Start a magazine mocking whities. Plenty of options. But this apologia for violence is a dark murderous race to the bottom.

Being told I need to support work that I find racist or bigoted doesn’t exactly make me more sympathetic to Hebdo. It just makes me angrier that free speech only ever flows one way. If I point out Hebdo is click bait racist French rag, I’m a soulless monster. But when Hebdo’s supporters argue that Muslims are violent criminals well that’s just free speech, isn’t it?

More and more people are waking up and realizing that this is a bum deal. Where has the outrage been when Mexican reporters are dragged off in the middle of the night? Why weren’t the attacks on Mosques considered an attack on free expression? Like I said, I won’t shed tears for someone’s political and xenophobic agenda

“Why is it so easy for your belief system to devolve so quickly to control through violence.”

First, it’s not like historically Islam’s record of violence is clearly worse than that of other religions like Christianity (or really Buddhism for that matter.)

Second, there’s a pretty clear reason that Islamic fundamentalism is so violent at the moment. It’s because it’s allied itself with, or is intertwined with, anti-imperialist nationalist struggles in the context of a Middle East that has been subject to Western incursions and control for hundreds of years. And, yes, attacks like this on France are likely to increase the probability of further imperialist violence in the Middle East, just as imperialist violence in the Middle East increases the probability of atrocities such as this one.

This needed to be pointed out – people are too nervous to say it, at this point, but the Hebdo crew do not deserve to become martyrs. I am deeply saddened by the attack, they didn’t deserve to come to harm, but if they’d not been shot, I’d not have been surprised if they’d been associated with the growing racism and anti-semitism that has been scaling up across the region for the last few years more overtly, and soon.

Charlie Hebdo was closer to Dieudonne in some respects than to a conventional left-wing publication, or a healthy exhibition of satire.

If you don’t like my questionable opinions – don’t buy my magazine. If you don’t like free speech – don’t shoot me. It’s a real pity that the cartoonists didn’t have AKs, or that the cowards who attacked couldn’t draw.

Thanks for this article. I disagree with it on a number if points, but agree on others.

I certainly agree with you that no-one should be murdered for drawings, writings, poetry or song. No-one should have died today. Those people who perpetrated this act had no justification whatsoever. None. My response to what you wrote so eloquently, will be garbled… But here goes. And you can bear with me or not. You can choose. You can choose to take offense at what I say, or accept our world view may differ for many reasons. You may feel there should be only one response to your article and that is, “he has a right to say that.” I wont disagree. Some may. Here goes… I don’t believe westerners criticising Islam is racist. But I do agree that some of what I have seen of Hebdo is plain silly and meaning to be offensive. I don’t think peoples right to being offended is a right at all. It kind of reminds me of when I went to, or helped produce plays in Northern Ireland that offended the religious right (Catholic and Protestant on various occasions, and when extra successful, both together) so much, they protested outside on opening night, before ANYONE had seen the bloody thing. They demanded the closure of the plays. And all sorts of threats came through the door and via the press. They felt offended. We offended them. Meh. We wanted to. We challenged their comfortable world view of homophobia, sectarianism and bigotry. And we faced down their threats. Offense would not occur if they did not open Charlie Hebdo- or perhaps if they did open it, measure the silly ink drawings against their strong, centuries old, unshakable faith, they wouldn’t be offended… I am offended by The Daily Mail, but I don’t buy it, therefore I tend only to be offended by it if a link turns up on my twitter stream. And really only offended if the Mail attacks by lying or warping the truth about the powerless. I am offended by the antics of the Bullingdon Club past and present. And I fight the with words, satire and art as much as I can. I don’t understand strong beliefs that feel weakened by attack. And I don’t believe provoking fundamentalists, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish is racist. I believe it isn’t nice to argue about religion at a dinner party and berate your dinner partner as “wrong,” at the table. But to berate a religion as being wrong in the pages of a magazine that religious people are unlikely to buy is perhaps at worst, sneering from the kitchen with the door closed. Shouting outside the theatre as the audience actually learn the context of the nudity, bad language or references to religion. “If you continue to make faces at me behind that door, I’m going to hit you!” >>looks through the keyhole to see me do just that.<< Ok, this is a simplification. But I feel your view of the cartoons is a simplification. It does not take into consideration context-the context of the secular laws in France and how fiercely they were fought for against the Church, and how fiercely the have been defended over the past 100 years. And your view as others have said, does not take into consideration the context of the date of publishing etc. I think your argument is reducing down to the fact that one cartoon has a hooked nose… But again, this caricature of racism has context. Having said that, you have given me food for thought. I wont be adding a cartoon of The Prophet to my facebook avatar as I have friends to whom that would cause offence. Though as a secular atheist white middle aged man, I have little anyone could post on their profiles that would offend me besides someone burning a £50 note in front of the face of a homeless person. Or ignoring me. None of Charlie Hebdo's, yours or my words mean anything whatsoever compared to the dreadful, heinous crime against humanity carried out on the streets of Paris or in the Yemen today. Compared to those lives lost, and the lives ruined, they are whispers in the storm.

1. Degrade, insult, demean, and antagonize a group of people over, and over, and over, and over again until some of them finally reach a breaking point and lash out. 2. Condemn the entirety of their group for the actions of the few who reacted violently to your repeated emotional abuse. 3. Vow to continue abusing them in spite of their anger. 4. Congratulate yourself for being a champion of freedom. 5. Repeat.

Interesting to see a lot of the far left jump the shark today over their reaction to this attack. White male hegemony is so powerful, white men have the power to oppress even while being murdered for drawing cartoons.

Dave, I think that gets awfully close to “they deserved it.” I really think you can criticize the cartoons without saying, or thinking, that they deserved it. Among other things, the most serious violence against Muslim communities comes from the state and the military, not from editorial cartoonists.

I deleted some comments. One line snark adds little to the discussion, and I don’t see any reason to leave it here.

Something doesn’t sit right with this article. Something smells bad here. “Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism”, so are you saying that the killing of these 12 is a form of criticism?

I just want to say that the Jack who posted at 6:53 pm is a different Jack from me, the original Hooded Utilitarian Jack.

I wasn’t trying to be snarky or snide. I’m just exasperated with the number of people whose response to this has been ‘you don’t have a right to be offended.’ 1) I would hope everyone in this discussion can see that murder isn’t the default response to offense. 2) Of course people have to be offended. We have a right to our feelings. Insisting people cannot feel offense and cannot express anger or disdain when offended is infringement in their right to free expression and an attack on their autonomy. And 3) it is an insult to everyone who has died at the hands of radical Islam to make this about ‘the right to offend.’ You are not remembering the dead when you make racist caricatures. They become a rhetorical flourish to shield you from criticism.

I apologize if this is all coming across as combative but I haven’t seen any mourning today except from Muslims who are likely to be on the receiving end of ‘vengence’ in the coming weeks. The largely white Hebdo fanbase has done nothing but pass around click bait cartoons and pat itself on the back for ‘defending freedom.’

The Qur’an does not explicitly forbid images of Muhammad, but several hadith (sayings and actions attributed to the prophet) prohibit Muslims from creating visual depictions of human figures. Prohibit MUSLIMS. Not Christians, not atheists, not Buddhists, only MUSLIMS. Just as Judaism prohibits the creation of ‘graven images’ and some Christians get pissed if someone literally dunks a crucifix in piss. However much we may respect that religions have these odd rules internally, we cannot allow them to be imposed on non-adherents. They have to learn to suck it up, whatever colour they may be. Plus, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander : they DO produce hateful cartoons of their own. Have you not seen any of the constant stream of racist anti-Semitic cartoons clogging up the pages of Arab and Iranian newspapers and magazines?

Hey all. This piece has really blown up; we’re getting probably twenty times the traffic we usually do, at least. Given that, and given the controversial subject matter, I don’t think moderating comments is really feasible any more, so I’m going to shut the thread down. Thanks all for commenting and reading.

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Charlie Hebdo and Free Expression

The lead article in the first edition of Charlie Hebdo after the massacre at its Paris offices by Islamists claiming to avenge cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad — the edition distributed as an astonishing five million copies — raised a thorny, sensitive question. After thanking all those who had shown solidarity with the magazine, its editor in chief, Gérard Biard, asked a question that, he said, “torments us”:

“Are we finally going to rid our political and intellectual vocabulary of the dirty term ‘laïcard intégriste’?”

Loosely translated, those words mean “die-hard secularist.” What Mr. Biard was challenging was the argument that committed secularists like himself and the staff of Charlie Hebdo had essentially brought this tragedy upon themselves, and that there is, by implication, a sort of moral equivalence between deeply held secularist views and the “religious totalitarianism” — his words — that he and his staff loved to skewer.

Over the years, he went on, Charlie Hebdo and other champions of la laïcité — the secularism enshrined in French politics — had been assailed as “Islamophobes, Christianophobes, provocateurs, irresponsible, throwers of oil on the fire, racists” and the like.

Even as people lamented the massacre, he wrote, some of them offered a maddening qualifier: “Yes, we condemn terrorism, but.......” “Yes, burning down a newspaper is bad, but..... We have heard it all, and our friends as well....”

Obviously there can be no “but” in condemning the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the ideology that encourages murder in the name of religion.

Irreverent magazines like Charlie Hebdo have been a fixture in Western societies for many years, and France has a strong tradition of such journalism.

The Internet, moreover, has opened the door to almost every level and form of expression.

Yet there are legitimate questions raised about freedom of expression in this tragedy.

In the wake of the terror attack, French authorities began aggressive enforcements of a law against supporting or justifying terrorism, including arrests of people who spoke admiringly about the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. Not surprisingly, their actions have raised questions of a double standard — one for cartoonists who deliberately insult religion, when their cartoons are certain to antagonize Muslims at a time when anti-Muslim feelings are already at high levels in France and across much of Europe, and another for those who react by applauding terrorists.

The difference, according to French authorities, is between the right to attack an idea and the right to attack people or incite hatred.

The distinction is recognized in the various laws against hate speech or inciting violence that exist in most Western states.

As a consequence of World War II, France and several other European countries have laws against denying the Holocaust, and with a rise in anti-Semitism in France, authorities have actively sought to curb hate speech, like the anti-Semitic routines of a comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.

Freedom of expression is broader in the United States, but there, too, there are legal limitations on speech that involves incitement, libel, obscenity or child pornography.

But drawing the line between speech that is disgusting and speech that is dangerous is inherently difficult and risky.

In Israel, mocking Muhammad can bring a prison term, as it did for Tatiana Susskind, a Russian immigrant who posted drawings of the Prophet as a pig in Hebron in 1997.

She was accused, among other things, of committing a racist act and harming religious sensitivities, and sentenced to two years in prison. Laws like those in France against “words or acts of hatred” are based on what is often a subjective judgment. And any constraints on freedom of expression invite government abuse.

Tastes, standards and situations change, and in the end it is best for editors and societies at large to judge what is fit — or safe — to print.

That the tragedy in Paris has served to raise these questions is in no way an insult to the members of the Charlie Hebdo staff who perished.

Shocking people into confronting reality was, after all, what their journal — which they proudly called a “journal irresponsable” — was all about.

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Freedom of Expression Narratives after the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

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Sejal Parmar, Freedom of Expression Narratives after the Charlie Hebdo Attacks, Human Rights Law Review , Volume 18, Issue 2, June 2018, Pages 267–296, https://doi.org/10.1093/hrlr/ngy003

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This article considers the significance of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and responses to them from the perspective of international human rights law on the freedom of expression. Focusing on the recent positions taken by international human rights bodies, it unravels and explores three distinct and influential narratives concerning freedom of expression that have developed amongst a range of actors, including these bodies, in the three years since the attacks took place. ‘Freedom of Expression as Identity’ recalls how the Charlie Hebdo attacks spurred an outpouring of political declarations concerning freedom of expression, but also laid bare the deep and long-standing cultural divisions surrounding this right. ‘Freedom of Expression as a Human Right’ unpacks the various ways in which the Charlie Hebdo attacks and states’ responses to them engage provisions of international human rights law. ‘Freedom of Expression as Part of the Problem’ examines approaches by the United Nations to preventing and countering violent extremism which draw upon states’ own policies. This article thus exposes the contrasts between the three narratives, as well as the inconsistencies and tensions within them, to reveal ambivalence and resistance towards freedom of expression as a right in the modern era.

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The Philosophers' Magazine

On Charlie Hebdo and Free Speech

Alan Haworth argues the Charlie Hebdo attacks were an assault on a particular view of the good society, one which views citizens as both equal and free.

Exactly what did the Charlie Hebdo killers do wrong? Answers appear so obvious that the question can seem odd. For a start, there is the obvious fact of deliberate, cold-blooded murder. Then there is the fact that the “punishment” (if such it can be called) was completely out of proportion to the “crime”. Even if Hebdo ’s cartoons had been as offensive to the religious as some claim, that wouldn’t have justified the brutal “execution” of the cartoonists, any more than the offensiveness to women of the Sun ’s soft- pornographic page three would have justified some group of militant feminists in machine-gunning that paper’s editorial board. Then again, there is the consideration that the killers were claiming to act with authority while interfering in the affairs of a country within whose jurisdiction they in fact had none (and, not only that, a country with a tradition of laïcité and a right to free speech embodied in its constitution). The list of iniquities is considerable and it could be extended further but - note - you can get quite a way down the list before the subject of free speech is even mentioned.

Even so, it is upon the idea that the assassinations represent an especially significant assault on the value of free speech that commentators have tended to focus. Just for example, at one extreme we find George Galloway of the not-so-liberal Left, and head of Britain’s Respect party, stating that, “we condemn utterly the murder of 17 people in the events in Paris. But we will not allow this Charlie Hebdo magazine to be described as a kind of loveable, anarchic, fun book of cartoons”, and that, ‘it is a racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag’. (Galloway was speaking at a ‘freedom of speech demonstration’ held in Bradford City Hall, at the heart of an area heavily populated by Muslims.) At another, we find Salman Rushdie, quoting John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela, insisting that “Freedom is indivisible” and that “You can’t slice it up otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo … But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak”.

What, then, are we to make of this emphasis upon the “free speech issue”? Put it this way: there are many reasons for condemning the attacks, but is the fact that they represented an assault upon free speech one of them? Again, the question can seem odd, for it’s hard to believe that there aren’t cartoonists and others who will now be thinking twice before embarking upon projects they had in mind. However, there could be more to be said on the subject, and I offer the following observations with that in mind.

First; if you want to gain a clear picture of the issues which are at stake here, you won’t get very far if you concentrate exclusively on tensions which are likely to arise between one person’s liberty to express an idea, an opinion, or an attitude, and the injury such expression is likely to cause to the sensitivities of another person or group. Ask: is it a good thing, other things being equal, that people should be free to express their ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and the like? The answer ought to be obvious. Of course it is. Now ask: other things being equal, isn’t it wrong that people’s feelings should be offended and hurt by the things other people say? Again, the answer has to be that of course it is. But what is needed here is a way of balancing the one against the other - the former good thing against the latter wrong thing - for we want to determine when, and why, one should override or trump the other, and you won’t determine that simply by focusing on qualities intrinsic to the factors you are trying to balance.

I mention the foregoing tension mainly because it is so often held to be the point at which the core of the “free speech question” is to be located. People take sides here. Some hold that liberty of expression is a right which must always trump any right there may be not to be offended or hurt by its exercise. Against this, others hold that the former right is sometimes trumped by the latter. (Clearly, George Galloway is a case in point. The Pope is another. Apropos the Hebdo case, he said, “You cannot make fun of faith”.) But in the absence of a credible external criterion - one which can be appealed to in order to determine, in particular cases, which factor overrides which - neither view is persuasive.

By way of illustration, take a recent case, that of Kyle Sandilands, an Australian radio presenter with a popular morning show. In November 2011, Sandilands ran into trouble thanks to his having taken one of his critics to task by describing here as a “fat slag”. Addressing her, he said, “What a fat bitter thing you are. You’ve got a nothing job anyway. You’re a piece of shit”. (There was more in the same vein. He went on to describe her as “not having much titty” and said, “Watch your mouth girl, or I will hunt you down”.) Unsurprisingly, there were complaints, and - here is the point - Sandilands said this in his defence: “We live in a country of free speech. You’re allowed to say what you want and so am I”.

Of course, Sandilands is just one example of a contemporary phenomenon - the boorishly offensive media presenter claiming to defend “free speech” against “political correctness” - but, in any case, I take it that readers will agree with me that his invocation of the former right is pretty feeble. It invites the rejoinder “If that’s an exercise of the right to free speech, what’s so special about free speech?” I think readers will agree with me that, if there any cases in which the “right” to free speech doesn’t trump any offence it may cause, this is one. But then, why? Surely it cannot be the simple fact that Sandiland’s remark was offensive, for, if that were the case, the existence of a legally protected right to free speech would be pointless and nothing interesting would ever be said. I expect those same readers will agree with me about that too.

But, with that, let me turn to the relevance of all this to the Hebdo case. It is this: if it were the case that the right to free speech always trumped injury to the sensitivities of others, it would follow that the attacks necessarily represented an assault upon that right. However, if the former trumped the latter only sometimes , then - what? Is Galloway suggesting that the bombers had an excuse ? Certainly, Galloway thinks that, “The honour of religious people, their prophets, their beliefs is not fair game for such people [the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists]” and his rhetoric is underpinned by a portrait of Muslims in British society as a “marginalised” and “alienated” group whose prophets need protection from “obscene and pornographic provocation”. (Clearly, something depends on how accurate this portrait is.) Less stridently, Mehdi Hassan, writing in the New Statesman , has argued that, “None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or, for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed”. This is pretty much the implication of my account of the Sandilands case, so I can hardly disagree, but I do think there is more to be said.

Before that however, let us consider the familiar argument that, while there is a right to free speech, there are limits to that right. This is implicit in Hassan’s just quoted remark that, “None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech”. Similarly, the Pope, commenting on the Hebdo attacks, has said, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits”. (It is reported that, having said this, the Pope, “gestured to Alberto Gasparri, who organises papal trips and was standing by his side, and added: ‘If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal’”. So, does the Pope think that murdering twelve people in cold blood is no more serious a moral transgression than merely punching someone on the nose? If so, that strikes me as extraordinary.)

So, how should we assess the claim that there are limits? Well, as a start, note that it is open to at least two interpretations. According to one, the limits actually define the right itself. It is held that there is, in fact, no right to the exercise of free speech beyond that boundary. According to the other, the limits do not define the extent of the right. On the contrary, it is held that, although there is a right to free speech, one which remains intact even in cases beyond the boundary, it can sometimes be morally wrong to exercise that right. To appreciate the difference, note that each yields a different representation of the Sandilands example. Thus, on the first interpretation, there is no right to free speech such that Sandilands had a right to abuse his target in the way he did. On the second, he does have a right to free speech, just as he is claiming, but this was a situation in which he was wrong to exercise the right. (In case you find the point a little picky, note that there is nothing especially mysterious about the idea that it would be wrong to do something you have a right to do. For example, if you owe me money, then I may have a right to claim it back, but if I am filthy rich and you are in desperate poverty then it may be wrong of me to do so. Or again, you may have a right to commit adultery with someone, even though it would be morally wrong.)

Now - to take each interpretation in turn - it will be clear, I think, that the first is manifestly unpersuasive. As a start, note that, if it were correct the process of legislation would be a nightmare. Any constitutional clause ascribing a right to free speech to the citizens could only be a piece of shorthand, one which would have to carry with it a long line of exemption clauses, implicit or explicitly stated. For example, it might have to say, “Everyone has a right to free speech except for radio presenters who call their listeners rude names, people who insult religion or say ‘curse words’ against the Pope’s mother…” and so on. (Would the list of exemptions have to be infinite? Certainly, the future is ever present with new possibilities.) More to the point, there is the question of how the list of exemptions is to be compiled, and by whom? Unsurprisingly, the Pope is keen to draw a protective line around religion. (“One cannot make fun of faith”.) Against this, I should have thought that the freedom to criticise the beliefs of others, including their religious beliefs, is just the sort of freedom a right to free speech ought to guarantee. Never mind offences to dignity or, as some might put it, pomposity. Finally, it’s hard to see how the claim that on the one hand there is a right to free speech but that, on the other , there are limits, can avoid the charge of hypocrisy; that is, of granting a liberty with one hand while removing it with the other.

By contrast, the second interpretation has more going for it, or so it seems to me. That is partly because it reflects what I take to be an everyday fact, namely that we do exercise our judgement in deciding when to speak and when to remain silent. Refraining to exercise a “right to speak” may simply be a matter of diplomacy or good manners and, should you refrain, it doesn’t follow that you don’t have the right. But more to the point, the distinction it invokes - the distinction between having a right to free speech on the one hand, and, on the other, there being situations in which it would be wrong or, as it may be, inappropriate or just pointless to exercise it - reflects a crucial difference. The difference lies in the political dimension, which is present in the case of the right to free speech but absent in, for example, the case of the moral principle prohibiting the subjection of others to verbal abuse.

Points to note here are - firstly - that free speech, the value, comes embodied in a principle which forms just one element in a system of political morality; one which - according to liberals at least - ought to be enshrined in law. It comes, if you like, as part of a package. To take just one, albeit prominent, example, in Rawls’s version, the list of “basic liberties” includes “roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law”. Secondly then, note that there is a liberal view of the world reflected in this list, one which portrays citizens who are entitled to live their own lives in their own way, and on the basis of beliefs they have formed for themselves, each confronting the others on free and equal terms. Thirdly, note that the liberal package, in one version or another, tends to come with a rationale, one which invokes a deep level account of human nature, and the fundamental character of human relations. In philosophy, there are celebrated versions of this enterprise to be found in the work of the great liberal writers: Locke, J S Mill, and John Rawls being, I suppose, the most prominent examples.

If this is right, then, fourthly, we have an explanation for why it can be true both that someone has a right to free speech and that he or she would be wrong to exercise it in a particular case. In fact, since having a right to free speech is a matter of there being a certain principle, embodied in a specific system of political morality - and since such principles, by their nature, can only apply in the generality of cases - it would be amazing if there were always a perfect fit between the principle and events out there “in the world”. The Sandilands case is, perhaps, an example where there is no especially good fit. Certainly, it would be hard to argue that, in abusing his journalist critic, he had been exercising “the liberty of thought and discussion”, or “participating in the political decision-making process”, or “speaking truth to power” - these all being reasons which have been advanced, at various times, in support of there being a principle incorporating the right to free speech. On the contrary, there seems to be no especially good reason for defending his “right to speak” in that instance . Even so - and here is the point - that wouldn’t invalidate the case for there being a general principle guaranteeing the right to free speech.

So, my answer to the question of whether the Hebdo attacks were an assault upon freedom of speech is that they were, indeed, just that, but that if you seek an answer by concentrating solely upon tensions which may arise between offenders and offended you are looking in the wrong place. On the contrary, they were an assault on a particular view of the good society, one which views citizens as both equal and free - free, that is, to form their own beliefs and, on the basis of those beliefs, to live their own lives in their own way. It is, I guess, a sense of the threat to that open and liberal view by which the majority of those who demonstrated in Paris, in the wake of the attacks, were motivated. (As for exercising one’s discretion in choosing when to exercise the right there is, I think, a difference when one exercises that right in a context defined by a framework of liberal laws and institutions.)

Finally, could it be that, these days, we have a tendency to underestimate the importance tyrants and dictators can attach to the propagation of myths and stories? Readers of The Philosophers’ Magazine will, of course, be familiar with Plato’s conception of the “noble lie” or “magnificent myth”. In my translation of The Republic it is described as “a fairy story like the poets tell and have persuaded people to believe”. The story is used to persuade the citizens of Plato’s ideal that some were born with gold in their souls, some silver, some bronze or iron, and thereby to do what they’re told by the rulers.

The Hebdo attacks can, I suppose, be seen as an attempt to scare people into conforming to the dictates of a vision, but in this case, one to which most of them do not subscribe. And there are other recent cases. Take that of Kim Jong-il, the late ruler of North Korea, who is on record as having said, “I rule through music and literature”. (I am quoting from Dear Leader , by Jan Jin-Sung, who was a key member of North Korea’s propaganda machine until his defection in 2004. Jan Jin-Sung describes how “every single writer in North Korea produces works according to a chain of command that begins with the Writers’ Union Central Committee of the Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department”. To fail in that is to be guilty of treason. Small wonder then, that the present ruler, Kim Jong-un is angry at the release of a movie, The Interview , which pokes fun at him, apparently threatening his regime by pricking his pomposity. Small wonder, either, that he is (apparently) alarmed at the plans laid by activists in the South to parachute 100,000 copies of the movie, on DVD and USB, into the North. Jokes, it seems, can unsettle despots.



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Charlie Hebdo free speech debate: Nobody is listening

The chilling attacks sparked a global debate about free speech and the right to offend.

Rachel Shabi

Ironically, in the recently revived debate over free speech, there has been a paucity of real, engaged communication – you know, the type where you actually listen to the people with whom you think you disagree. 

The commentary has come up around the one-year commemoration of the Charlie Hebdo massacres, in which jihadist gunmen killed 12 people at the satirical magazine in Paris and then shot four hostages at a kosher supermarket as well as a policewoman.

Keep reading

Al jazeera reporter’s family receives israeli threat to leave gaza home, gaza’s journalists: reporting under bombardment, israel-gaza: genocidal rhetoric and the fog of war, poland: elections in a time of broken media.

Those chilling attacks sparked a global debate about free speech and the right to offend (although, as the magazine’s chief editor Gerard Biard noted, there was worryingly less debate over the killing of four Jewish people in a kosher supermarket).

Now, one year on, the declaration that we are all Charlie – Je Suis Charlie – is still strong. And it is still often accompanied by an assumption that not showing solidarity in this particular way is somehow synonymous with saying those 10 cartoonists deserved to be murdered.

Unable to be Charlie

As the British political website  politics.co.uk  reported last week, French Muslims felt unable to “be” Charlie because the perception of Islamophobia creeping out of those cartoons was turned into a kind of litmus test for national loyalty. 

Index on Censorship’s France correspondent, Valeria Costa-Kostritsky, told the site : “What we witnessed was a discussion with two trends emerging – those who were Charlie and those who weren’t. After the terror attack it was very problematic to not be Charlie, or to express some distance or criticism of the work of Charlie Hebdo.”

READ MORE: A rupture in Europe, but whose politics will prevail?

The “Je Suis Charlie” argument seems to be that support for the magazine’s brand of satire cannot be conditional – because, by definition, you cannot conditionally support free speech.

We cannot credibly dismiss that many do find Charlie Hebdo racist and Islamophobic - those arguing that, rather than using satire to challenge the powerful, punching upwards, the magazine instead targets an already marginalised Muslim minority, punching downwards. by  

Well, OK, but what if people are constantly telling you that they condemn the killings and still cannot “be” Charlie – what then? 

We cannot credibly dismiss that many do find Charlie Hebdo racist and Islamophobic – those arguing that, rather than using satire to challenge the powerful, punching upwards, the magazine instead targets an already marginalised Muslim minority, punching downwards. The point obviously relates to the effect that this might have on a societal level – creating or stoking animosity towards a weak community. 

Regardless of whether or not you agree, there is no point trying to stem such critiques – because you can’t defend free speech by curtailing how that free speech is received (as long as the reception is not violent). Satire, in some luckier countries, is viewed as an essential tool for challenging and questioning power, a position that has been fiercely fought for and which should be fiercely defended.

Necessary debate

But that doesn’t change the fact that some of it is just really bad, or clumsily deployed, or may be received by weaker groups as a proxy for attacking them. There are all kinds of reasonable counters to these arguments: you could point out that Charlie Hebdo attacks powerful, organised religions (all of them), rather than the individually religious; or you might find it a bit patronising to assume that minority communities are so terribly sensitive. 

But still, describing cartoons as offensive or unhelpful, or as misusing their position, is all a part of the necessary debate that satirists both raise and should be prepared to face. And, crucially, that’s the bit we can’t shut down following the actions of murderous extremists – who do not get to shape or define this conversation. 

At the same time, there are problems with an insistence of free speech in western societies at a time when such freedoms are clearly qualified by those countries in question.

Protesters supporting the 'Reclaim Australia' group hold anti-Muslim placards during a protest rally in Sydney, Australia [EPA]

Speech wasn’t free for the eye-wateringly offensive, anti-Jewish ranting  French comedian Dieudonne, who was arrested for being an apologist for terrorism after posting to his Facebook page: “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” (merging the cartoon with one of the men who took hostages in the Paris kosher supermarket). 

Neither was it free for the French pro-Palestinian protesters whose demonstrations against Israel’s assault in Gaza in 2014 were banned .

Meanwhile, those emergency powers declared in the aftermath of the Paris attacks have since been continually extended and now – following November’s heinous multiple terror attacks, in which 120 people were killed – look like they may be kept in place indefinitely.

READ MORE:  Why don’t we care about anti-Muslim abuse?

It is these laws that allowed the French state to stop climate change protesters during the summit on the subject in December last year. Those same powers have been used to stop and search scores of people, most of them Muslims, as well as to detain without charge.


During the week-long commemoration of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, free speech organisations around the world, spearheaded by the writers’ group Pen International, pointed out that the biggest threats to free speech came from governments “ostensibly motivated by security concerns”.

Pen’s statement on the issue drew critical attention to France’s new surveillance laws – which have elsewhere been condemned by human rights groups as being too intrusive and carrying no judiciary control.  

And, while free speech is the foundation stone of a progressive, functioning democracy we can’t champion it in isolation, while losing sight of other key principles. The democracies whose politicians insist that we are all Charlie are the same ones chipping away at other freedoms. What of the suggestions of passport-stripping coming from both French and British governments – for dual-nationality terrorism convicts and those returning from fighting with ISIL, respectively? This might be one of the most anti-democratic things a state can do, flying in the face of the fundamental right to citizenship by birth. 

It’s only when we get rid of what one writer has described as “ discursive segregation ” in the context of free speech and Charlie Hebdo, that we can start to fight for and uphold these invaluable collective rights, together. It’s the capacity to fight for two seemingly opposing things at the same time that we need to find – because, until we do, how will we ever find the operational common ground between them?

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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Sample Report On Freedom Of Speech In Light Of Charlie Hebdo’s Attack

Type of paper: Report

Topic: Religion , Democracy , Speech , Rhetoric , Freedom , Internet , Muslim , Islam

Published: 2021/02/05

Wednesday January 2015, two masked gunmen attacked Charlie Hebdo in his office in Paris, France (BBC, 2014). The attackers left twelve people dead and other injured (Kim Willsher, 2015), and caused a worldwide condemnations and one of the most peaceful head of states match in support of the government of France. The attacker claims that Hebdo’s work attacks Muslim by wrongly representing Muhammad that hurts the Muslims. Although this could be an isolated attack, there have been other attacks in the larger European region. For example, the Copenhagen killing that seems to resemble the Charlie Hebdo’s attack in the same month (Simon Tisdall, 2015). Tisdall asserts that there is a need for Europe to protect the freedom of speech and religion. The question arising is whether there was any just reason(s) for the two gunmen to attack Charlie Hebdo on the grounds of religion. France is secular state meaning that the state and its operations ought to be separate from any religion. It also means that the state exercise neutrality as far as it concerns religions (Maurice Barbier, n.d). Therefore, the essence of free speech in France ought to not have religious biases. Any person has the freedom to give their opinion on any matter and enjoy state protection from coercions from any group provided the ideas do not amount to criminal activities. Religious criticisms are as ancient as mankind. In the ancient times, early philosophers such as Socrates questioned the gods the Athenians worshiped. Those who felt threatened by his ideas accused of being a sophist. They had to seek legal interpretation from their judges. Although that was the case, the Athenian laws did not specify what ought to be the freedom of speech explicitly. The debate on wearing hijab in the public school has created a lot of debate with the Muslim community citing oppression and limiting their freedom to exercise their religion in France (Melanie Adrian, 2006, p 102). Although this may be the case, the freedoms of exercising one’s freedom of regions ought not to go beyond certain levels. It is evident that the Hijab may cause religious segregations they make the Muslim students stand out in the schools. Such may change the focus from the similarities to the focusing on the differences. Whoever wants equal treatment in the face of the laws ought to treat other in the same way. One must be clean first to point figures at others and accuse them of not been fair. The principle of equal treatment allows for limitation of one’s religious activities especially where such creates disparities. It is worth noting that religious aspects are not public but private affairs necessitating a limitation to its practice to one’s private life. However, that does not limit the discussion on religion in the public or criticisms. Would curtailing of freedom of speech be good for the Muslims and the rest? A society that has limited speech is vulnerable to among others things oppression from several agents of government or private firms. If one cannot voice their concern to the public, one cannot get a fair treatment. Therefore, what the attackers wants the public to believe is not only adverse to them, but also the larger community. Naomi Wolf (2015), states that the quickest way to spread extremist tendencies is by the use of the censor’s boot. She questions the moral authority that bans particular speech that one may consider extremist. The necessity of such limitations help in practicing all the people from harm since unregulated freedoms of speech is dangerous. There must be a standard measure of what the society allows, such as allowing criticisms. In addition, Wolf’s assertion may not hold since in a completely free society is not possible. Laws limit every aspect in the society. However, such limitations do not need to be very strict to water down the gains of free speech. It is of greater benefit to allow criticisms of whatever nature as they trigger positive changes. The egalitarianism philosophy requires that all people get equal treatment economically, socially, and morally, among others. The moral egalitarianism advocates equal treatment in the applications of justice (The Basics of Philosophy, n.d.). Why then can’t the Muslims if they feel aggrieved by any party seek legal redress from the established institutions? The answer may point out the deviation from the norm whereby terrorist use religion to advance other agendas that are entirely different. The need to separate one’s desire for freedoms and selfish gains for coercing one to believe or hold one’s moral standing as superior is necessary. Was Charlie Hebdo wrong in producing the cartoons? From whatever perspective one may view Hebdo’s actions, there is no just reason to kill anyone who draws cartoons (Jeff Sparrow, 2015). As noted earlier, killing a person for alleged violation of one’s religious beliefs does not justify the acts of the person as right. Taking the laws upon one’s hands is a criminal activity. Jacob Canfield (2015) asserted that the primary aim of the cartoons is to provoke discussions on various issues in the society. Therefore, the religious cartoons are not made to ridicule the person Muhammad. Those opposed to Hebdo’s work are using their subjective interpretation without questioning the motivations behind his work. Humor or satire may not indicate what is just obvious. The cartoons depict an inner meaning that is may not be outside the French politics. The symbolism used needs an in-depth analysis for one to understand and appreciate the work (Max Fisher, 2015). Moreover, the freedom of speech does not mean free from criticism even from a religious perspective.

Barbier M. n.d. Towards a Definition of French Secularism. [online] Available at http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/IMG/pdf/0205-Barbier-GB.pdf [Accessed on April 8, 2015] Adrian M. 2006. Laïcité Unveiled: Case Study in Human Rights, Religion, and Culture in France. Human Rights Review-2006. PDF. Available at http://www.academia.edu/186484/La%C3%AFcit%C3%A9_Unveiled_A_Case_Study_in _Human_Rights_Religion_and_Culture_in_France. [Accesses on April 8 2015] Fisher M. 2015. What everyone gets wrong about Charlie Hebdo and racism. Vox Jan 12, 2015, [online] Available at http://www.vox.com/2015/1/12/7518349/charlie-hebdo- racist/in/7271890 [Accessed on April 8, 2015] The Basics of Philosophy. Egalitarianism. Retrieved on April 8, 2015 from http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_egalitarianism.html Willsher K. 2015 Gunmen attack Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo's offices killing at least twelve. The Guardian Jan 7, 2015, [online]. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/07/satirical-french-magazine-charlie-hebdo- attacked-by-gunmen [Accessed on April 8, 2015] Canfield J. 2015. In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism. The hoodedutilitarian Jan. 7. 2015, [online] available at http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2015/01/in-the-wake-of-charlie-hebdo-free-speech- does-not-mean-freedom-from-criticism/ [Accessed April 8, 2015] Sparrow J. 2015. We can defend Charlie Hebdo without endorsing it. The Drum 9 January 2015, [online]. Available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01- 09/sparrow- we-should-support-charlie-hebdo-not-endorse-it/6007836 [Accessed on April 8, 2015] BBC. 2015, January 14. Charlie Hebdo attack: Three days of terror. BBC Jan. 14 2015, [online] Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30708237 [Accessed on April 8, 2015] Tisdall S. 2015. Copenhagen killings: bewildered Europe struggles to defend freedom of speech and religion. The Guardian, January 15, 2015, [online] available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/15/copenhagen-attack-islamist-extremism- europe-freedom-speech-religion [Accessed on April 8, 2015]. Wolf N. 2015. The fastest way to spread extremism is with the censor’s boot. The Guardian April 7, 2015, [online] available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/07/extremism-censorship-ideas- charlie-hebdo [Accessed on April 8, 2015].

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Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo and the defence and definition of free speech

The way in which liberal-left political satire is practised in France and Britain has long given the lie to the smug stereotype of Britain being brave and France cowardly in opposing fascism ( An assault on democracy , 8 January). The tendency here, as epitomised most egregiously by Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, is to pick on soft targets, pandering to a “groupthink” audience of the so-called liberal left, laughing uproariously on cue, in what Howard Jacobson once identified as an “avidity of like-mindedness”. The endless recycling of Blair as the soft target fox to these “brave” hunters is a good example.

The self-righteous rant can so often in Britain pass for the true satire, based firmly in an authentic left, which Charlie Hebdo so courageously exemplifies in France . Even Steve Bell, who has spoken very movingly of his French colleagues, slaughtered by fascist thugs, has been circumspect about his targets; and Rory Bremner left satire behind when he chose to exclude religious extremists from his chosen objects of ridicule – and then wondered why he did not get “enough grief” over his output.

True satire is not just posturing, in a cosily collusive middle-class milieu, as “anti-establishment”. It is freedom laughing in the face of tyranny. That takes courage of an order demonstrated by the assassinated journalists at Charlie Hebdo, whose slain editor simply stated that he would rather die than “live like a rat”. Hugh Hetherington Sandwich, Kent

As a Muslim, I strongly condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo and those behind it. These terrorists do not represent me nor do they represent Islam . Their wicked ideology is an existential threat to Islam itself. Part of the problem is that these extremists and Islamophobes – responsible for burning mosques and attacking women wearing the hijab – need each other to exist. We, the majority of ordinary people of every faith, race and colour, should stand together to these extremists and say enough is enough. Mohammed Samaana Belfast

What is the matter with journalists that the killing of 12 other journalists in a conflict which has killed thousands of “other people”, mostly Muslims, commands shock and fuss out of all proportion to its importance? The government of Israel recently responded to the deaths of three Israelis with almost 3,000 Palestinian deaths. Journalists noticed that event, clicked tongues and talked about the general problem. The staff of Charlie Hebdo gave gross affront and knew about extremist groups who kill. We all do. They knew that Muslims venerate the prophet and that extreme Muslims will die and kill for him. The Parisian journalists produced a smart, Muhammad-mocking cartoon and now witter on (like your columnists) about rights, liberty, eternal freedom of eternal expression and other abstractions. They should consider that the little lad who used a stick with a horses-head handle to poke a lion got eaten. Edward Pearce York

In the aftermath of this tragic attack, many people, mainly journalists and politicians, have robustly and self-righteously defended “free speech”. Free speech is held up as a cornerstone of democracy even when some of those who have exercised it have been imprisoned or exiled and when, at the same time, it can be divisive, foment prejudice and hatred, feed anger, bitterness and otherness. Those who call for some restraint and respect in the media are labelled censorious.

Surely in any democracy the exercise of restraint and respect for others is imperative. Defenders of free speech suggest that anything goes, in which case it should be acceptable to call someone with learning difficulties a “retard”, or a person of Pakistani origin a “Paki” and so on. It is not acceptable to use such speech and it should not be acceptable to denigrate religion – even when one holds a superior intellectual position – where it is known to give offence. Mockery, even when dressed up as satire, is a poor substitute for honest debate. Let’s have more respect and less hypocrisy. Susan Robinson Ormskirk, Lancashire

Guardian commentators – along with the rest of the media – have been as one in their framing of the French terrorist atrocities as a narrative of ‘“free speech v evil doers”. In this context, some dissenting opinion from secular liberals would not go amiss. At what point does the “right to offend” slide into Muslim-baiting and just plain old-fashioned racism? For example, I fail to see equivalence between the intelligent irreligious cartoon “Jesus and Mo”, which attacks the absurdities of belief, and pornographic portrayals of the prophet Muhammad.

Readers might want to check out the Charlie Hebdo cartoon “the Koran is shit” and reflect on how this compares with the lurid depictions of Jews in Der Sturmer in 1930s Germany. Given France’s anti-Islamic colonialist past we should be very wary of how it continues to inform present discourse on Islam in the guise of liberty. Steven Garside Manchester

Freedom is always a dilemma. For me to be free to do anything I want, no one else can be free. We therefore have agreed to limit individual freedom to get a balance for us all to have some freedom. For freedom of speech, the same thing works. Should I be free to express all I think and feel even if it insults, hurts, degrades other people and their most precious beliefs? Freedom of speech only works if we show respect for other people. Disrespecting other people, their religion or foreign heads of state, and justifying it as free speech, should also be unacceptable. This does not stop rational argument or criticism, just abuse. Jeffrey Butcher Morecambe, Lancashire

Free speech comes at a price; it even costs human lives. The bottom line for an open and free democracy seems to me to be that I have to accept that someone, somewhere, sooner or later, will say something that offends me. But I have to live with my feelings, and not assuage them in any violent way at all. In fact, we can all have a “right” to cause offence, if we do not also demand the “right” to take offence too. It is likely that some of those who reject this principle, whatever their religion, or lack of it, will continue to make martyrs of those who practise it. Fr Alec Mitchell Manchester

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Recent Charlie Hebdo Attacks Bring Freedom Of Speech To Forefront In France

Rebecca Rosman

Recent attacks in Paris linked to cartoons published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have intensified the debate among comedians in France about freedom of expression.


France is having another debate about free expression. It follows the killing of a middle school teacher in Paris after he showed students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and another attack last month when two people were stabbed outside the former offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, which originally published the cartoons that some Muslims found offensive. As Rebecca Rosman reports, the attacks have unsettled many people in France, including comedians who ask, can't you make fun of everything?

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: If you're asking the legal question in France, the answer is actually no.

DAN SHEFET: There are limits to what you can, under French law, make fun of.

ROSMAN: Dan Shefet is a Paris-based lawyer with an office not too far from the Champs Elysees. He says you can make fun of religion, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo.

SHEFET: It may be poor taste, but it's not illicit.

ROSMAN: But it is illegal when those comments can be deemed as racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic.

SHEFET: If somebody makes an illicit remark against a protected group and says in court, I made that because I wanted to be funny, he should probably get another lawyer.

ROSMAN: Those are not opinions, the French government says. They're offenses.


DIEUDONNE: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: The most famous example of a comedian crossing this boundary is Dieudonne, who has made a career out of anti-Semitic jokes. Dieudonne has been convicted eight times in French court on anti-Semitism charges, the latest time being last month when he was slapped with a 10,000 euro fine for jokes poking fun of Holocaust survivors. He was also banned from Facebook, TikTok and Instagram.


ROSMAN: At a recent roundtable about freedom of expression and comedy, an audience member asked the question, where does Dieudonne fit in all this? Can his jokes be funny? Alain Degois, a comedian and director better known as Papy, took a deep sigh before responding.

ALAIN DEGOIS: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: He was a friend of mine, he said, but I feel like he lost himself. He stopped being a comedian and started acting like an ideologist.

HAROUN: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Haroun, another comic known for pushing the limits, agrees it's about intention. Once you stop being a comedian, he says, and start acting like a politician, you've crossed the line. We met up at a cafe where he elaborated.

HAROUN: If we can see that your intention is nice, your intention is to laugh about racism but not being racist, it's OK.

ROSMAN: But at the same time, Haroun says he doesn't support the existing French law that sets limits to freedom of expression.

HAROUN: I don't like what Dieudonne do at this time, but I don't like that the law tried to tell me what I have to hear or think. I think that people are free.

ROSMAN: Dan Shefet, the lawyer, says Haroun is missing the point. He says traditional free speech is strong in Europe.

SHEFET: I should be able to say whatever I want against anybody who wields power over me, but it's a logical fallacy to say that ergo, I can say whatever I want against you - two completely different things.

ROSMAN: The real threat to free speech today isn't the law, Shefet says, it's cancel culture.

SHEFET: If we look back in history, artists who have made a difference are artists that were very, very politically incorrect. And you need that. You need people that will challenge what everybody believes is true.

ROSMAN: Part of the continuing debate in France about where to draw the line between challenging the status quo and breaking the law. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris.


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charlie hebdo freedom of speech essay

Charlie and Theo

charlie hebdo freedom of speech essay

In the wake of the Paris attacks, many people were quick to view the killings as a direct attack on democracy and to claim that freedom of speech is absolute. In this essay, Ian Buruma explores the principles of free speech and tolerance

The Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by a Muslim extremist in Amsterdam a little more than ten years ago, had much in common with the satirists of "Charlie Hebdo". Like the French editors and cartoonists, he was a provocateur, a moral anarchist, a shock artist who never saw a taboo he did not wish to smash.

Because anti-Semitism is the great post-war European taboo, van Gogh insulted Jews with crass jokes about gas chambers. Because we are told to "respect" Islam, he ridiculed Allah and his Prophet, much in the way "Charlie Hebdo" did.

The aim of taboo-breakers is to see how far the limits of free speech can be stretched, legally and socially. After all, despite the rather hysterical claims being made in the wake of last week's gruesome murders, free speech is not absolute. Most European countries have laws against hate speech, including France, where it is forbidden to deny the existence of the Holocaust.

A man holds a sign that reads "I am not Charlie", Niamey, Niger, 17 January 2015 (photo: Reuters/T. Djibo)

Free speech is relative

Free speech is in fact relative. What can be said by an artist or a novelist cannot be said by a judge or a politician. Some language used by African-Americans among themselves would be grossly insulting if used by a white person. And so on. Simple rules of politeness create social barriers against saying anything we want.

The role of provocateurs is to challenge those social barriers by being deliberately impolite. There should be room for such iconoclasts, in the arts and the fringes of journalism, and they certainly should not be subject to violent attacks.

But to equate Theo van Gogh or "Charlie Hebdo" with "democracy" or "Western civilisation" seems too grandiose. One might as well claim that al-Qaida in Yemen stands for Eastern or Islamic civilisation.

Western civilisation is a rather vague concept anyway. Does it mean Greco-Roman, or Christian, or even Judeo-Christian? Or is it the Enlightenment? If so, which Enlightenment? Voltaire? De Sade? Adam Smith? Were fascism and communism not part of Western civilisation?

In any case, the urge to break taboos is hardly unique to the West. And the culture of insult and provocation is in some ways the opposite of the way democracy actually works. 

A handwritten note that reads "Blasphemy was decriminalised in 1789" hanging outside the offices of the newspaper "Liberation", 13 January 2015 (photo: DW/B. Riegert)

How democracy works

Democracy, in the West or anywhere else, is based on the willingness to strike compromises, to solve conflicts of interests peacefully within the framework of the rule of law. For democracy to function, citizens must be prepared to give and take. This also means that in a civilised society, we agree to live with cultural or religious differences, without deliberately insulting those whose values we do not share.

This is not a matter of cowardly collaboration with evil, or giving up our freedom of expression. Nor does it mean, as some would claim, a lack of principle. Tolerance is not a sign of weakness.

What tolerance shows is a reluctance to view social values in absolute terms, or to divide the world into good and evil. But even tolerance is not absolute: one thing that no democratic society can accept is the use of violence to impose one's views, whether they are religious, political, or a combination of the two.

Brutal intimidation is the aim of the terrorists

Theo van Gogh (photo: AFP/Getty Images/R. Nederstigt)

We can only guess at the psychological motives of the men who murdered the editors and artists of "Charlie Hebdo", or of the man who abducted hostages and killed four at a kosher supermarket. Perhaps they were pathetic losers, who turned from adolescent dreams of girls, football, and easy money to Holy War. This appears to have been the case for many home-grown jihadis, including the killer of Theo van Gogh. They would not be the first vulnerable young people to adopt a revolutionary cause to give themselves a sense of power and belonging.

We know more about the political motives of the violent revolutionary groups that recruit such young men and women to do the killing. Some claim that blasphemy or ridicule of the Prophet was the main reason that Charlie Hebdo was attacked and van Gogh was murdered. I doubt it. It is true that many Muslims might feel insulted by blasphemous movies or cartoons. But there is more to the killings than wounded sensibilities.

Brutal intimidation of actual and potential critics is just one of the aims of revolutionary groups. What revolutionaries hate most of all are not direct attacks by their enemies, but the necessary compromises, the give and take, the negotiations and adaptations that go with living in a liberal democracy. Their most important goal is to gain more recruits for their cause. If they are Islamists, they must try to force peaceful, law-abiding Muslims to stop making compromises with the secular societies they live in. They need more Holy Warriors.

The most effective way to do this is to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash by attacking symbolic targets, such as the Twin Towers in New York, a notorious filmmaker in Amsterdam, or a controversial satirical magazine in Paris. The more Muslims in Europe feel feared, rejected, and under siege by the non-Muslim majority, the more likely they are to support the extremists.

If we conclude from last weeks' murders that Islam is at war with the West, the jihadis will have won a major victory. If we embrace the peaceful majority of Muslims as our allies against revolutionary violence, and treat them as fully equal fellow citizens, our democracies will emerge stronger.

© Project Syndicate 2015

Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including   "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance"   and, most recently " Year Zero: A History of 1945" .



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    The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let's face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on...

  9. In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From

    On Wednesday morning, the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by three masked gunmen, armed with kalashnikovs, who stormed the building and killed ten of its staff and two police officers. The gunmen are currently understood to be Muslim extremists.

  10. Charlie Hebdo Persuasive Speech

    Freedom of Speech is the right to communicate opinions and ideas - and censoring these is one of the first signs of a restrictive society that can, and does, lead to totalitarianism. It is not, however, a right to "free speech" where you can call for the rape of women, or abuse others through words or images.… 980 Words 4 Pages Improved Essays

  11. Opinion

    Freedom of expression is broader in the United States, but there, too, there are legal limitations on speech that involves incitement, libel, obscenity or child pornography. But drawing the...

  12. Freedom of Expression Narratives after the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

    'Freedom of Expression as Identity' recalls how the Charlie Hebdo attacks spurred an outpouring of political declarations concerning freedom of expression, but also laid bare the deep and long-standing cultural divisions surrounding this right.

  13. On Charlie Hebdo and Free Speech

    But we will not allow this Charlie Hebdo magazine to be described as a kind of loveable, anarchic, fun book of cartoons", and that, 'it is a racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag'. (Galloway was speaking at a 'freedom of speech demonstration' held in Bradford City Hall, at the heart of an area heavily populated by Muslims.)

  14. How Charlie Hebdo started a debate about free speech

    A January 2015 issue of Charlie Hebdo. At the same time, a tense debate between different media actors produced a different freedom of speech controversy. Given the nature of the attacks, the ...

  15. Charlie Hebdo free speech debate: Nobody is listening

    During the week-long commemoration of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, free speech organisations around the world, spearheaded by the writers' group Pen International, pointed out that the biggest ...

  16. Charlie Hebdo: The Limits Of Freedom Of Expression

    After the shootings on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, an intense debate about the limitation of freedom of speech has arisen. Based on the English philosopher John S. Mill's theory of freedom of expression, this essay will show why the freedom of speech should be controlled.

  17. Im Really Not Charlie Hebdo Analysis

    The article "#JeSuisCharlie? No, I'm Really Not Charlie Hebdo" written by Sandip Roy focus on the importance of Freedom of Speech. From his article, he used pathos to show his sadness and fear of becoming Charlie Hebdo. He stated that even though Hendo's cartoon is offensive to some others, but why would he be murdered when he was given the right?

  18. Freedom Of Speech In Light Of Charlie Hebdo's Attack ...

    Wednesday January 2015, two masked gunmen attacked Charlie Hebdo in his office in Paris, France (BBC, 2014). The attackers left twelve people dead and other injured (Kim Willsher, 2015), and caused a worldwide condemnations and one of the most peaceful head of states match in support of the government of France.

  19. Charlie Hebdo and the defence and definition of free speech

    Thu 8 Jan 2015 14.14 EST Last modified on Wed 29 Nov 2017 20.47 EST The way in which liberal-left political satire is practised in France and Britain has long given the lie to the smug stereotype...

  20. Recent Charlie Hebdo Attacks Bring Freedom Of Speech To Forefront In

    Transcript. Recent attacks in Paris linked to cartoons published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have intensified the debate among comedians in France about freedom of expression. SCOTT ...

  21. I Am Not Charlie Hebdo Analysis

    I believe we as Americans tend to scream and shout about freedom of speech and freedom of expression only until someone decides to use those same freedoms to say something or express themselves in a way that offends our own views and beliefs. It's never right to suppress anyones speech regardless of what they are saying.

  22. Charlie Hebdo Research Paper

    Charlie Hebdo Research Paper Satisfactory Essays 246 Words 1 Page Open Document Freedom of speech is one of the most important rights any individual has and no one should be restricted from this right. We usually think that the freedom of speech allows people to say what they want, but the freedom of speech means much more.

  23. Democracy and freedom of speech: Charlie and Theo

    Dutch film director Theo van Gogh. The 47-year-old film maker was stabbed to death while cycling along a street in Amsterdam on 2 November 2004. We can only guess at the psychological motives of the men who murdered the editors and artists of "Charlie Hebdo", or of the man who abducted hostages and killed four at a kosher supermarket.