It has been a year since the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.
Twelve were killed and a further eleven injured in the incident perpetrated by two gunmen identifying themselves with the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Paris has since felt the impact of further Islamic extremist attacks in the past year with the attacks in November as has the rest of the world with recent attacks in Jakarta in Indonesia proving that this is not only a problem consigned to the Wes. Indonesia being the biggest Muslim country on earth shows that Islamic extremism and its terrorist acts don’t just have an agenda against the West but one that targets Europeans, Christians, Muslims, Syrians, Iraqis and Americans alike.
But to focus this comment piece on the Hebdo attacks and the issues concerning of freedom of speech with this background.
“Je suis Charlie” was of course the mantra in response to these vicious attacks for depicting and subsequently satirising the Prophet Mohammed, I for one was not particularly fond of it. I am not for one moment suggesting that the attack was anything other than barbaric, it truly was a disgusting incident committed by heartless killers. However what I objected to was the exaltation of Charlie Hebdo as the champions of free speech for the free world. This was acutely reminded for me this past week when reading about the publications latest cartoon.
It is not just for those of you who were following the ongoing refugee catastrophe who remember the image of the three year old Syrian boy, dead face down on a Turkish beach. It did and still does epitomise the ongoing refugee crisis, in the Mediterranean especially. This image however was taken by the aforementioned Charlie Hebdo last week and used in a cartoon hypothesising that had the three year old grown up he would have been a “Ass groper in Germany”, of course referring to the mass sexual assaults in Cologne. I wonder if those proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” would still be doing so now? The broader context of the publications content seemed to be forgotten after the attack last year. The truth is Charlie Hebdo publish repugnant cartoons that are tailored for an outraged reaction rather than standing for any deeper freedom or value. We all know there is more to freedom of speech than the ability to offend. By all means these individuals and publications are allowed to do so but we shouldn’t be equating offense with the best and noblest use of freedom of speech. If people want to proclaim “Je suis Charlie” they should also be proclaiming “Je suis Katie Hopkins”.
Over the past decade we have seen dissidents from regimes all over the world speaking out against corruption, tyranny and repression; Malala, Snowden, Aung San Suu Kyi are but three of those who I would personally exalt and respect for their commitment to freedom of speech far more than Charlie Hebdo. In this grand scheme of things offense is such a petty reason to say something compared to these three cases above. So why is it the case that we wish to view Hebdo with such esteem when there are individuals like Malala in the world who are using their voice to right a deep injustice and try and make the world a better place? It’s not that we shouldn’t mourn and recognise the atrocity that was the Hebdo attack but rather that we should not allow it to propel the magazine into freedom of speech sainthood. The occurrence of a tragedy like that of a year ago doesn’t make the victims saints, only the perpetrators villains.
So a year on after these attacks the message I have taken from it is a simple one. Freedom of speech manifests itself every day and in all our lives. In these instances it should be defended absolutely, including the cartoon that caused the attack in Paris a year ago. However it is not a contradiction to defend the right for Hebdo to publish but detest its content. We should not get carried away with the notion that the magazine is a great bastion of our freedom because it is not. Hebdo publishing repugnant cartoons doesn’t guarantee or mandate our own freedom of speech to remain intact. And most importantly society must defend Charlie Hebdo because it is our duty to do so, not in virtue of what they publish.
So let us remember and mourn the Hebdo attacks but not exalt the magazine because of it.