I am NOT Charlie


It is another day of atrocities. Gunmen on the streets of Paris. At least thirteen people have been killed and the death toll may yet rise. Most people are rightly shocked, dismayed, heart-broken.

And let’s be very clear about this. The killings are abhorrent. They are not justified. They should not happen. The people responsible should be caught and brought to justice.

But …

There are elements of this story that leave me deeply uncomfortable. This is not simply a case of black and white, monsters versus innocents, bad versus good.

Many French people are seeing this as an attack on their way of life, their core values. Freedom of speech is a part of the national psyche. It is a value that they hold very dear. The terrorist didn’t just attack a satirical magazine – they attacked the nation’s values.

Hence all the defiant “I am Charlie” rhetoric with people holding pens aloft. They are saying that then pen is mightier than the sword, and by implication the assault rifle or the bomb. We must protect the right of free speech.

This is where I start to have a problem. At the heart of this incident is a magazine which regularly publishes cartoons attacking world religions. This includes printing images of the prophet Muhammad, which some nations and some people consider to be prohibited.

So what the “I am Charlie” crowd are saying is that their right to free speech is more important than other people’s rights not to have pictures of Muhammad published.

If we accept that a nation’s values should be respected, then that should apply to all nations. We can’t pick and choose.

There’s another problem. Freedom of speech isn’t an absolute. We apply restrictions to what can be published. Most countries ban pornographic images of children, scenes of violence, material that could be held to be slander and libel.

Heck, we even get hot under the collar about gender neutrality, which means that we say “police officer” instead of “police man”.

In other words, we ban things that we find offensive or politically incorrect. And yet we allow material which some people find deeply offensive on religious grounds, such as images of Muhammad.

This is deeply hypocritical. Not only are we saying that my nation’s values are somehow better than your nation’s values.  We are also allowing ourselves exceptions to our own values when it suits us.

That is why I am saying that I am emphatically NOT Charlie. I abhor and detest the violence which happened yesterday. But equally I cannot agree with a magazine publishing images that a large part of the world finds offensive.

We do need to find an answer to the divisions in the world. We need to find a way of both protecting free speech and respecting the rights of people to practice their religions.

But we are not going to do this by waving pens around. Or by waving guns around.

The people who are attacking us are not doing it without reason. They are attacking us because they believe that we have attacked them, whether this is by a series of wars in the Middle East or attacks on their religious beliefs, such as the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo.

The answer is not always to reach for a bigger stick. We also have to recognise that they may have a point.

In some versions of this story we are the monsters.


8 thoughts on “I am NOT Charlie

  1. Rod

    There is a huge difference between the attack “You’re a meanie and you’re ugly!” and the attack that involves live ammunition. There is also huge difference between child pornography and a satirical comment on the god Oden. Being offended and being attacked are two different things. I believe that no one has the right to take someone’s life unless it is for defense and protection. I cannot agree with the magazine publishing those images either. I’m with you all the way on respecting any and all religions no matter what they are, but disrespect does not prohibit them from practicing their religion nor does it deserve the death sentence.


    • I am not a follower of Islam. I guess you aren’t either.

      So how can either of us offer an opinion about how much hurt is done to the followers of Islam by satirical images of the prophet Muhammad?

      We might have opinions about whether X is more acceptable than Y, but these are largely the result of the conditioning from the society that we live in. Other religions and nations will have different views to us. Not better or worse – different.

      You don’t believe it’s right to take a life except in certain circumstances. That’s your opinion. Other cultures have the concept of holy wars – that’s their opinion.

      We can’t always assume that “western” values are the only possible values or that they are inherently right.


      • Rod

        All I was suggesting was that they are different levels of monster. Being offensive should certainly be discouraged. Although I’m with you on the fact that I can’t support what the publishing company did, I believe it’s the duty of society to protect them from harm.
        I cannot endorse revenge, but people should be prevented from harming others. Let them believe what they will, let you believe what you will. I cannot judge that, and don’t intend to. If you picked up a club and started enforcing your ideals, it would be a different matter.


      • I don’t think we are that far apart. What I dislike about the “I am Charlie” mantra is that people are saying that because the gunmen were wrong to use violence, it automatically follows that Charlie Hebdo were right to publish their cartoons. I feel intensely sorry for the staff of Charlie Hebdo, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with them.


  2. Sorry Will, I disagree vehemently with you. Satirising the pompous and those in authority – of any sort – is the sign of a healthy society, and one less prone to authoritanarianism. Your argument walks too far down the road to subservience, and we should all be on the streets yelling Je Suis Charlie as a protest against those who consider a gun is a compelling argument. I shall be, on Sunday. And proud of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You think that satirising authority is the sign of a healthy society. The followers of Islam believe that images of the prophet Muhammad are prohibited by their religion.

      So you are 100% right and they are 100% wrong, eh?


  3. It’s difficult. Part of me wants to shout for Charlie and wave my pen aloft with vigour. Part of me thinks that in these days of increasing logic and humanism, those of us who are religious should expect to be ridiculed. Indeed, I believe there are passages in the parts of ‘the book’ we share that do, basically, state that ridicule and persecution are some of the occupational hazards of faith. Another part of me thinks about how I would feel if something I regard as holy was mocked. I confess, I wouldn’t like it.

    Even so, I think a magazine like Charlie Hebdo does have an important role to play.

    As for the assassins, I condemn what they have done because they are arseholes. The fact they’re Muslims is incidental.



    Liked by 1 person

    • Nicely put! It is tempting to be swept along with the mob. We are all appalled and what to do something to help or to show solidarity. In a different set of circumstances I would be out there waving a pen around.

      And yes there is an important role for satire.

      But the simple fact here is that some followers of Islam believe that images of the prophet are prohibited. Those images are not allowed by their faith. So when a magazine deliberately flouts this belief, they aren’t being satirical. They are being provocative and offensive. That in no ways condones the killing, but it stops me from saying “I am Charlie”.

      I wonder – would we be saying the same thing about free speech if this magazine had published homophobic literature? Or anti-black propaganda including the n-word? Did we have people waving pens in the streets to support Dave Whelan for his racist tweets about Chinese and Jewish people?


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