No, Charlie, no

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It has happened. I more or less knew it would, but I had hoped that a bit of common sense would prevail.

Charlie Hebdo have published an edition of their magazine with a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed on the front cover.

My heart sinks. It is one of the most stupid, crass and insensitive things they could have done  – but there has been an awful inevitability about it. It has been like a car crash happening in slow motion. You know it’s coming, you know it is going to hurt and there is nothing you can do about it.

A few days ago I blogged about why I am not Charlie. I am even less Charlie now after this.

Let me explain why.

Publishing an image of Mohammed is not just offensive to Muslims. It is prohibited in Islam. So when Charlie Hebdo publish a cartoon, they are not just attacking the small number of extremists who resort to violence. They are also offending the 1.8 billion followers of Islam. One quarter of the world’s population.

When I blogged “I am not Charlie”, some people agreed with me and some disagreed. Here are some of the arguments:

  1. It’s no big deal; it’s only a cartoon; any religion should tolerate being mocked; I don’t mind it.

This was a biggie. Some people tried to play down the importance of the image. To them it was a bit of harmless fun. What’s the problem?

The flaw in this line of thinking is that all faiths are different. They all have different rules and standards. Most forms of Christianity are highly visual. Churches are full of images from the Old and New Testaments. For many Christians the symbol of their faith is the crucifix. In some branches of Christianity, this is a plain cross. In others, the image includes a suffering Jesus. Catholicism, in particular, puts a strong emphasis on life-like images of Jesus including the wounds he suffered on the cross.

Islam places more emphasis on the written word than on images. This includes restrictions on images of people and images and especially of Mohammed.

This can mean that it is hard for people from a visual faith to understand a faith with a different point of view about religious imagery. Unless we are Muslim, it is hard to know how offensive this is for them.

Let’s imagine instead that Charlie Hebdo had published a picture that non-Muslims would find offensive. What if they had published some child pornography?

Or a picture of someone being murdered or tortured?

Or an offensive picture of you or someone close to you?

What if they had published a satirical piece mocking the victims of the Paris shootings?

Does that still seem like free speech?

Ah but it’s not the same, some will argue. Those things would be unacceptable. Publishing a cartoon of Mohammed is a different matter, isn’t it?

And that’s the problem. The people who are arguing that it’s no big deal are only seeing it only from their own perspective.

  1. It’s all about freedom of speech

No, it isn’t. Freedom of speech does not mean that you can say anything that you want. Every nation that believes in freedom of speech also has laws around tolerance and respect. We protect individuals by having laws on libel and slander. We restrict language that might lead to discrimination or race hate.

A few days after the Paris shootings, my newspaper printed this letter:

For a decade or more we have been subject to the dictates of political correctness, against our saying or doing anything that might cause offence.

Now, in the light of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, we are told that the freedom to offend is fundamental and to be defended.

Just what are we supposed to do?

I have read that letter several times. I can’t decide whether the person who wrote it is being sarcastic or pointing to the real issue here. If we justify Charlie Hebdo on the principle of free speech then we might as well forget everything that we have done around equality and the prevention of discrimination. An unlimited freedom to offend would blast us back to the stone age.

By all means publish a satirical magazine. Criticise Governments, individuals, organisations. Poke fun at extremists. Point out the hypocrisy of a nation that believes in freedom but has banned the burqa.

But there are limits. And attacking an entire faith for no purpose is one of them.

  1. The shootings are unjustified

There seems to be some weird logic going on here. Because the shootings were such an atrocity, some people are assuming that Charlie Hebdo must have been right to publish the cartoons in the first place.

It is almost as if the shootings were so wrong that the cartoons must have been right.

Some people are saying that we cannot criticise the cartoons, because that would mean that we are giving in to terrorists. We must not get into a situation where we are afraid to say anything that might be seen as a criticism of extremists.

These are all understandable human reactions. We have been shocked by the atrocities. We want to do something, to show sympathy, to stand up for those who were unjustly killed.

But that does not mean that Charlie Hebdo were right to publish the cartoons in the first place. It does not mean that they are right now.

We need to have the courage to say that the terrorists were wrong to take lives. But Charlie Hebdo were also wrong to publish images of Mohammed. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the people who are blindly chanting “Je suis Charlie” will gradually come round to the growing realisation of what they are signing up for.

So, no, I am still not Charlie. I will support the victims, I will sympathise with the people of Paris, I will support the police who were harmed doing their jobs.

But I will not support people who promote racial hatred, whether they do it with a pen or a gun.

One last thought. I have often wondered how people become radicalised. How does an ordinary man or woman get such strong feelings of hatred for the Western world that they are prepared to commit atrocities?

I strongly suspect that the extremists would show them things like the front cover of Charlie Hebdo. They would presumably say that this is symptomatic of a culture that does not respect their beliefs.

The “I am Charlie” movement could turn out to be a huge recruitment drive for radicalism – on both sides of the argument.

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8 thoughts on “No, Charlie, no

  1. Olivia

    I do, to a certain degree at least, agree with you. Especially your last blog post.
    About Number 1. I’ve done some research and it appears that it’s not quite clear whether or not it’s allowed to depict prophets.
    I leave this link here about it: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/10/drawing-prophet-islam-muhammad-images
    If I’m misinformed, I’d gladly hear about it. But from what I get it’s open to interpretation as to whether or not Islam itself forbids the depiction.
    I, personally, knew CH before this happened, and I’ve always found them offensive, in all directions, towards everything, which is why I never bought their magazine. But, I guess, they do have the right to offend. I have the right to ignore. I most certainly do not have the right to use violence against them.
    It’s a very difficult subject, in my opinion.

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    • It’s good point. I’m not a Muslim, so I don’t know for sure, but my understanding is similar to yours and the Guardian article. As far as I am aware, different elements within Islam have different views about the depiction of the prophet, and also that the views have changed over time. That’s no different to Christianity where there are different perceptions of blasphemy, say between the Catholic and protestant churches. And who can forget the Life of Brian scene about being put to death by stoning for saying the name of Jehovah?

      But the point remains that a very large part of the world consider it to be offensive.

      I’m not so sure about the right to offend, though. What do we do when that right (if it exists) conflicts with other people’s rights not to be discriminated against?

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      • Olivia

        I think it’s a very tough question to answer.
        I should respect every human being for being a human being. As every other human being should do. Problem solved. But unfortunately that doesn’t seem to work. Fear, prejudice and a hunger for power and money are keeping a large number of people from showing decency.
        So, I remove the right to offend, where do we draw the line? Am I still allowed to leave a negative review after I stayed at a crappy hotel? Am I allowed to negatively review a book or will that offend the author?
        Am I only not allowed to offend when I offend a large number of people? Am I allowed to make fun of North Korea? Even if I offend a whole country? But not allowed to make fun of a religion?
        To be honest, I am in this case mostly bothered by the hypocrisy we’ve seen here… D. Cameron found it acceptable to raid the Guardian for one, but he was marching at that Paris demonstration… huh? That hypocrisy makes this all so much worse, because clearly a lot of people are trying to profit from this terrible tragedy in some way.

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  2. I don’t think we should remove the right to offend. But I do think there ought to be limits – a point that the Pope has just made. For example, what if a journalist had a distressing photograph of someone killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack? Would we march in the streets for a newspaper’s right to print that photograph?

    Did anyone wave pens in support of Dave Whelan’s racist tweets?

    Do we protest about a Nazi group’s rights to print holocaust denials?

    Would we feel the same if Charlie Hebdo had printed an explicit photograph showing child pornography?

    The reality is that we do impose limitations on the freedom of speech. There are some things that we would not allow. For me, images of Mohammad ought to be in that category. They are not just offensive to Muslims, they are explicitly prohibited in Islam.

    That doesn’t stop a newspaper from printing other things which might be offensive to Muslims, or any other faith. It doesn’t stop them from attacking the extremists. It doesn’t stop them from being satirical. It is just a basic piece of human decency. A sign of respect.

    You are quite right about the amount of hypocrisy in this situation. What I find most remarkable is that people are opposing extremism by supporting an extremist magazine. The words pot, kettle and black come to mind.

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  3. The funny thing is that the “freedom to offend” seems to be a very recent idea. The earliest reference that I can find to it is from a quote by Salman Rushdie in 2004: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

    Before that there was an “offense principle” which apparently started being discussed around 1985. But this was a principle that free speech should be limited where it caused offence. It was not a right to offend.

    Just about every definition of free speech talks about limitations and the responsibility of the individual to avoid abuses and avoid causing harm or offence.

    If there is a “right to offend” then it doesn’t seem to be a fundamental right. It seems to have no legal status. And it is, at best, around 10 years old.

    I’m thinking of staging an English version of “I am Charlie”. Let’s start a campaign to defend Dave Whelan’s rights to make racist comments about Jewish people and Chinese people. We can take to the streets waving pens around. Then we can reprint his comments on the front cover of a magazine so that a million people can buy it.

    We could call it “I am Dave Whelan.”

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  4. Actually this isn’t about freedom of speech at all because it wasn’t the government who executed the producers of Charlie Hebdo. At least from an American perspective, the freedom of speech only protects you from government interference. The issue here is their right to go to work and not be murdered.
    I also wrote about why I Am Not Charlie for the newspaper I work for in China.
    http://www.twoamericansinchina.com/2015/01/i-am-not-charlie.html

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    • That’s a really interesting point. I hadn’t thought of freedom of speech being limited to freedom from Government interference. Maybe that’s because I am British and we don’t have a written constitution. Or maybe it’s because I read the section about “Congress shall make no law” slightly differently. For me, laws govern what people can and can’t do to each other and not just what the state can do. Laws on libel and slander, for example, deal with one individual causing harm to another. A crime is still committed even though the Government has not been involved. So when the First Amendment talks about “Congress shall make no law”, they are talking about what citizens can and can’t do within a framework of laws established by Congress – not what Governments can do to individuals.

      But I certainly agree with your core point. The workers at Charlie Hebdo had a right to do their jobs without being attacked or killed. I want to support them in that right and show sympathy and unity with them. But I cannot say “I am Charlie” because that implies agreeing with everything that Charlie Hebdo stood for. I would never publish an image of Mohammed and because of that I am not Charlie.

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