Attack on Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech
FRANCE is in mourning. On January 7, two masked men entered the office of Charlie Hebdo in central Paris and killed 10 journalists and two policemen. A manhunt is underway to arrest the suspects. President Francois Hollande declared a day of mourning on January 8 and stood in silence for two minutes at the Police Headquarters along with the rest of the country in respect for the dead.
Charlie Hebdo is a satirical cartoon magazine published every Wednesday. It is a contemptuous, disrespectful and a non-conformist left-leaning weekly lampooning politicians, politics, religion, culture, society etc. The publication is named after the cartoon strip Peanuts' lead character Charlie Brown. Hebdo in French means 'week.'
The attack was carried out by two 'jihadists' in revenge for ridiculing Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). To recall, in September 2005 Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) depicting him in the most disrespectful manner. The incident led to widespread protests around the world including violent demonstrations in most Muslim countries. Denmark had to withdraw diplomats and close its embassies in many countries at that time.
In 2007, Charlie Hebdo reprinted the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The magazine was sued for incitement of racism by two Islamic groups in France, but was cleared by a Paris Court. Editor-in-Chief cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier insisted that the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were no provocation -- but a signal that free speech was alive and well in the country. In 2011, the weekly published cartoons inviting the Prophet (pbuh) to be its guest editor. Again, in 2012, it published more caricatures of the Prophet (pbuh). Charbonnier said in 2012: “Muhammad isn't sacred to me. I don't blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don't live under Quranic law. Freedom of press, is that a provocation?”
Indeed, that was a direct provocation of an audacious nature -- which seriously hurt the sentiments of Muslims in France and elsewhere. Not to forget that over 10% of the population of France are Muslims. Charbonnier, who was under threat of attack, was given police protection. The assault on the magazine office killed Charbonnier.
William Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil rights in the United States commented: “It is too bad that he (Charbonnier) didn't understand the role he played …. Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive…. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”
Muslims practice aniconism -- opposition to the use of idols or images in Islam. The person of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is extremely sensitive because the traditional view is that he cannot be depicted pictorially, let alone in a satirical manner. To all Muslims such sacrilege of the Prophet (pbuh) in the name of freedom of speech/press is nothing but a crude and lowly attempt to denigrate Islam. The Western media has time and again used the Holy Koran and the name Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to provoke Muslims.
The incident has left France traumatised. Leaders from around the world have condemned the attack. In a demonstration of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, citizens gathered in Central Paris holding banners “Je suis Charlie” -- I am Charlie. People raised hands holding pencils -- a sign that “the pen is mightier than the sword (read gun).” For the French it is unbelievable that the magazine could come under attack for mocking Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Islam. The government considers the incident as an attack on the Republic.
The attack will have several ramifications in France in particular and Europe in general. The poor Muslim immigrants in France -- mostly from North Africa and the Levant -- will be further ostracised. They will certainly face severe discrimination and hatred. The far-right nationalist political parties, which are on the rise in France, will mount strong anti-immigrant campaigns. There have already been attacks on three mosques in Paris. The secular French society will be further polarised as Islamophobia increases. The ease with which the attack was conducted will encourage jihadi Muslims to plan more attacks on French installations.
In Europe in general, which has high unemployment and is going through severe economic difficulties, the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments will be further accentuated. There have already been anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany, Sweden and other capitals. Far-right political parties in these countries are gaining in popularity.
The issue here is where to draw the line when it comes to freedom of press. Does the principle of secularism and freedom of speech allow a magazine to print cartoons/pictures that hurt the sentiments of a major religion, knowing well that it may provoke violence? Isn't self-restraint and discretion in such matters a wiser policy? Freedom comes with responsibilities. More the freedom, more the responsibility. One must not abuse the freedom to the extent that it may disrupt social harmony.
After the attack, some have suggested that Muslims could have rebutted with the 'pen' and not 'gun.' Did they mean that Muslims also start drawing caricatures of Christ or Moses using freedom of speech? These twisted arguments do not condone the sacrilege committed against Islam. To the jihadi Muslims the publication of the cartoons was a kind of declaration of war. To them it was not “freedom of speech.” The jihadists responded in the language of war.
While we condemn the irreverent pictures/cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by any news media, we unequivocally condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary.