At Large

Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and Islam

French media have shown solidarity with the fire-bombed weekly. Less so the English-speaking press.

By 11.7.11

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The recent firebombing of the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has once again revived the debate on the relation between free speech and Islam. In this case, the magazine's "crime" was to feature a caricature of Mohammed on its front cover and a "guest editor" role for the founder of Islam, as part of the publication's satirical musings on the Islamist party Ennahda's winning of a plurality of seats in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly elections.

First, it is pleasing to observe how, once again, French political factions from the left and right are standing with Charlie Hebdo in the face of this attack on the right to freedom of expression. A report by the center-right Le Figaro provides a useful overview of reactions to the firebombing. For example, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement's secretary general -- Jean-François Copé -- rightly pointed out that "there can be no impunity [for this]. It's an act which must give rise to legal proceedings." The Communist party was unequivocal in describing the vandalism as an "appalling act," adding that "political and media debate cannot be controlled at the hands of Molotov cocktails."

In fact, the firm support for free speech across the French political spectrum was also apparent in 2007, when the Grand Mosque, World Islamic League, and Union of French Islamic Organizations sued the magazine for incitement to racism for reprinting the Danish cartoons. The case resulted in an acquittal by a court in Paris as leading figures of the left and right came to testify on Charlie Hebdo's behalf. So too calls to support Charlie Hebdo unreservedly in the wake of the firebombing have come from the major French media outlets like Le Monde and Le Figaro.

The contrast with the debate in English-speaking circles is quite telling. Already the Guardian has put up an article by one Pierre Haski -- a "co-founder and CEO of the French independent news website Rue89" -- who does not explicitly condemn the attack and effectively urges readers to understand the firebombing in light of the fact that "for many French Muslims, religion has become a cultural identity, a refuge in a troubled society where they don't feel accepted." Thus, the attack on the publication's office is merely "a disturbing reminder of the underground tensions in society."

So back in 2006 and 2007 the Guardian went out of its way to publish articles by the likes of Karen Armstrong, a leading non-Muslim apologist for Islam. Her words speak for themselves: "But equally the cartoonists and their publishers, who seemed impervious to Muslim sensibilities, failed to live up to their own liberal values, since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others." The result is that in Britain, this subject has often become a partisan left-right issue, even though it should transgress political boundaries.

It would appear some American outlets are following the Guardian's lead. For example, Bruce Crumley, the Paris correspondent for Time magazine, asked Charlie Hebdo's editors: "Do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of 'because we can' was so worthwhile?"

Incidentally, at Karen Armstrong's alma mater -- St. Anne's College, Oxford University -- it would appear that some students and staff are following in her footsteps. At a minor interlude during a seminar I attended last week, several students were placing the blame squarely on Charlie Hebdo for the vandalism, stressing the need to "respect" the religion of others; and one supervisor argued that Charlie Hebdo deserved to be held partially responsible if a violent response was predictable.

Unfortunately, the persistence of such sentiments only invites one to state principles that might seem obvious, but never grow unworthy of affirmation. There is no moral equivalence between those exercising their right to free speech and Islamists who wish to impose the standards of traditional Sharia (Islamic law) on society and are prepared to harm physically others and their property to achieve that end.

More generally, this affair -- along with the attack on a Tunisian TV station for broadcasting the film Persepolis, and the  death threats that forced the flight from Pakistan of the judge who convicted the assassin of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor who opposed the blasphemy law -- demonstrates that Islam as a whole still has a long way to go to come towards accepting basic standards of toleration of criticism. 

In short, one hopes that the following principle -- well summed up by a prominent Melkite Greek Catholic deacon -- will come to be accepted as mainstream in Islam: '[O]ne's response to someone else's provocative action is entirely one's own responsibility. If you do something that offends me, I am under no obligation to kill you, or to run to the United Nations to try to get laws passed that will silence you. I am free to ignore you, or laugh at you, or to respond with charity, or any number of reactions.'

In the meantime, Western governments and media must make every effort to stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in the wake of this latest Islamist attempt at intimidation.

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About the Author
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.