Freedom of religion, freedom of press, and freedom of speech. These three liberties are sacred not only in the United States, but in many democratic countries across the world. Millions of immigrants and refugees flood our borders every year, not just in search of better jobs or a corruption-free government. They arrive seeking what our First Amendment guarantees: free speech and expression. As we are firmly entrenched in an era of social media, many seem to forget that in several countries like Vietnam and Eriteria, you don’t have the ability to post or tweet about the tiny excitements in your life. In other countries such as China or Iran, you may be allowed access to Twitter, but you better watch what you say. Not only can your statements be removed by the government’s inexorable, hawk-like censors, they can also get you thrown into prison.
Recently in France, the question of the absolute freedom of speech has come center stage after the death of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the violent, bloody aftermath that followed. To provide a brief synopsis to those who’ve been too busy with homework to read the news, Charlie Hebdo is a French magazine that published several offensive, pornographic cartoons of the Muslim holy prophet Muhammad in 2012. The response to the publication of these cartoons came on January 7, 2015 when two Muslim Frenchmen stormed the magazine headquarters and killed twelve staff cartoonists. What followed has been the messy saga of the magazine unrelentingly pursuing “free speech.” Subsequently, Charlie Hebdo has begun republishing pictures of the Prophet, an action which has resulted in more violence and more protest on both sides of the free speech issue.
As an American, I love free speech and think it is one of the many things that make this country great, like American football or the country’s diversity in both people and fast food options. However, because I have access to free speech, I also understand that, like all things in life, it must be used in moderation. Millions have defended Hebdo, calling the journalists satirists, and media around the world, including America, has used this argument as justification for the magazine’s actions. To most people and me, satire is something that cleverly and comically points out someone’s or something’s flaws in a harmless manner. Satirists are people such as Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver, and Stephen Collbert who can generate laughs without causing massive riots, not the writers or artists at Charlie Hebdo.
As a Muslim, I generally have no problems with jokes about my religion; it just depends on the joke. But when that “joke” involves a nude depiction of my prophet engaging in sodomy, it’s not a clever jest. It’s just offensive. Charlie Hebdo is neither satire nor an advocate for free speech; rather, it’s a magazine that is fuelling racist perceptions in a country where Muslims make up 10% of the population, and have still faced significant discrimination and violence since 9/11. In all honesty, it’s irrelevant that he was attacking Muslims. What makes Hebdo’s cartoons so deplorable is that they attack the sacred fundamentals of an organized religion practiced around the world. Religion is an intensely personal affair, and most people have incredibly deep sentiments attached to it. For many, it’s not just being a good person and occasionally remembering to attend service, but an integral part of their lives that often shapes their lifestyle and way of thinking. I’m confident equal if not more outrage would’ve been incited if Charlie Hebdo sordidly insulted other sacred religious figures such as Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, etc. No matter what religion those cartoons targeted, they were immature, cruel, and a pathetic excuse for satire. Award-winning journalist, Josh Healey says it best: “If it’s racist and not funny, it’s just racist.”
It would be easy to make a compelling argument of how the cartoons crossed the line, but according to French President Francios Hollande, free speech in France is unique. Yet, if I were to write this article in France, I may be arrested. Unfortunately, as President Hollande defends Charlie Hebdo, he gets himself mixed up in a web of hypocrisy. Though the French Government has both publicly and financially supported the magazine since the attack, it has simultaneously been arresting dozens of French journalists who have castigated the magazine Moreover, in 2008, a Hebdo journalist, Maurice Sinet, published a strong, anti-Semitic article. Instead of being praised by the French government and becoming a cult hero representing free speech, Sinet was brought to court for ‘inciting racial hatred’ and was promptly fired. The French government’s response to Sinet was one that both the French people and I find logical, righteous, and just. Semitism is further defended in France by a law which says it illegal to deny the existence and criminal nature of the Holocaust. Yet again, this is completely natural and only to be expected. On the other hand, their reply to the Islamophobic cartoons leaves me more perplexed than the ending of the Great Gatsby and has ignited unrest throughout the world, not least their own country. I have no problem with laws protecting certain religions from hate speech and feel that it’s a reasonable, appropriate law. Yet it’s unfair that the laws protect the sentiments of some religious or ethnic groups but stand idly by while others are persecuted. What makes Islam so different and deserving of such treatment?
Though I don’t agree with Charlie Hebdo’s abuse of free speech, neither do I condone the response that it prompted. Violence never solves anything, and the Qu’ran, the very book these extremists claim they were trying to protect, agrees when it says, “If anyone slays a person, it would be as if he slew the whole mankind” (5:32 Surah Al Ma’idah Verse 32). No one deserves to die for a picture, but what they published was not worth defending. It’s equally illogical to kill over a cartoon as it is to call Charlie Hebdo martyrs and the emblems of free speech. Instead of viewing them as heroes, view them as the perfect figures to represent “freedom of hate speech” as they’ve managed to create an unnecessary problem across the world and simultaneously insult the beliefs of 1.3 billion Muslims and anyone else who believes in common decency. Thumper from Bambi had it right, “If you can’t say something nice…..don’t say nothing at all.”