Almost two weeks ago, the offices of French satirical newspaper ‘Charlie Hebdo’ was attacked by Islamic extremists. 11 were killed in the initial shootings. A police officer fell next, bringing the body count to 12, with 11 others being injured in the assault. Related shootings elsewhere in France killed five others and wounded yet another 11 more.
This was sparked by Charlie Hebdo repeatedly publishing satirical cartoons including Muhammad, the prophet of the Muslim faith. The paper’s normal circulation was 60,000 a week. The issue after the attack saw seven million copies sold worldwide. The front cover was exactly the spirit one would expect of a radical-left, libertarian, satirical press being told not to show Muhammad – they drew him once more, on the front cover, holding up a sign with the slogan that the world quickly embraced before discarding in favour of political correctness – “Je suis Charlie” – I am Charlie. Above him, in French, “all is forgiven”. The message was obvious, and appropriate for such a paper.
By this time, people had shown clear division – both in France and worldwide. Western news sources had all shown clear support for Charlie Hebdo. It would be fair to say the West itself had shown clear support. The case was championed as an example of free speech – an argument that then became convoluted, as people wished to clarify that free speech was unacceptable if it offended people. That to push the ideal of absolute freedom of speech is the same as what these Islamic extremists did.
The Western press refused to show Hebdo’s new front page. Some television news outlets, such as Channel 4, had interviewees trying to show the cartoon it adorned live – here, painful examples of self-censorship were shown. And those that not a week chirruped “Je suis Charlie” expressed approval of this censorship.
Speaking to people, it became clear there are very few who truly believe in free speech, and rather freedom until it upsets them.
Bernard Holtrop, a surviving Hebdo cartoonist, expressed his disgust with the false support for his paper outright. ‘We vomit on all these people who suddenly say there are our friends… a few years ago, thousands of people took to the streets in Pakistan to demonstrate against Charlie Hebdo. They didn’t know what it was. Now it’s the opposite.’
His explanation has been backed up by the response of the world – outright support, until people saw a little of what they were supporting. Few people would truly support what the publication has to say, criticising every politician, religion, country and ideal imaginable. There was of course some genuine support – including an ‘everyone draw Muhammad day’ to show the world would not falter, embraced mainly online.
The lack of support for absolute free speech is an upsetting thing. As a journalist, it is something I emphatically believe in. Everything is okay to say or nothing is. Absolutism on any liberty means accepting whatever one supports could be used to offend or hurt them.
The example of images of Muhammad and reluctance to show them is possibly the most controversial and pivotal of true freedom of speech and expression. To allow a religion one does not follow to determine what one can do, under true freedom of speech, is unacceptable. Political correctness and apologist thinking tend to go hand in hand in this matter. Radicalists such as Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists and writers can be easily seen by those against such freedoms as extreme those that attacked their offices.
If a terrorist attack’s aim was to stop displaying images of their prophet, it has failed – those who still support Hebdo have seen to that. Yet they haven’t entirely been foiled, due to the cautionary response most media and plenty of people worldwide have concluded with on this event.
If we allow any kind of barbaric assault to change our actions, we have given the attackers grounds to continue pushing. It is for this reason I can never see such violent acts stopping.