Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Speech vs. Freedom to Preach

Since the attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, there has been more controversy than anyone can fully absorb. This was no insignificant attack. It had an enormous emotional effect on France. A French friend of mine likened the attack to a smaller scale 9/11. To have well-known voices of satire taken away forever by bullets when you least expected it– that’s traumatizing, and Americans can certainly relate to that sentiment.

After the shootings in the offices of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” caught like wildfire and echoed around the world. The intent of the phrase is to stand in unity with Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech. However, it gets complicated, particularly for those who find their religion at the butt of the joke, and for those who feel like their freedom to speak is nullified by oppression of their culture.

Charlie’s response to the attack was another cartoon of Muhammad weeping and holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign with “Tout est Pardonne” or “All is Forgiven” written above. This edition ran out of copies in mere hours after its release due to its popularity.

Freedom of speech vs freedom of religion… Conflict of interest?

In response to these attacks, Pope Francis says there’s a limit to religious expression when it insults someone’s faith. Nasser Lajili, a Muslim City Councilor in Gennevilliers, agrees with the Pope, saying “freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.” (Washington Post, French Muslims feel deeply torn by viral ‘I am Charlie’ slogan). But let’s be clear here: that still doesn’t justify the attacks. Just because someone talks shit on your religion does not ever give you the right to kill them. And you don’t need to crack open any religious text to know that– it’s a human thing. It’s morality. It’s ethics.

However you simply cannot ignore the sentiments of the Muslim community here. There are around 5 million Muslims in France and they don’t necessarily feel that they are Charlie at all. Mohamed Binakdan, a transit worker in Paris, describes the everyday humiliation of Muslims in France:

“‘You go to a nightclub, and they don’t let you in, you go to a party, they look at your beard, and say, ‘Oh when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is a part of that, too. Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. This is sacred to us. And yes, we have a hard time laughing about it” (Washington Post, French Muslims feel deeply torn by viral ‘I am Charlie’ slogan).

I can’t say that I know the struggle of feeling like religion is all I have, but I do know what it feels like not being heard or that my voice just isn’t valued as much as others. As a woman, I similarly have a hard time laughing about rape jokes. Sometimes it feels like all I have is my bodily autonomy and when people joke about the forceful loss of that autonomy so casually and as if they’re entitled to say those things– yeah, it’s pretty impossible to find it funny. So it’s not difficult for me to empathize with that sentiment– when the only thing you feel empowered by is ridiculed by people who have no idea what it’s like for you.

But as a Humanist forced to live in a Christian dominant society, I still sympathize with the right to free expression. So much of these religions are hypocritical. A lot of religious expression, particularly prosthelization, insults my right to freedom FROM religion. Not only my freedom from religion, but a lot of these religions do not afford respect to me as a female, particularly Islam. So why should freedom of speech stop at insulting a faith when there are so many other insults that are acceptable in religious context AND under freedom of speech– racism, sexism, homophobia, the list goes on. If we in the West find it acceptable to sexually harass women on the streets or refer to a random black man walking down the street as a thug, then we certainly hold a double standard when it comes to talking about someone’s faith. You can insult a person’s race, a person’s gender, a person’s sexuality, but when it comes to faith– oh no, you can’t, because faith is too sacred!

Is “Je Suis Charlie” an equivalent to white privileged expression?

If a similar satirical press published a similar cartoon of Christ on the cross, how would people respond? It can’t be ignored that we as Westerners clearly value some religious sacredness above others. There’s a strong correlation behind what the race and ethnicity of the practicers of these religions are and the weight we give to their sacred space. It seems the darker your skin color, the lesser the value of your religious practice. There’s white privilege even within faith. However, if freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else, then many Muslims can’t say much without being largely hypocritical– their religious culture is one of the most oppressive to women in the world.

On the other hand, maybe Muslim culture is far more oppressive than the West would prefer, but Christian culture is also oppressive, particularly in the US. We’ve managed for decades to enforce that “In God We Trust” be printed on all our dollar bills, that “Under God” be recited in our pledge of allegiance to the country, and that politicians are more likely to be elected if they’re Christian. I went to a City Council meeting in Ballwin, Missouri last Fall because there was an effort to pass an ordinance requiring “In God We Trust” be printed on all their city signs. I was simply shocked listening to the highly religious citizens make the argument that 1. the phrase is deeply traditional and 2. it is NOT a religious phrase. (That second argument is just delusion of reference). Fortunately, the ordinance didn’t pass, but listening to so many grown adults reveal how indoctrinated and possessed their political opinions were by religious propaganda was deeply bothersome. These are examples of institutional occurrences of oppression by religion, but it should also be mentioned that there are plenty of Christian extremist groups that terrorize folks just as much as Islamic extremist groups, maybe even more. You just don’t hear about them in mainstream media due to the plague of white-washed journalism. But I digress…

Still maybe Muslim culture is far more oppressive than the West would prefer, but they still deserve to be valued as humans and as voices. There’s been all these extremist Muslim attacks in just the past couple of years alone– the Boston Marathon bombing, the siege in Sydney, the Peshawar school attack, Charlie Hebdo and subsequent attacks around France, multiple attacks by Boko Haram, and many, many more… but why? Why does this keep happening? I’m sure a Fox News correspondent would tell you it’s because all Muslims are jihadist, West-hating murderers, but have you ever considered that perhaps these attacks are a huge cry out to be heard? That perhaps these attacks are a last-ditch reaction to the severe undervaluing of voices of an entire religious culture of people? That perhaps these attacks are a result of a boiling frustration felt by those who aren’t stable enough to put those feelings into healthy perspective?

If we in the West are going to insist on upholding the freedom of speech, then there needs to be a prerequisite to elevate ALL voices– or else the freedom to speak is moot. What’s the point of being able to freely express yourself if nobody is going to listen to or value what you have to say? Or that some people’s expression will be valued while others’ won’t?

What about the French black Comedian, Dieudonné, that was arrested for his comments on Facebook about the Charlie Hebdo attack? What about that guy that worked for Charlie Hebdo that was fired on the grounds that his cartoons were anti-Semitic? And what about Boko Haram? Why is Charlie getting a way more comprehensive response and news coverage when Boko Haram has killed more than 5,000 citizens between July 2009 and June 2014 in Nigeria and some neighboring countries? Where do we draw the line? Because there sure seems to be a lot of discriminatory line drawing when it comes to free speech.

Having the freedom of speech is important, but it’s moot unless we value ALL voices. There’s an attached responsibility that comes with the freedom of speech to listen. You don’t have to believe or agree with what anyone says ever, but living in democratic societies means living in a marketplace of ideas, where ALL ideas should be given a chance, no matter how ridiculously unrealistic or oppressive some of them can be. Opening up to a larger, more diverse marketplace of ideas will also help us learn to better communicate and express our own ideas with mindfulness and sensitivity. Empathy goes a long way.

My dear friend in England insists the world would be a better place without religion and I think he and John Lennon are right. What good is religion when it perpetuates such poor ethics and continual prejudice? And I thought y’all left the judging to God anyway…

But in a dystopian and oppressive world where society can be so damn unaccepting, still many depend on religion to give them the hope they need, and the acceptance, to keep going. And we need to remember that, be sensitive to it. We need to be aware of how we personally value certain voices over others. Because voices are lives, and every life matters.

Resources about Charlie Hebdo: