Two Muslim brothers walked into the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, on January 7, 2015. Equipped with assault rifles, they massacred 12 people while injuring several others before dying in a shootout with police. A branch of Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, justifying the attacks for Charlie Hebdo’s articles mocking Islam and Mohammed, the founding prophet of the religion. As France mourned, an international debate raged on free speech and antireligious publications. A year later, heated discussion continues among both policymakers and journalists on what should and should not be said.
The Debate on Freedom of Expression
It’s paramount to understand the context of the leading voices in the debate over freedom of expression. Despite objectionable content, Charlie Hebdo was entirely within French law and protected by Article 10 of France’s “Declaration of Human and Civic Rights of 26 August 1789,” which states, “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.”
Admonishing supporters of open expression, Dr. Bart Cammaerts writes in his article, “Charlie Hebdo and the Other Within,” that the freedom of expression cannot be left unchecked, “this freedom comes with responsibilities and as far as I’m concerned this freedom is not necessarily a primary right in all circumstance, it has to be balanced out with other rights and protections, for example the right not to be discriminated against, the right not to be racially abused.”
There is, however, a third major voice in the debate of free speech. For the religious, the satire of Charlie Hebdo could be more than insults. It could be blasphemy. John Tate explains in his article, “Toleration, Skepticism, and Blasphemy: John Locke, Jonas Proast, and Charlie Hebdo,” how satirizing religion can be viewed as more than a simple insult. Tate writes, “Religious belief, when deeply held, is likely to define the core identity of a person, and so demands that such individuals tolerate that which is at odds with such belief are likely to produce some resistance. This is particularly the case with ‘blasphemy,’ which in advancing images, statements, or opinions profoundly at odds with particular religious beliefs, sometimes in a derisive or satirical way, impugns all that religious believers hold dear.” For some, an insult on their faith is perceived as a direct assault on them. While this is an invalid reason to support or commit violence, it’s conceivable that blasphemy can be used by the extremists to justify their actions.
Je Suis Charlie : I am Charlie
The attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo rattled the world, both in its brutality and its blatant assault on the freedom of expression. In the wake of the attack, many took to social media, using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie), demonstrating solidarity with both France, the newspaper, and the belief of freedom of speech. However, while #JeSuisCharlie was adopted by many, another hashtag gained prominence, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie (I am not Charlie). Fabio Giglietto and Yenn Lee studied the evolution and use of the hashtag in their article, “To Be or Not to Be Charlie”. The authors shared, “Users of the said hashtag showed resistance to the mainstream framing of the Charlie Hebdo shooting as the universal value of freedom of expression being threatened by religious intolerance and violence.” Just hours after the tragedy, a movement began that condemned the attacks but similarly rejected the rhetoric used by Charlie Hebdo that initially put them in the crosshairs of terrorists.
Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie : I am not Charlie
The day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, NY Times journalist David Brook penned the op-ed, “I am not Charlie Hebdo.” He begins by commenting on the hypocrisy of America to extol the brave comments of the French publications and similar voices while simultaneously trying to silence and punish those same opinions within our own borders. Brook argues that most of us cannot claim to be Charlie as we would not use such inflammatory language. However, the satirist has not only the right to speak but is even necessary at times. Despite this occasional need to challenge thoughts, the author considers such speech as juvenile and often harming more than helping. Brook writes, “Healthy societies, in other words,don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.”
In his article, Brook supports the freedom of expression and places society as the gatekeeper. This approach certainly stays within the letter of the law. In fact, it proposes no legal change, whatsoever. What it does ask is for individuals to aspire to more mature dialogues and reject those voices that are pointlessly inflammatory. Legal action would still need to be taken in cases of clear misdemeanors and felonies. However, the idea of society policing conversation raises the tide for all boats. The outspoken gain too much response but like a child’s tantrum, they will quiet down when they don’t receive the attention they crave.
Ephesians 4:29 (NIV) says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The Biblical perspective encourages talk that similarly generates productive communication, including satire. Looking at Jesus Christ, the perfect model for Christians, he did not shy away from trading barbs with the corrupt. In Matthew 23, Jesus called the Pharisees, “hypocrites,” a “brood of vipers,” and accused them of murder. Throughout the Gospels, Christ can be seen using insults, parables, and dashes of humor to attack the religious leaders. This was not said to tear them down but to say, “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.” Stubbornly corrupt, Christ’s words were meant to convict.
Brook’s article was not a Christian commentary but was mostly in step with the Biblical worldview. The article promotes respect and encourages beneficial dialogue. Where Scripture would differ would be in condoning efforts like Charlie Hebdo. While Brook’s may find it occasionally necessary, Charlie Hebdo went beyond satire and was borderline bigotry. Their efforts to challenge Islamic radicals was less targeted and more a scorched earth policy. The magazine often was bolstering their like-minded audience than trying to make a genuine effort to rattle muslims into reformation.
The attacks on Charlie Hebdo were heinous. Silencing voices through censorship or violence is never the answer. However, individuals must be thicker-skinned while simultaneously rejecting destructive talk. Christians need to prayerfully consider the words they share, seeking to build others up while being ready to speak boldly, when necessary. The freedom of speech is best expressed through love and tolerance.
“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”