On Jan. 7, gunmen shot dead 12 people at the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Four of the magazine's well-known cartoonists, including its editor, were among those killed, as well as two police officers.
The tragic incident has sparked an international debate about free speech – and how responsible it should be, if at all – and has roughly divided the world into two major parts. (Terrorists aren’t a part of this categorization for obvious reasons – no one cares what they think or feel.)
We shall discuss each side – not to make any conclusions as to which one is right because there is no one right here, but to analyze the problem and if there’s a possible solution that would appease both.
- The Je Sui Charlie (I am Charlie):
This is what came first. It comprises people who will fight and die to protect free speech. These people mean well, of course.
Their argument: One cannot bow down to a couple of outraged people – especially extremists – if it serves a bigger purpose. For instance, Charlie Hebdo incorporates racism in its caricatures to denounce racism.
Although much has been said and written in this regard over the past week, the sentiments behind #JeSuiCharlie are most aptly described by a Gawker contributor Flavien Vidal. He writes:
“Their drawings maybe sometimes be racist, yes, but they are done this way to denounce this racism and are therefore impossible to understand if taken out of context. This is exactly what a satire is supposed to be. You take someone’s opinions and ideas and exacerbate what is wrong with them.”
This makes sense, doesn’t it?
For instance, the October 2014 cover showed a group of headscarf-wearing, pregnant Nigerian women shouting "Don't touch our welfare!" The title reads, "Boko Haram's sex slaves are angry."
To many this might look like an attempt to ridicule the abducted Nigerian girls but it is, in fact, the opposite.
Also Read: Charlie Hebdo: What Would Muhammad Do?
- The Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie (I am not Charlie):
Contrary to what many would think, this group is not on the extreme opposite but on the flip side of the Je Sui Charlie.
It also comprises people who denounce terrorism and the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff.
However, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie believes that free speech should not be used as a free ticket to insult other people’s values, primarily religion.
These people also mean well. They aren’t (and shouldn’t be considered) terrorists or their sympathizers.
Their argument: Who or what does ultimately decide what’s “wrong” with someone’s opinion or idea? We all know how complicated the answer is since different societies have different notions of right and wrong.
The same goes for satire. Can’t it go wrong? Can’t freedom of speech go wrong – ever?
What if a satirical image or write-up doesn’t serve a noble or border purpose such as addressing the evils of terrorism in the world? What if it reinforces offensive stereotypes and brings chaos to an already embattled community, such as Muslims.
For example, this caricature was released in 2011 following the victory of the Islamist Ennahda party in the Tunisian elections and Libya's NTC announcing that Sharia law. It depicted Prophet Muhammad as an extremist.
Charlie Hebdo's Nov 2011 CHARIA HEBDO "guest-edited" by Muhammad:"100 lashes of the whip if you don't die laughing." pic.twitter.com/5EzG448CNm— cecilia udden (@ceciliauddenm) January 7, 2015
Free speech supporters called it timely satire. But to 1.6 billion people it wasn’t just distasteful, it was hurtful.
Apart from it being religiously offensive – something liberals don’t really care about and let’s give them that – it reinforced the prevalent, false, notion that Muslims follow a turban-wearing, bearded extremist.
There was no broader, journalistic purpose served in this case. It was, without a doubt, a terribly misguided attempt to cover two news events in Africa.
Of course, these drawings are not more harmful to the reputation of Muslims as a community than the vile terrorists who shed innocent blood in the name of Islam.
However, if free speech has the tendency to incite hatred against an already hated and misunderstood community, isn’t it then something the world needs to rethink?
Are only Eurocentric values and concerns to be respected and addressed?
As we can see, both #JeSuisCharlie and #JeNeSuisPasCharlie offer potent arguments. If not entirely correct, neither side is wrong.
While we can’t censor publications like Charlie Hebdo – and we shouldn’t – we can’t also disregard non-Eurocentric religious beliefs as unimportant and irrelevant.
These caricatures, no matter how thought-provoking, have the same effect on (a lot of) people that censorship has on free speech: it’s suffocating and humiliating.
Also, it shouldn’t be suggested that Islam or Prophet Muhammad must be made an exception. It goes for all religions and races who feel victimized by satire-gone-wrong.
There should be some space for dialogue, especially when there is such a lot of confusion as to how to interpret a certain caricature.
We can’t simply dismiss billions of people and their legitimate concerns by saying if they’re getting offended it’s their problem.
This kind of attitude marginalizes communities – and in some cases – isolates them.
Let’s end with this video, which is an important scene from Freedom Writers, a 2007 movie starring Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell, an American teacher known for her inspiring and unique teaching methods.
In this particular scene, a misguided student named Tito draws an offensive caricature of his African-American classmate. After having a look at the drawing, Erin explains her class how caricatures, like the one drawn by Tito, paved the way for the Holocaust.
This, in no way, establishes a connection between cartoonists and the Nazis. However, this can help understand how certain caricatures – even if embodying powerful ideas, like in the case of Charlie Hebdo – can have a devastating affect on a community already misunderstood by the world.