On January 7, 2015 France fell victim to a vicious terrorist attack. Two self proclaimed Islamist gunmen broke into the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The attack was a response to an article published by the newspaper which published a controversial depiction of Muhammad. Michael Morell, former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the motive of the attack was “absolutely clear: trying to shut down a media organization that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad.” The New York Times. 7 January 2015. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
The assault on Charlie Hebdo raises the issue of freedom of speech in light of religious sensitivity. This attack, like all other terrorist attacks, forces us to consider the social consequences of our actions. Before I address this, let me be clear: there is no justification to open fire in an office building in order to make a religious/political statement, ever. Still, there may be something we can learn.
Freedom of speech in the United States is sacred and, despite certain constitutional exceptions, Americans enjoy great freedom in this area. However, European nations do not have such clear standards as we have here. The French Constitution has no equivalent Bill of Rights explicitly protecting the freedom of speech. Does this mean that French journalists should be silenced if their publications are used as a justification for terrorist attacks? Certainly the answer must be no.
The right to freedom of speech goes beyond what a government allows. Humankind does not receive their human rights from a government document; they come from simply being a human being. However, governments, rulers, and tyrants all make justifications to limit speech. In the United States, Congress has limited speech that is found to have little political or societal benefit, such as “fighting words” and “true threats.” Islam uses a different standard. Islam holds that no person, Muslim or not, may portray a visual depiction of the Prophet Muhammed. This is not a fringe world view. Many agree that we must respect certain religious tenants even though we are not of that religion. A portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed may strike the same cord in a Muslim as the burning of a Bible to a Christian. Even many non-Christians would still feel a tinge upon seeing a Bible aflame. Interesting that this same feeling extends to desecrating other religions. Perhaps we should have the same conviction, if any, for the satyr of all religions.
Regardless of your philosophy, violence does not solve the purported problem of unbridled free speech. It certainly did not with Charlie Hebdo Surely the assault was intended to prevent Charlie Hebdo from continuing to create satyrical work invovling the Prophet Muhammed. In fact, it has had the opposite effect. Charlie Hebdo is now a publication known round the world. Charlie Hebdo is expected to print one million copies of its next issue. Prior to the attack, sixty thousand copies were sufficient for each publication in order to meet consumer demand. Using violence has only created an outstanding support for the victim.
Freedom of speech is a universal right that applies to all humanity. Problems arise when that speech conflicts with what other people consider holy. Perhaps Charlie Hebdo was reckless with their article. It was certainly insensitive to the principals of others. But at the end of the day, we cannot expect people to know or care about every religious tenant of every religion. Al-Qaeda successfully destroyed any chance of a possible debate that may have resulted in France opposing the actions of Charlie Hebdo in a civil forum. At the end of the day, violence has not solved anything.