On this day last year, 12 people were murdered during a terrorist attack in Paris. It began when the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were raided by Islamist terrorists, who killed several of the editors as well as police.
For the first time in my life, I heard of a tragedy which made me genuinely scared for my family, who live in the concerned Ile-de-France region. For the first time, the terror felt on the door step.
In the wake of the massacre, an intense debate about freedom of speech kicked off. It took over TV panels, radio stations and social media. My friendship circle was no exception, and many popped up on my Facebook feed to share their views.
‘Had it coming’
Among them was a particular group. Their verdict? Something along the lines of ‘terrorism and killing is wrong, but..’ followed by some sort of condemnation of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial. As if there was room for some sort of ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ balanced analysis of two reasonably arguing parties there.
This position was, and still is very common in the media. In a misplaced attempt at liberal thinking and cultural relativism, such view opens the door of empathy towards the perpetrators of such barbarity who of course have since carried out a second and even more gruesome attack in the streets of Paris, validating the fact that there is no logic behind their senseless massacres.
Make no mistake, this is nothing short of the conventionally dreadful argument that the victims ‘had it coming’, and are partly responsible for their ultimate fate. It is reminiscent of the idiotic rhetoric we hear about say, rape victims.
The freedom of speech debate went on for a while, spearheaded by the million dollar question: where do we draw the line? In all honesty, it went on longer than necessary for in a liberal democracy we ought to know exactly where such line should be drawn: encouragement to violence towards others.
Now, Charlie Hebdo’s not everyone’s cup of tea: its content is offensive to many, provocative to most – but that’s what satire is. In a society where most things offend, we can’t legislate taste, and we definitely can’t allow for censorship because particular media content clashes with the latest religious intellectual trends (which the prohibition of Muhammad’s portrayal most certainly is).
The English & French satirical literature
The key point is this: Charlie Hebdo does NOT incite to hatred or violence towards any cultural group, and never has. In fact, it is known for picking on virtually everyone, from the Pope (one of its favoured targets over the years) to the full spectrum of French and international politics. The idea that the Prophet Muhammad or any other aspect of Islam – or any other religion or doctrine for that matter- should be exempt of mockery and scrutiny belongs in a theocracy. It’s ludicrous.
Yet in the wake of the attacks, a largely ill-informed British public felt able to make a sound judgement, essentially labeling the paper as bigoted anti-Muslim propaganda. That of course, despite CH not being available in the UK, the cartoons not being published in the British press even after the attacks and the English public’s evident lack of knowledge of the French culture, never mind language.
It was fascinating to observe the hypocrisy with which so many felt comfortable drawing swift conclusions on an entire nation’s long tradition of satirical literature, which can traced back all the way to the decades leading up to the French Revolution. It certainly offered a spectacular contrast with the level of scrutiny under which critics of Oriental cultures tend to find themselves.
Tolerant of intolerance
To show understanding towards the perpetrators of the CH killings is an open implication that there is a point past which writing or drawing may be punishable by forceful retaliation. It is one of very few things I personally find offensive, but I still believe people should have the right to say so. The same should apply to other view points which are at best distasteful, like EDL politics and Holocaust denial.
However silly the opinion, one’s response should only ever be to reason back or let it ridicule itself into indifference. Obviously we shouldn’t rely on the ruthless hand of a gun to silence it, nor criminalise it to satisfy the loudest complaints of the time from an exasperatingly, easily offended loud minority.
Such clumsy, paradoxical neo-liberalist approach is tolerant of intolerance. It’s not progressive, it’s backwards and represents a dangerous dig at freedom of speech. When artists and intellectuals get slaughtered for their work, there are no ‘buts’.