“I prefer to die standing up than live on my knees.” These were the sadly prescient words of Stéphane Charbonnier, the editorial director of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, who was gunned down in his Paris office Wednesday by Muslim terrorists, along with 11 other contributors and police officers.
Their killers, claiming to have avenged the prophet Mohammed, said Charbonnier and his colleagues were guilty for crimes against Islam. Depicting the prophet is outlawed in Islam, let alone making jokes about him and the religion. The fact that Charlie Hebdo did so anyway was a death sentence.
So, why did Charbonnier and his staff continue to publish such offensive satire? What did they understand about a free society that is largely lost in our politically-correct world of trigger warnings?
Charbonnier decided he didn’t want to live in a world where he had to hide from certain ideas and have a de facto gag order placed on him by a religion that cannot withstand criticism. Every other major religion has grown tough skin to withstand mocking, criticism, and proselytizing. Islam has not. Some of its adherents resort to violence in the face of criticism. And because of that, we are all supposed to cower in fear.
Charbonnier didn’t want that kind of life. He understood how important it is that no one group be exempt from commentary, criticism, and characterization. Freedom of expression is worthless if it excludes speech that is offensive. Charbonnier understood the slippery slope of censorship and where it would lead.
The Culture of Cowardice Has Spread to the West
In western states we don’t have to be afraid of facing time in prison for making light of Islam, as is the case in many Muslim countries. But we do have to fear armed terrorists. In addition to the threat of violence, we must also be afraid of condemnation from the Left if we’re bold enough to criticize or poke fun at Islam.
Western societies are generally so loath to express disapproval of anything having to do with Islam that we often skew facts and deny realities from fear of offending Muslims or violating the sacred precepts of multiculturalism. The media and academy are intolerant of anyone who criticizes Islam, labeling those who do as “orientalists” and blacklisting them (see Ayaan Hirsi Ali).
In this context, the outrage of public officials and most everyone on social media over these killings rings a little untrue. Up until the attacks this week, no one was posting “je suis Charlie” on social media. Heads of state weren’t expressing solidarity with their cause and the importance of free speech, despite the magazine’s offices and persons being under constant threat. Quite the contrary. A couple of years ago, when Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed, Jay Carney, then-spokesman for the White House, suggested that it was unwise to post these cartoons. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the magazine was merely pouring oil on the fire by provoking Muslims.
Now It’s Fashionable to Support Free Speech Somewhat
But now, President Obama is calling the attacks “cowardly” and defending the free speech of journalists. François Hollande is decrying the attack on free speech and his republic. Suddenly, the slain editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are heroes.
Why did it take a shooting to get people to care about the importance of being able to criticize Islam as an expression of free speech? It is understandable that this kind of terror attack engenders sympathy and solidarity. It is a very human emotion. But where has all this outrage been hiding?
When the film “Innocence of Muslims” appeared on YouTube in 2012, it sparked massive protests all over the world because of its unseemly depiction of Mohammed. But there wasn’t an outpouring of support of free speech at the time by heads of state. There weren’t counter rallies voicing concern over freedom of expression. Sadly, fewer and fewer people really think this kind of free speech, even if it is offensive to many, is a necessary part of a free society—let alone something worth dying for.
Pretend Muslims Weren’t Involved So You Don’t Have to Criticize Them
Some even now want to deny that this attack has anything to do with cartoons or religion. Ezra Klein wrote in Vox that it was simply a killing spree that came from a sick mind. So, then, are all of the fighters in the Islamic State just mentally ill? Klein, like many, doesn’t want to believe that the killers were motivated by religion, because if he thinks that, then he might have to criticize that religion. Or he might have to ponder how a religion could motivate this kind of terrible violence.
The idea that the Paris shooting is baffling and “inexplicable” is either naïve or willfully ignorant. The fact is, people are now and always have been motivated by religion to do violence. In today’s world, those who claim Islam as their religion are the predominant perpetrators of such violence. We need to be prepared to talk about that. Not to shun Muslims, or, like the far Right in France, shut down immigration. But just to talk openly about Islam and its relationship to violence. It is the elephant in the room.
Most likely, after a brief show of solidarity, public officials and the media will quickly warn us that we must be careful not to associate this terrible act with Islam, despite what the gunmen themselves proclaimed. People will become more hesitant to discuss and criticize Islam or to poke fun, as we do with almost all things, and justify it with appeals to safety. We will take our cues from the terrorists and academia and censor our criticism. The term “trigger warning” will take on a whole new, and darker, meaning.
But I hope this time it will be different, that this time the world will be sufficiently shaken up to realize that Islam, like every religion, should be fair game. That truly free speech will sometimes offend. That we cannot cower from engaging the idea that religion can be a source of violence. Nous sommes tous Charlie. We are all Charlie. Or would that we were brave enough to be.