Despite nearly universal condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo killings, writers and bloggers reached widely differing conclusions when revisiting conventional justifications of freedom of expression in the wake of the shootings. Many commented on the difficulties of reconciling the West’s traditionally far-reaching embrace of freedom of expression with the dangers of inflaming sensitivities in multi-faith and multicultural societies, particularly when literary provocateurs like Michel Houellebecq and journals like Charlie Hebdo repeatedly press against the limits of what can be said in the public sphere. This piece represents the array of views presented online.
In previous years Charlie Hebdo had faced criticism for being “more anti-Islamic than anti-clerical” despite its “impeccable leftwing credentials.” In 2006 it republished the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, a characteristic gesture of the journal’s resolute indifference to public opinion throughout its 45-year history.
A BBC journalist describes Charlie Hebdo as “part of a venerable tradition in French journalism going back to the scandal sheets that denounced Marie-Antoinette in the run-up to the French Revolution…[combining] left-wing radicalism with a provocative scurrility that often borders on the obscene.” Over the years, it has published images in which police “would be shown holding the dripping heads of immigrants; there would be masturbating nuns; popes wearing condoms — anything to make a point.” In a comment published by MSNBC, former Onion editor Joe Randazzo argues that
“Satire must always accompany any free society … It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown. “
Many mainstream responses to the shootings focused on the practical difficulties of establishing a balance between the full expression of strong opinions and the need to shield minorities from open-ended prejudice and ridicule. Blogging for the New York Times Ross Douthat reaffirmed the right to offend and blaspheme as “essential to the liberal order” but also observed that: “a society’s liberty is not proportional to the quantity of blasphemy it produces, and under many circumstances the choice to give offence (religious and otherwise) can be reasonably criticized as pointlessly antagonizing, needlessly cruel, or simply stupid.”
“If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more… when offences are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.”
“[t]o abhor what was done to the victims… is not the same as to become them. … It wouldn’t be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point.”
“I refuse to post [the cartoons] because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire? I can hold that governments shouldn’t imprison Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t oblige me to deny the Holocaust myself.”
Reactions within the Muslim press were equally varied, ranging from an editorial in the independent Iranian newspaper Sharq which argued that: “revising relations with moderate Islamic countries such as Iran, which are pursuing confrontation with extremism [like that of] [the Islamic State group] under the name of Islam, can lead to mutual understanding and to the elimination of the atmosphere of violence.”
Throughout the Middle East, cartoonists responded with memorable images that clearly identified the shootings as an intolerable assault on freedom of expression.
In the aftermath of the shootings, the social media response came in the form of #JeSuisCharlie, a hashtag that trended on Twitter meant to show solidarity for the Charlie Hebdo victims, quickly becoming synonymous with supporting free expression.
— Sam Kalidi (@samkalidi) January 9, 2015
— NewsHour (@NewsHour) January 9, 2015
#JeSuisCharlie, one of the most popular hashtags ever, was in 3.4 million tweets in 24 hours
— Mannfred Nyttingnes (@MannfredNikolai) January 11, 2015
Writer Dyab Abou Jahjah responded with #JeSuisAdmed, a hashtag campaign that pays tribute Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer murdered outside the Charlie Hebdo offices.
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed
— Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) January 8, 2015
Tweets using the hashtag honour Merabet as a defender of free speech and call for a greater level of tolerance in the discussion on free speech vs. freedom of religion.
— #JeSuisAhmed (@misshibhop) January 9, 2015
In the days since, the dialogue on social media has grown from expressing solidarity and grief about the attack to encouraging Twitter users to confront their assumptions about the Muslim community:
calling out those that suggest the gunmen represent all Muslims:
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) January 12, 2015
and reminding the world that extremism is not part and parcel with Islam.