Charlie Hebdo: Proving that free speech is pivotal to modern society, no matter how uncomfortable

It has recently come to my attention that an air of myth is beginning to emerge around the Charlie Hebdo case. While, at first, I was totally angered by Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the controversial cartoon, I have now realised quite how vital free speech is to modern society.

For starters, let’s get one thing straight. The cartoon that has caused the controversy was published in 2011 and depicts the Islamic prophet Muhammad with a speech mark reading: ‘100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!’ Indeed, the shooting of the 12 French journalists had nothing to do with the Dutch cartoon that was published in 2005 which depicted Muhammad with bombs in his turban, something that I keep seeing being claimed on social media as of late.

The reason why I point this out is because when I first heard about the news through social media, I was under the impression that it was this blatantly racist (Dutch) cartoon that had sparked the killings when, in fact, it is a completely separate incident. “Well, of course you can never justify murder”, I said in front of my Politics class, “but at the same time you have no right to be so unjustifiably racist. You have no right to actively look to aggravate or offend someone just because you don’t agree with it”.

However, there is a notable difference between the Dutch cartoon and the real cartoon leading to the Charlie Hebdo shootings.  This Dutch cartoon was plainly racist, with no deeper ‘moral message’ apart from barbarically promoting Islamophobia. What Charlie Hebdo, conversely, were trying to do, was satirically highlight a real life issue that does effect a small minority of people. And this is something that we should not be afraid of discussing.

My personal beliefs are that we should have the right to free speech –but a limited free speech, as such. While the 1997 EU Human Rights Act specifically gave us the right to ‘free speech’, it also gave us the right to live ‘free from discrimination’ and ‘free from degrading treatment’. Indeed, the use of words like ‘nigger’ and ‘queer’ as insults is never acceptable, because there is simply no justification for it. We know that these words cause offense and, considering there is an infinite amount of words in the English language, it is baffling as to why people continue to use the words.

However, what can we do to stop the use of such language? Impose a law against it? This is dangerous and leaves too much power in the hands of the government. If we were to start imposing laws against what people can and can’t say, then we are setting up a system that can easily become corrupt. The government would have full control over what is and isn’t acceptable and any time something was published that the government wasn’t happy with, then they would have every power to act censor the news, art and, ultimately, society. Sound like something straight out of 1984? That’s because it is. As a society that prides ourselves on our rights of expression and social liberalism, our media constantly criticises the likes of Russia and North Korea for their use of censorship. You only need look at the Western response to the Russian girl-group Pussy Riot after their ‘heroic stand-up for free speech’ to see how much we value our freedom of expression.

In fact, we have to defend free speech. No more than 70 years ago homosexuality was still viewed on the same level as paedophilia and, without the right to free speech, the rights of LGBT people would still be in tatters. If many people had had their way, then homosexuality would have been outright treasonable. Indeed, it is only because of the right to free speech that the lives of thousands of gay people across the country have been significantly improved. By imposing limitations on free-speech, you are simultaneously making society outdated; not allowing pragmatic progression.

What differs from the use of words like ‘nigger’ and ‘queer’ however to the Charlie Hebdo case, is that there is nothing to be gained at all from using these words. What the Charlie Hebdo cartoon highlighted, on the other hand, has a small glimmer of truth in it – no matter how small. While in no way is it reflective of the vast majority if the Muslim society, it’s not meant to be. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that’s whole ethos is to point out, poke fun at and draw attention to issues within religion. By publishing this cartoon, Charlie Hebdo are highlighting issues in the Middle-East where many women are denied an education, treated as in-superior and, ultimately, ‘lashed’ – something which some believe is justified through religion. As uncomfortable as it might make us feel, we need to acknowledge that this minority (even if they are only 1% of the entire Muslim population) exist, otherwise the people who are denied equality as a result of a warped view of religion will be continually be denied the opportunity to rise above this oppression.

It must be noted that Islam isn’t the only religion that Charlie Hebdo has openly attacked. The magazine has previously issued cartoons that depict Jesus as gay and have portrayed clergy members in a less than favourable light. The fact of the matter is there are problems in religion and it is wrong to suggest otherwise. Society isn’t perfect and the church has had its own problems and we should not be afraid of saying so, otherwise progress can never be made. Would Reverend Libby Lane have been able to have been announced as the first female bishop of the Church of England last year if it wasn’t for our right to freely challenge the male patriarchy within the Church? No. She simply wouldn’t have been.

In no way are these cartoonists ‘heroes’, but neither should they be looked on as villains for merely reflecting an issue that exists in the world. The fact there has been continuous support from Muslims across France supporting the magazine’s right to free speech, as well as support from The Arab World Institute in Paris, highlights the need to not shy away from these issues and we should not feel afraid for saying so.

While it might make us feel uncomfortable to admit it, this is something we need to discuss and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. We shouldn’t have to live in fear that our lives are at risk all because of a stupid cartoon. We shouldn’t have to live in fear that our lives are at risk for standing up for equality.

So, Je suis Charlie. Viva la liberte.


Words by Juliette Rowsell


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