Freedom of Speech Not Always without Consequence

Last month the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper based in France, fell victim to an Islamist terrorist attack that left 12 dead and several others wounded. The attacks immediately caused a worldwide uproar.

And a solidarity movement, #JeSuisCharlie or “I am Charlie,” formed in the aftermath.

Charlie Hebdo has a long, tense history with Islam. Back in 2006, the magazine reprinted highly controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad originally published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten a few weeks earlier. The cartoons were supposed to make a point about freedom of speech, very similarly to the debates going on now in the United States. One cartoon even showed the Prophet with a bomb in place of a turban. Although most were much less overtly offensive, these images caused riots in Muslim parts of the world, which resulted in some 200 deaths.

We discussed this particular event in a media course I was taking last semester, and many of my classmates' reactions surprised me: 

“I'm not offended.”

“They need to get over it.”

“These people aren't going to be treated right if they don't act right.”

Several of my classmates referred to the riots as an overreaction. After listening, I was curious as to what a room full of predominantly white, upper middle class, liberal arts students thought was the “right” way to act.  

The initial reactions seemed really imperialist if you ask me. How should one act when their prophet, the one who was chosen by Allah to speak through, is shown as an extremist suicide bomber? It might not bother you, but it is offensive to the faith of many.

Charlie Hebdo put Allah on its front cover more than once, depicting the prophet doing or saying something meant to be satirical. As a result, there have been legal cases against the cartoonists, fire bombings and closings of French schools abroad in the last 10 years alone.

In fact, Charlie Hebdo's recently slain editor-in-chief, known as Charb, was once quoted as saying “Muhammad isn't sacred to me.” However, it is not about what is sacred to you, it is about what you should and should not publish on a front cover.

I am not supporting the actions of terrorists, but I cannot say that they surprise me.

Free speech may be a right in some countries, including France, but that protection is from your own government and there are a lot of limits on free speech. For instance, much of Europe has laws against printing offensive materials, enacted in the years following the Holocaust.

The cartoonist who drew the images of Muhammad with the bomb for a turban has been attacked so many times, he lives under 24 hour security watch. In addition, as a point of comparison, before the end of 2001, Charlie Hebdo ran a cover of Osama Bin Laden saying "no hands" in reference to the fact that his followers carried out 9/11 while he sat back at home.

I think a lot of people should reconsider this as less of a debate about free speech, and more so an issue of moral judgment. Just because you have the right to say, or in this case, draw something, does not mean people do not have the right to be upset.