* DISCLAIMER: We’ve kept things civil in the article, however, please be aware that some of the links contain explicit content. *
In the last few days and the days to come, everyone is talking about the January 7th attack on Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent shooting and hostage situations on January 8th and 9th.
Aside from the expected expressions filled with anger, fear, and xenophobia, there is also the difficult discussion about how we are to deal with the different values of the West and the Islamic world.
Central in this discussion is the question of free speech, a right which Western culture holds very dear, and above all: to be universal. In a culture clash with Islamic teachings, this leads to seemingly irreconcilable differences: not even mockery, but even the mere depiction of the Prophet Mohamed is considered blasphemy, but for a Westerner, there is little to no difference between a cartoon of the president, the Pope, or the Prophet. It is very telling that only mockery of Islam could provoke such a violent response.
A paradox is seen when we think about how to deal with this problem: if we decide not to publish offensive images of Islam, we would treat Muslims with respect, but not as equals. It would be as if we were saying: “We will ridicule our politicians, our priests, our celebrities, but not Islam, because Islam can’t handle it.” I very much agree with the notion that magazines such as Charlie Hebdo are a necessary evil; when you want to live in freedom, you pay the price of having others say things that can hurt you. Charlie is both heroic and racist, we should embrace and condemn it. The dark side of the coin is that people can let go of their racist speech and cover it up as “freedom of speech”. As we’ve discussed before, the difference between artistic expression and political statements disappears when the art is no longer separated from the artist.
This paradox is embodied by Ahmed Merabet, a Parisian police officer of Algerian descent and a Muslim. If you have seen the horrifying uncensored images of the January 7th attack, you already know that he died defending the people of Charlie Hebdo. Ahmed Merabet was brutally executed by the terrorists as he lay wounded and defenseless on the ground. Dying to defend those who insulted his beliefs, he lived out the famous Enlightenment ideal: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Those last words are persistently and mistakingly attributed to Voltaire, the poster-boy for Enlightenment thinking: the philosophical movement during which European culture moved away from dogma and increasingly began to embrace liberal values. Interestingly, Voltaire himself said “Qui plume a, guerre a”, or: “To [hold a] pen is to be at war.” Although Voltaire is often quoted by the so-called “New Atheist”, he was himself more of a deist who made a case for religious tolerance and freedom of expression, even though he himself was critical of both Christianity and Islam. Warning against religious extremism he said that fanaticism, led by an impostor, can plunge weak minds into horrible excesses.
It is important to remember that when we say that this act of terrorism is an attack on freedom of speech, this is not only the freedom to post offensive images, but also the freedom to express your religious beliefs in peace. The well-willing Muslim community in France and in any other country where they are the minority will undoubtedly suffer due to the anger and racism that will be aimed against them. We cannot allow our stand against Islamic extremism to turn into hatred towards the overwhelming majority of Muslims who mean no harm to those who insult their beliefs.
Je suis Charlie Hebdo! Je suis Ahmed Merabet!