Come back, Voltaire: Free Speech in the wake of Charlie Hebdo

January 15, 2015

The cover of next week’s New Yorker depicts an unsettling version of a familiar image. The Eiffel Tower emerges from a blood-spattered landscape, with its peak transformed into a pencil pointing skyward. The pencil has become a symbol of the events that occurred in Paris on Jan. 7 at the office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical news-journal where three armed men, alleged to be Hamyd Mourad, Said Kouachi, and Cherif Kouachi, broke into the building and began to shoot randomly, murdering twelve individuals, including some of the country’s most prominent cartoonists and satirists. Before their attack, security cameras outside the building caught the men yelling “Allahu Akbar (God is [the] greatest). Their actions mark the deadliest terrorist attack in France since 1961.

While it should go without saying that these attacks be condemned by all for their heinous actions, it was cartoonists as a group who had perhaps the most coherent and immediate response. Cartoons depicting conflict between the pencil and the gun began to proliferate in print publications and online. Steve Bell drew a cartoon for The Guardian depicting cartoonists with their mouths wide open, tongues sticking out, tied to stakes that resemble pencils, while a gunman points his weapon at their mouths. In another cartoon, captioned #CharlieHebdo, by Ruben L. Oppenheimer, a black plane hurtles towards the Twin Towers, in this version replaced by two green pencils.

Charlie Hebdo has long been known for its wholesome embrace of free speech, having published a litany of inflammatory content since its founding in 1970. The publication infamously featured a cover where Pope Benedict XVI holds up a condom and says “this is my body,” and on Jan. 7, the day of the attacks, it reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Soumission, which describes a not so distant future where France is overtaken by Islam. In addition to the cartoons circulated in support of Charlie Hebdo’s mission, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and Voltaire’s apocryphal quotation, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” became ubiquitous following the attacks.

Though much discourse following the attacks centers around the need to protect free speech, Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff’s response stands out from the rest for its disconcerting prediction that focuses not on freedom of speech but on the future of Europe’s  Muslim population. In his cartoon, captioned on Twitter as “#CharlieHebdo attack has another victim,” two gunmen open fire through the Charlie Hebdo office’s doorway. Their bullets sail through and bombard a mosque situated in the background, knocking a crescent, the symbol of the Islamic faith, off the dome.

France has a long history of strained relations with its growing Muslim population. The 1980s slogan, la France pour les Francais (France for the French) neatly summarizes the anti-immigration viewpoint that has long been promoted by right-wing activists. In the early 2000s French law stripped Muslim girls of their rights to veil in public schools on the grounds that the practice violated the country’s commitment to public secularism. Attacks such as the those on Charlie Hebdo further exacerbate these anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiments. On Jan. 9, Marine le Pen, president of the far-right Front National party, called for an immediate French withdrawal from the Schengen Area, a group of 26 countries that abolished border controls to allow for greater freedom of movement.

In a country with a growing lower-class Muslim minority, publishing inflammatory covers featuring the Prophet Mohammed kissing another man or saying “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter” walks a fine line. In a world where Malala Yousafzai works to bring universal education to all children, a tenet of Islam, the acts of terror carried out by less than one percent of Muslims are more often than not the only brand of Islam we see in mainstream Western media. It’s patently unfair for the media to target all Muslims for the senseless actions of a radical few.

The events at Charlie Hebdo were acts of terror. There is no excuse or justification for them. But they raise an uncomfortable issue—yes, we have the right to freedom of speech and expression, but we also have the responsibility to exercise this liberty with discretion. At what point does exercising accommodation and tolerance become more important than the right to satirize? Maybe Voltaire would have an answer. Perhaps  Philippe Val, the former editor of Charlie Hebdo, had it right when he published his book in 2008. The book’s title, Reviens Voltaire, Ils Sont Devenus Fous (Come Back Voltaire, They Have Gone Insane) seems especially fitting in these trying times.

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Funny how this article leaves out the attack on the Kosher supermarket. It’s harder to pin the extreme wave of anti-Jewish violence on a tiny tiny minority.