My reaction to the killing of French journalists at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, is multi-faceted. To be sure, there are various aspects of this issue that cause me concern.
On one hand, I am staunch defender of freedom of speech. Absolutely. I understand that there are times when the envelope must be pushed to rouse and awaken people.
Je Suis Charlie. I am Charlie.
Apparently, that is what went on at Charlie Hebdo—all of the time. It seems that Islam was often the target of the magazine’s satire. And satire is the vehicle journalists at Charlie Hebdo use to push the envelope. Some have argued that it is terrorism, not Islam, at which Charlie Hebdo points its ink-fueled satire. But I beg to differ. I have taken to the internet to look at a sample of past Charlie Hebdo covers. Yep, it was Islam and people of color that bore the brunt of Charlie Hebdo’s mockery and contemptuous ridicule, of which it has the right to freely express. Okay. Not excited about that. But like I said, staunch defender of freedom of expression. Of course, just because I defend your right to do something doesn’t mean I agree with what you’re doing.
Suis-je Charlie? Am I Charlie?
After the massacre, a number of nations, while still expressing their support for the Egyptian government, decried the military action against the protestors, and called on Egypt’s government to work on diplomatic resolution. As for the U.S., American aid to Egypt was put under review and joint military trainings between U.S. and Egyptian forces were cancelled. For its part, France’s government was less than hard-hitting with its response. It discouraged French citizens from traveling to Egypt, offered condolences, urged all parties to exercise restraint. Again, the members of these Islamic organizations were the target of this military action. They were the ones that experienced overwhelming loss of life. They were the massacred.
This would have been a great opportunity for Charlie Hebdo to define or at least redefine just what it stands for and make its point clearly that it is terrorism and not Islam that it abhors. To be sure, one need not be a Muslim to be troubled by what happened in Egypt during the August 2013 massacre, just as one did not have to be American to denounce 9/11.
Qui est Charlie? Who is Charlie?
So what does the Charlie Hebdo cover feature: A caricature of a surprised and frightened Islamic man holding the Quran with bullets piercing it and him. Off to the left the words “Massacre in Egypt” are written in French. Next to that, the words “Le Coran C’est de la Merde” (translation: This Quran is crap). Beneath that, French words that translate to “It does not stop bullets” are written.
Je ne suis pas Charlie! I am not Charlie!
You see, I have always said that freedom of speech has never meant freedom of consequences. I believe that while one has to right to say whatever they please so long that it does not cause harm to others, it does not mean you are absolved of the consequences of those words. I have the right to walk up to any one right now and tell them the most abhorrent thing I can conceive and utter, something that makes them so mad that they haul off and punch me in my face. Now, they will be charged with assault for their actions. And what I will have is a black eye or bloody nose or busted lip to remind me of what my freedom of speech earned me in this instance. In other words, we should know that our words (or any form of communication used to express an idea) have immense power. They can make people think, move them to any number of emotions—fear, joy, anger. They can stir righteous action like the words of Ghandi and King and Mandela. Or they can provoke loathing and revenge—like the anti-Islamic satire of Charlie Hebdo.
Don’t get me twisted. I do not support what happened to those 10 Charlie Hebdo employees (a total of 12 people were killed in the attack) on Jan. 7 in Paris. I abhor it. I mourn their loss. I condemn the acts of the terrorist responsible for their deaths.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if Charlie Hebdo had just spent more time actually condemning terrorism as opposed to denigrating one of the world’s largest religions would this have ever happened. Sure, I am speculating. I don’t know. I can’t know what would have happened . . . if this . . . or that.
What I do know is that Charlie Hebdo’s brand of freedom of speech, freedom of expression just does not move me as the sort I will champion any more than we will champion the terrorist that took the lives of those journalists.
Interestingly enough, on that same cover of Charlie Hebdo, the masthead reads “Journal Irresponsable” or Irresponsible Newspaper. And there lies the biggest problem. Those two words don’t mix for me. They don’t belong together. They are worse than oil and water.
Ce est une contradiction, Charlie . That is a contradiction, Charlie.
And it is one I cannot defend.