“Charlie Hebdo” is Not about Freedom of Expression


Ali Sarwar Naqvi
The storm over the terrorist attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ ignores a fundamental fact.  It was not an attack against the principle of freedom of expression; it was instead a violent reaction to the long series of intolerable insults heaped by the journal on the sacrosanct beliefs of a significant percentage of French citizens. The horrific incident occurred against a background of a frequent and willful campaign by the magazine against Muslims and their veneration of the Prophet (pbuh). Even the survival issue of Charlie Hebdo, published after the terrorist attack, carries a cover caricature which is most deplorable, and grossly insensitive to the sentiments of Muslims all over the world. Unfortunately, the magazine and its editorial team have learnt nothing from the tragedy that befell some of their staff. Disregard of the fact that such insults hurt a large number of people and lead to polarization and social discord is inexcusable and socially irresponsible. If this indifference continues, the future possibility of another violent reaction will loom on the horizon.

At issue is the question of respecting the beliefs and religious sentiments of the various segments of the society. Many national legislatures have enacted laws which lay down punishments if willful insults are hurled on the beliefs and sentiments of a particular community. The most obvious example is that of prevalent laws in most Western countries prohibiting anti-semitism. Why should insulting the Muslims and their Prophet (pbuh)  be allowed under freedom of expression and insulting Jews or Judaism prohibited and proscribed under law and considered a punishable offence?  Similarly, in the United States the word ‘nigger’ and to some extent the word ‘black’ are considered undesirable and eschewed in public usage, as these words hurt the sentiments of the Afro-American community. In both instances, there is a realization that beliefs and sentiments must be respected. Unfortunately, there is no such consideration for Muslims.

It is this unfairness, this discriminatory attitude, that Muslims all over the world are often agitated about. There was the Danish cartoons controversy a few years ago, and random incidents, like the bigoted priest somewhere in the United States who was hell-bent on burning the Holy Quran, and so many others, that outraged Muslim sentiment and nothing ever was done to address these violations by the countries where they happened. What it did to the Muslims in these countries as well as elsewhere was to alienate them from the others. The Charlie Hebdo affair represents a boiling point, when the perpetrators of the terrorist attack crossed the limit and killed those who were constantly insulting and ridiculing their most sacred beliefs.

The unfortunate Charlie Hebdo incident was immediately condemned as an attack on the freedom of expression without a thought given to the provocation that had caused it. The solidarity expressed by the two million or so marchers in Paris was focused only on the grave violation of killing journalists and thus attacking the sacrosanct principle of freedom of expression. The line-up of forty odd heads of state and government in the march was indeed very impressive for the believers of this freedom. But did anyone in that assembled mass of people think of the hurt to the belief of Muslims that had caused it?

By now it must be clear to the world at large that Muslims do not tolerate insults to their beliefs or indignities heaped upon them. There should be suitable administrative and legal protection provided by the state to Muslim communities, wherever they are, against such calumnies.  Of course, terrorist attacks on journalists should not occur, but the way to stop them is not merely to take action against those who do it, but also to stop the insults and ridicule that provoke such acts. There is much talk of enacting new laws to apprehend terrorists, and even talk of restricting immigration of so-called undesirable people, read Muslims, so that these incidents do not take place. Nobody has talked about legislation to stop senseless insults and provocations that cause such violence and terrorism. If this is not done, if there are no curbs and checks on the provocations, there is the strong possibility of attacks like the one on the Charlie Hebdo magazine occurring again at some time or other.

Finally, it also needs to be pointed out that the Charlie Hebdo incident is not about terrorism per se. Of course the perpetrators of the attack were terrorists, but more importantly the issue was one of deep outrage that had caused it. A lack of understanding of this aspect of the incident seems to indicate that there indeed exists a clash of civilizations. While the Muslim world seeths with the injustice of insults and ridicule, the Western world ignores their anger and goes on about some principle of freedom of expression. Unless this dichotomy and disconnect is addressed, there can be no understanding between the two and Charlie Hebdos cannot be ruled out. In France, the problem is further compounded by the deprivation and frustration of the Muslim community which has alienated them from the society at large, and their perceived sense of not belonging to the country leads them to violent acts as the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine.