As news breaks of the horrific shootings of several French cartoonists at the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo on the 7th January, I am reminded of an article by Christopher Hitchens that addressed the reaction to the Danish cartoons controversy. It is linked at the bottom of this article for those interested and is much more eloquent than anything I could hope to say of my own, but I am going to attempt it anyway.
Since the 18th Century, French nationals have built a reputation for their political and anti-religious satire rooted in the French Revolution, right back to the days of the enlightenment with Rousseau and Voltaire. Today, four of France’s greatest living cartoonists; Cabu and Wolinski included, and their editor, have all been murdered in cold blood, for the purported crime of entertaining the people with satirical drawings. Unlike the gunmen, these cartoonists never hid their faces when they expressed their opinions, and is this ‘bravery’ that means they are now dead; the gunmen reportedly asked for them by name.
Should we really have to call it bravery, however? Should you have to be brave to publish a satirical drawing? Only, it seems, when they are about religion. Yes, the cartoons may be controversial, but that was Charlie Hebdo’s modus operandi and Islam has certainly never been its only target. Charlie Hebdo was known for pulling no punches in any direction, and was famous for its controversial and irreverent cartoons before the word Islamophobia had even entered popular parlance.
Unfortunately, this is the inevitable consequence of our unwillingness to confront these attacks on freedom of speech. It entered the public eye with the kickback against Salman Rushdie, and continued with the scandal of the Danish cartoons, where many popular figures stood up and defended the violent protests against both these events because they attacked the so-called hallowed ground of religion.
This is where we have gone wrong; we cannot afford to tolerate a double standard of what we can speak about in a humorous way and what we cannot. This is not a specifically Islamic problem, though they have been the most recent and violent exponents of using fatal violence to defend their opinion. Rather it is a problem of an unwillingness to condemn violent attacks on freedom of speech in general, largely because they encroach onto religion’s sacred territory.
For too long we have refused to condemn outrageous acts of attempted censorship, across a variety of countries, simply because their would-be censors claimed the right on religious grounds. It is time we ended that, which is why I would call the global press to republish as many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as they can, stand up for Charlie, and show them they cannot not win, and that we will not be silenced by fear.
Christopher Hitchens’s article to be found here: