'I am Charlie' versus 'I am not Charlie'

'I am Charlie' versus 'I am not Charlie'
Whether it is seen as a war on freedom of speech or merely the latest terrorist atrocity, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has rekindled the debate about where the limits of freedom of speech should lie.
5 min read
14 Jan, 2015
The attack on Charlie Hebdo started an international debate over free speech [Getty]

Are you with or against Charlie?

The terrorist attack on the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo has shaken the the French and international press to the core, revealing that Charlie - the new symbol of free of speech - has not been unanimously accepted in the West or the Arab world. Some believe that "provocative" satire deserves some form of punishment, even if that punishment is lethal.

What is freedom of speech? Where does the argument for respect for religions stand, which in the past has been translated into the imposition of censorship on published material without the right to respond, comment or even bring the matter to court?

Many commentators have spoken out, saying religions should be exempt from satire, and criticising the populist nature of the magazine.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon media does not think the killing of the French cartoonists was an attack against freedom of speech as much as it thinks it was another act of terrorism to add to the list of crimes committed in the name of Islam, which have become an almost daily occurrence.

Logistical analysis of the attack and the attackers' history and background have dominated the discussion in the media, pushing aside the spaces to express emotional solidarity with the victims and denounce this violation of the most important values of French culture.

Also pushed aside is the space to discuss the problems of the French suburbs and the fact that they have become an environment that breeds violence and a counterculture to the French model and its freedom of speech.

Most of the English-speaking media decided not to show the cartoons lampooning Islam in its coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Some outlets deliberately did not show the cartoons while other outlets published cartoons mocking other religions.

People opposed to "provocation" under the guise of freedom of speech have adopted the slogan "I am not Charlie" in response to the "I am Charlie" slogan, which has gone viral on social media in a solidarity campaign with the victims of most heinous crime of recent times committed against the press - a massacre that killed 12 staff members of a satirical magazine.

Many commentators spoke out, saying religions should be exempt from satire and criticised the populist nature of the magazine. Some of them analysed the impact of publishing the cartoons on the Muslim communities in the West and their integration into western societies, covertly condemning the satirical magazine for being responsible for stirring up killer tendencies under the pretext of being offended by insults to sacred religious figures.

A few years ago, when Danish cartoons mocking Prophet Muhammad stirred up a similar controversy, the majority of the Anglophone media did not show the cartoons in its news coverage of the angry demonstrations in Western capitals.

At the time, the BBC also chose not to publish the cartoons and was satisfied with merely describing them in its coverage of the event. The BBC has changed its mind in its coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack.

It has reviewed its editorial policies on publishing material depicting the Prophet Muhammad, arguing the previous ban was no longer applicable and the editorial team would exercise its freedom to take appropriate editorial decisions on a case-by-case basis and consult the editorial policy team on any sensitive issues in its coverage.

What is sacred and what is not in the eyes of the satirical press, and what are the "limits" some people say must be taken into account?

In secular France, freedom of speech and freedom of thought takes the top spot in the hierarchy of sacred things.

But other people think religious symbols are no less important than freedom of speech, which has to set limits so it can coexist with other sacred things, to keep the peace in society between different religious groups. The Arab world attaches no value to freedom of speech, which is suppressed every day to serve the region's regimes - in the name of religion, national security and other "sanctities" that impose never-ending taboos on expressing one's opinion.

A victory for freedom of speech?

'I am Charlie' is not sympathy for the content of the satirical cartoons, it is a warning of the dangers of censorship.

Crowds of people took to the streets of France to protest the terrorism that struck the country, in what was primarily a victory for freedom of speech, which the attackers want to be self-censored.

To the advocates of self-censorship out of respect for sanctities: How do you define these sanctities and identify what is worth of limiting freedom of speech and what is not worthy?

What if the reactions of individuals and groups became the gauge of what can be published or not? What is the definition of sacred and who has the authority to establish that definition?

Is what some people consider provocative necessarily provocative for everyone? Is what is considered provocative reserved exclusively for religion or does it also include inciting and calling for marginalisation, killing, racism and other things that fire up the Arab media?

"I am Charlie" is not a victory for a specific media outlet, it is not sympathy and support for the content of the satirical cartoons and it is not for the victims of the terrorist attack.

It is a warning of the dangers of censorship, which is now threatening to impose a new reality, in which what is fit for publication is subject to the intimidation of people or groups in the name of religion or other things.

Perhaps Charlie the victim has brought back to the surface the division in the West between those who advocate complete freedom of speech and those who favour self-censorship and prohibitions against offending one group or another. The latter will be fought in the courts, fought with words and fought with ridicule, as Charlie Hebdo has done.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.