Charlie Hebdo & Free Speech

In light of the recent tragedy in Paris, in which 11 staff who worked at the offices of the satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ were murdered, I have been hearing a lot of discussion regarding the right to ‘Free Speech’. When I first read about what occurred, my reflex reaction was to exclaim that ‘Of course people can print what they like, if you don’t like it don’t buy it’, however the more I considered my statement the more oversimplified it seemed.

I am privileged enough to live in Britain, a country which many would consider highly liberal when it comes to ‘Free Speech’, in that people are allowed to openly oppose the government, voice their views on religion, and “the freedom to hold opinions”. At first glance, these liberties seem to be granted, however on closer inspection, one can see that there are many, many, laws which actually place prohibitions on what people can say. For example, people are legally prevented from making comments which “incite hatred”. This encompasses speech which could be considered racist, homophobic, and the like. Effectively, this limitation appears rather benign, a way of enforcing tolerance, however when do satires involving religion, morph from satire to ‘inciting hatred’?

How is this linked with Charlie Hebdo? Well, it made me consider that fine line between what can be deemed legal and illegal, and what my opinion on the recent cartoon is. I’ve heard many people justifying the magazine’s deliberately provocative cover, featuring Muhammad, by stating that the magazine ‘does the same with Jesus’. The more I’ve considered this argument, the less sense it makes, because in Christianity, it is not forbidden to make images of Christ. Thus, although the cartoon may be offensive, the simple act of drawing is not. For Islam, however, the act of drawing the Prophet is forbidden, so the magazine’s depiction alone was directly against the religion’s commandments. I find it difficult to comprehend an atheist equivalent to the Prophet cartoon, something which is directly against my core beliefs, and I think people must be made aware of this distinction. Without understanding this, it remains impossible to comprehend the offence which the cartoon caused. If indeed the cartoon wished to satirise the notion of terrorist groups like ISIS committing abhorrent acts in the name of Allah, perhaps it could have been done without the drawing. That way, the satire could have been used to try to demonstrate the problems with society.

I understand why the magazine had to print the issue, after the murders, and I support them in refusing to be stopped by terrorists, but I think that the original satire could have been portrayed in a much more effective way. Satire is a powerful tool, it can be used to shed light on social injustice, and try to advocate change. There is a fine line between powerful satire, and needless provocation, one I think needs to be trodden a little more carefully.


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