Opinion | The Charlie Hebdo trial serves as a reminder that we can’t have freedom without solidarity
As the trial of co-conspirators in the Charlie Hebdo massacre begins in Paris, it is important to remember that freedom of expression cannot survive without solidarity from everyone in the ideas business.
Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper well known for lampooning all sides of the political debate and having a special disdain for religion — all religions. Popes, rabbis and caliphs alike have come in for criticism from these merry atheist pranksters at the French publication, and if they didn’t like it, they didn’t do much about it. Until, that is, the newspaper published some caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. While there is a debate among religious and art historians about how Islamic thinking about portraying Muhammad has evolved over time, many contemporary Muslims consider any depictions of the prophet to be forbidden. When Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons, the magazine found itself literally under attack for doing so.
In January 2015, two gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices, killing 11 people at the newspaper as well as a police officer as he fled the scene. A friend of the killers murdered several shoppers at a kosher grocery store a couple of days later; it is unclear what their Jewishness had to do with the publication of the cartoons, but hatred of that sort is rarely leavened by good reasoning skills, and terrorists have never really needed an excuse to murder Jews.
Five-and-a-half years after that massacre — as well as several more bloodbaths, including the murder of 89 people at the Bataclan theater in November of that year — the people of France have more firmly swung behind freedom of expression in the face of terror.
“According to IFOP, a polling firm, and the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a French think tank, 59 percent of respondents said that the magazine was ‘right’ to publish the caricatures in the name of free speech — up from 38 percent in 2006,” Norimitsu Onishi reported in the New York Times. That’s good news given Charlie Hebdo’s decision to republish the cartoons this week as the trial began, though one hopes that French support for freedom of expression will extend beyond saucy cartoons and include the right to mock France’s poor, beleaguered mayors as well.
Charlie Hebdo’s current editors wrote that it would be an act of “political or journalistic cowardice” not to show the cartoons that inspired so much bloodshed. In the view of the newspaper, people needed a reminder that it was nothing more than drawings that led to murder.
Others were less supportive.
“Pakistan condemns in the strongest terms the decision by the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, to re-publish deeply offensive caricature of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),” Pakistan’s foreign office tweeted. “Such a deliberate act to offend the sentiments of billions of Muslims cannot be justified as an exercise in press freedom or freedom of expression. Such actions undermine the global aspirations for peaceful co-existence as well as social and inter-faith harmony.”
The choice, it seems, is simple and straightforward. You can stand with the editors overseeing a newspaper whose cartoonists and writers were savagely killed by pre-enlightenment thugs who used drawings as an excuse to indulge in anti-Western and anti-Semitic violence, or you can stand with the government of Pakistan.
But you cannot really have it both ways. You cannot both-sides or what-about this, in the parlance of our times. Here’s how Onishi frames the story in the Times: “The growing sensitivity to race, ethnicity and religion has clashed with France’s traditionally forceful commitment to freedom of expression and secularism. Many traditionalists have expressed concern that the country is yielding to American-style identity politics, long widely rejected in France.” If that’s the choice, then so be it: Sensitivity will have to die, and we should consider it an appropriate sacrifice to the higher ideal of liberty.
It is impossible to pretend to support freedom of expression and suggest that Charlie Hebdo should’ve held its fire here, that it should’ve been more cautious about to whom it gave offense, that it should worry about the third parties who might find themselves under fire for a newspaper’s decision to exercise our most basic and cherished right: the freedom to write and say what we wish and be free from fear of death while doing so. If you’re a friend of freedom of expression, you have no choice but to back Charlie Hebdo with reservation no greater than “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend until death your right to say it.”
It is cowardly to do otherwise. It is cowardly to engage in the “of course … but maybe” argument, as Adam Gopnik noted in 2015: “Of course it was wrong for the cartoonists to be murdered. But maybe they should have seen how threatening their work was to other oppressed minorities?” It was cowardly of Garry Trudeau, author of the toothless “Doonesbury” comic strip, to suggest Hebdo’s cartoons were “hate speech” and thus less worthy of protection. It was cowardly for Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi to withdraw from PEN America’s annual gala in 2015 honoring the newspaper for paying the ultimate price in the pursuit of freedom of expression.
And it is contemptibly cowardly to offer anything but solidarity to the journalists at Charlie Hebdo right now.