I Am Charlie. Unless you live in a cave, you probably have heard something about a terrorist attack on a weekly magazine in Paris this week. Charlie is Charlie Hebdo. Who’s he? Well, that’s French for Weekly Charlie — and they chose “Charlie” for Charlie Brown, the perpetual underdog in the Peanuts comic strip.
The satirical magazine’s 3 November 2011 issue, bannered that week as Charia Hebdo (a punny reference to Sharia law), was “guest-edited” by Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, who was pictured (as a cartoon figure) on the front cover saying, “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing!” Muslim extremists retaliated at the time by firebombing the magazine’s offices. Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said the organisation deplores “the very mocking tone of the paper toward Islam and its prophet but reaffirms with force its total opposition to all acts and all forms of violence.” Despite the violence at the time, the magazine didn’t back down: it continued to publish mocking cartoons of the Islamic prophet.
Extremist terrorists attacked the magazine again on Wednesday (7 January), when three gunmen broke into the magazine’s office during business hours and started shooting. Twelve people were killed, including the editor, five staff cartoonists, several other staffers, economic journalist Bernard Maris (a shareholder in the magazine), and two police officers; one of the officers was …Muslim. Eleven more people were wounded.
French citizens were outraged, and even though the gunmen were still at large, they took to the streets chanting and holding up signs with the slogan Je Suis Charlie — “I Am Charlie” — to demonstrate their support for freedom of expression, and their condemnation of the outrageous attacks.
Today, two men, brothers who are believed to be behind the attacks on Wednesday, were killed in a shootout at a warehouse near Paris, where they were holding a hostage. Separately, anti-terrorist forces stormed a grocery store in Paris where hostages were being held by a gunman who is reportedly linked to the brothers; the gunman was killed, but so were several hostages. It will take some time to sort things out to see if the three gunmen are the same three who attacked the magazine, but that seems likely. Of course, others may also be involved.
And I Am Charlie too, not just because I’m a thinking person, but also because I make my living saying what I think needs to be said, even when I know some will be offended by it. Indeed, as I’ve said before, there’s no need for laws ensuring “Freedom of Speech” for speech that everyone agrees with.
“People Know the Consequences”
You would think that The Media, especially American newspapers, would understand all of this and line up behind Charlie Hebdo’s brave struggle for journalistic freedom. You would be wrong. McPaper USA Today actually went so far as publish an “Opposing View” the day after this week’s attack from a radical Muslim cleric in London who said that “In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.” Hey: you all know that we don’t like it, so since we don’t believe in freedom of expression, how can you possibly be surprised when we come and kill you when you have the gall to practice it!
USA Today is not Charlie. And by the way, I’m not the one who identified the op-ed contributor as a radical Muslim cleric; USA Today did, right below the piece, which I’m choosing not to link to. The paper did attempt to explain why they ran it, noting the cleric (who also defended the 9/11 attacks) “has both influence and insight” to present such an “opposing view” — as if it has some sort of legitimacy, or that all opposing views deserve equal time. Yes, I agree that it’s instructive for non-Muslims to understand the point of view, but there are knowledgeable people who can present it without adding legitimacy to those who openly support and encourage murder.
USA Today gave space to such a man to explain that “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.” Yet we have all seen false prophets who pompously insist that they alone hear the words of their deity, such as the “revelations” that the world will end on a specific date, “guaranteed!” That’s not any sort of divine revelation, that’s the ravings of a lunatic. Yet his many followers blindly believed him, even though his prior predictions had proved to be false. And yep, I made unmerciful fun of him and his predictions. Should Harold Camping’s followers have come to my office and killed me, because he was so infallibly right? And should USA Today have brought in a maniac to support Camping’s false prophecy?
So how do we decide what’s right? The only legitimate way is to not just allow, but encourage open public discourse: to embrace freedom of expression not because everyone is right, or has a valid point of view, but because that’s the only way to get to the bottom of anything. To truly thrive, ideas must see the light of day, be subject to investigation, exploration, and testing to see if they hold up. If not, we can all move on. If so, then great! The world got a little smarter, and we can build on that and explore the next idea. Yes, Islamic ideas too: they can be presented by rational people who shout down the maniacs so that we understand why they reject (say) freedom of expression, which leads to understanding — and gives a way to start countering the idea, should we wish to try.
Instead, the terrorists sent a different message to the world: that they believe their religion is too weak to stand up to the light of day, to be debated, to be explored, to be thought about. Instead, “We will kill you if you don’t unquestionably believe what we say the prophet teaches!” is the only option they offered, and there are many others like them. The world must clearly reject that thinking.
As I do. I Am Charlie: I embrace the airing of ideas freely, even if I don’t personally agree with them. Let’s discuss them rationally, and see what works. And soundly, even forcefully, reject the rest.
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