Charlie Hebdo and The Preservation of Free Speech

o-UNTOUCHABLES-570By Garrick Hoffman

In 2010, the creators of Comedy Central satirical show South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, had death threats levied their way after an April 2010 episode depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Posts on the radical Islam website RevolutionMuslim.com issued both warnings and threats to the comedy duo, and the head honcho of the website, Jesse Morton – who once said in an interview with CNN that the 9/11 deaths were justified – was sentenced to 12 years in jail. He was also convicted for espousing violence toward a Seattle teacher who had facilitated “Everyone Draw Muhammad Day.”

On November 2nd, 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim who had taken vehement offense to van Gogh’s film Submission, which condemned how women are treated under the banner of Islam.

Now, just earlier this month, eight people who worked for satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were murdered by Muslim brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi at the newspaper’s headquarters in Paris. There were four other victims in addition. Witness accounts indicate that the brothers were heard proclaiming “God is greatest!” and “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!” according to a BBC report.
The newspaper is well-known for being left-winged and irreverent, often criticizing religion and politics with humor. In 2011, the company’s offices were firebombed and website hacked when the newspaper released an issue with the front page depicting Muhammad saying, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” and another that depicted Muhammad as a homosexual. More depictions have since been published, further fueling strong reproach from the Muslim world.

Was this an act with religion at the heart of it? Is it entirely unrelated to religion? Arguments on this vary. If one were to ask Bill Maher, a liberal satirical comedian and talk show host, Islam would instantly be the scapegoat. If you ask Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Muslim who earned himself plenty of renown as a former NBA player, he’d say Islam is completely removed from the equation.

Regardless of religion’s role in the Charlie Hebdo attack, or in any other terrorist attack or threat in the past committed by a Muslim, the central theme at play is the suppression of rights – in these aforementioned cases, the right to free speech, a right we all view as universally paramount.
This attack on rights isn’t something entirely isolated by a handful of individuals. According to survey findings on the website PewForum.org, in some Muslim-dense countries, such as Pakistan or Egypt – where many or most Muslims believe sharia law should be the law of the land – women are almost entirely stripped of rights. Furthermore, as far as extremism in these parts of the Muslim world goes, adultery is punishable by stoning; apostates who abandon Islam are sentenced to death; homosexuality is a sin and a crime, also punishable by death; and thefts and robberies warrant corporal punishment – that is, physical retributions for crimes, such as severing hands or whippings.
This isn’t to say Islam is to be blamed. In fact, Many Muslims around the world denounce this type of extremist violence that occurs in the name of their religion, saying that radicals who perpetuate this behavior have a very twisted, distorted, and, of course, radical outlook on what Islam stands for. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, some Muslims on Twitter even said that “fanatical Muslims damage the image of Muhammad far more than the most vituperative cartoonist,” as noted by New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof.
The PewForum.org also notes that “the world’s Muslim population is expected to increase by about 35% in the next 20 years, rising from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030.” Indeed, it is unfair to pigeonhole all 1.6 billion Muslims into the category that many Americans place them in – the one that claims that they’re all twisted, radical, and violent. Since 9/11, scores of nonviolent Muslims in America have surely been subjected to discrimination, harassment, and fear of being judged, wrongfully accused, or attacked unwarrantedly.
Ultimately, when any group of people uses satire to attack an institution, whether it’s religion or government, they absolutely have the right to participate in such. No one should have to live in fear of violent retaliation because they are broadcasting their opinions. Satire goes hand-in-hand with free speech, as it’s a tool to humorously criticize and shed light on an array of matters. Can you imagine our country without our own political cartoons, without The Daily Show, without Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain?
Those who succumb to the very fear that terrorists attempt to instill are essentially letting the terrorists win. This is why the “Je Suis Charlie” movement is important: it’s a profound testament to the human resolve; it is a defense for free speech, a means in which to combat the suppression of both free speech and the right to blaspheme.
Unfortunately, because the Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier so fervently subscribed to the virtue of free speech – and who once said “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees” – he became a martyr when his life was taken. But, as the Je Suis Charlie stands for, no one should let that stop them from speaking, from criticizing, from voicing their opinions when issues need to be addressed.

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