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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 17   16-31 January 2015

The Savage Attack on Charlie Hebdo Should Prompt a Rethinking of the Contested Issue of Freedom of Expression

Professor A. R. MOMIN

On 7 January 2015, two masked gunmen forced their way into the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, and killed 8 cartoonists and journalists, including the newspaper’s editor. They also killed a visitor to the newspaper, a caretaker and three police officers and wounded 11 others. While the killers were on the run, a third gunman took about a dozen people, including women and children, hostage at a Jewish supermarket. After a 48-hour manhunt, the suspects were tracked down and killed by French security forces. Four of the hostages were killed by one of the terrorists during the confrontation. According to French authorities, the assailants were of Algerian origin and included two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly. Said Kouachi is said to have travelled to Yemen in 2011 where he received weapons training from al-Qaeda. Cherif was convicted in 2008 for involvement in a clandestine network that recruited young men from France to fight American troops in Iraq. The suspects were known to French and American security agencies.

The brutal killings sent shock waves across France and much of Europe. Massive rallies were taken out in various French cities as well as in Europe as a show of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. On 11 January nearly 1.5 million people, including more than 40 world leaders, gathered in Paris to denounce the killings, to express solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and to reaffirm a commitment to freedom of expression. Many of the participants carried placards saying “je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).

Undeterred by the savage attack, the owners and staff of Charlie Hebdo announced the publication of a new “survivor’s edition” of the newspaper on 14 January. The new edition carried a tearful cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on the front page, holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), with a caption “Tout est pardonne” (All is forgiven). The new edition, brought out in six languages, including English, Arabic and Turkish, sold out within minutes, and the newspaper announced that it would print 5 million copies of the edition due to heavy demand, dwarfing the normal print of 60,000 copies. Several newspapers in Europe and North America reproduced the cover page of Charlie Hebdo’s new edition as a gesture of solidarity.

Significantly, the identities of the three slain police officers reflect the diversity of French society: Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim of Algerian origin, Frank Brinsolaro, a white man, and Clarissa Jean-Philippe, a woman of French-Caribbean heritage. Lassana Bathily, a Muslim from Mali who worked at a Jewish supermarket where many shoppers were taken hostage by one of the terrorists, risked his life by saving more than a dozen Jewish customers. When he heard the gunshots, he ushered the shoppers to a basement downstairs and switched off the lights and turned off the stockroom’s freezer. He then slipped out of the basement, walked out of the building and alerted the police, who stormed into the store and killed the lone terrorist. The French government has announced that Bathly would be given French citizenship.

The killing of Charlie Hebdo journalists produced some backlash in France. At least 16 mosques and prayer halls across the country were attacked in the 48 hours after the attack. There was an attempt at arson at a mosque in Poitiers on 11 January. Many headscarf-wearing Muslim women were subjected to verbal abuse. The incident further fuelled Islamophobic outbursts in France and elsewhere in Europe. The day after the attack, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front who has thrived on her shrill rhetoric of the growing Islamification of France, called Islam an “odious ideology.” Media Mogul Rupert Murdoch said Muslims “must be held responsible until they recognize and destroy the growing jihadist cancer.”

The din of vociferous condemnations drowned a sense of proportion and balance. However, some voices of restraint and moderation were heard. Elsa Roy, the spokeswoman of the Paris-based Collective Against Islamophobia in France, said that cartoons that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad “breached the limits of decency and insulted Muslims.” “The freedom of expression may be guaranteed by the French Constitution, but there is a limit when it goes too far and turns into hatred and stigmatization,” she added. Referring to the ban on the shows of the French stand-up comedian and actor, Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, she argued that the French government, courts and the intelligentsia could not escape the blame for double standards while dealing with the issue of freedom of expression.

Mr. M’bala, a French-born son of a Cameroonian father and a white French woman, is widely known for his anti-Semitic jokes, satire and songs. His shows draw thousands of fans. M’bala has been charged 38 times by French authorities for inciting hatred against Jews and for violating anti-hate laws. The government has urged the authorities in cities and towns, where M’bala’s shows have been held, to ban his performances. French courts banned a series of his shows in 2013. A French appeals court on 8 January 2015 upheld a ban on M’bala’s forthcoming performances in the city of Nantes.

France’s prestigious newspaper Le Monde condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo but, at the same time, commented on the duplicity of the French stand on the freedom of expression in the context of the action taken against Mr. M’bala for allegedly inciting hatred. “Charlie, Dieudonne, what are the limits of freedom of expression?” the newspaper asked in a headline. Joe Sacco, an acclaimed graphic artist and journalist, while reacting to the attack on Charlie Hebdo, said, “I did not feel like beating my chest and reaffirming the principle of free speech. Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen.” Pope Francis condemned the attacks but said there were limits to freedom of expression and people’s faith should not be insulted. Some Western newspapers, including The Times and The New York Times, refused to reproduce the cartoon on the cover page of Charlie Hebdo’s new edition. Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said, “We do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.” Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published 12 derogatory cartoons of the Prophet in 2005, which caused a worldwide outrage, decided not to reprint Charlie Hebdo’s new front cover. Flemming Rose, the newspaper’s cultural editor, said that since the newspaper had been living with death threats and several foiled attacks since 2006, it did not think it advisable to reprint the cartoons.

The barbaric attack on Charlie Hebdo has been condemned by Muslim organizations from around the world. The Muslim Council of Britain, the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella body with over 500 affiliated organizations, mosques, charities and schools, condemned the barbarous killings. Muslim organizations in France and elsewhere have urged Muslims to react with restraint to the new edition of Charlie Hebdo. The Al-Azhar University denounced the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s new edition as a "hateful frivolty" but urged Muslims to ignore the cartoon. "The stature of the Prophet of mercy and humanitarianism is greater and more lofty than to be harmed by cartoons that are unrestrained by decency and civilised standards," a statement from the university said. The Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars said in a statement on 14 January that "it is neither reasonable, nor logical, nor wise to publish drawings and films offensive to or attacking the prophet of Islam". Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a highly respected Muslim scholar and President of the Union, said the cover would give "credibility" to the notion that "the West is against Islam." Prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ghamedi told AFP agency the publication of the image was a mistake. "It's not a good way to make the people understand us. Jesus or Moses, all messengers of God we should respect," Ghamedi said. Mohammed Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and highest religious authority in the Palestinian Territories, condemned the cover as an "insult" that "has hurt the feelings of the world's nearly two billion Muslims" and that risked to "damage relations" between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Charlie Hebdo’s Style of Offensive Humour

Charlie Hebdo aggressively and unapologetically projects a style of satire and humour that is deliberately and unsparingly offensive and provocative. It pokes fun at every religion, including Catholicism, and every politician and public figure. Hara-Kiri, Charlie Hebdo’s previous incarnation, made a name for itself in the late 1960s. In 1970 a terrible fire at a discotheque killed more than 100 people. And in the same year France’s former president Gen Charles de Gaulle died. Hara-Kiri mocked the president’s death with the caption “Tragic dance at Colombey (de Gaulle’s home) – one dead.” This insensitive and crude comment caused widespread outrage and disdain across the country, following which the newspaper was banned by the French government. Journalists associated with Hara-Kiri responded to the ban by launching a new newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Though Charlie Hebdo claims that its satirical cartoons spare no one, Maurice Sinet, one of Charlie Hebdo’s journalists, was sacked on charges of anti-Semitism in 2009. Sinet had mocked former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s son for marrying a Jewish heiress for her money. Sinet was lambasted by French intellectuals and politicians, and the newspaper was pressurized to fire him.

Charlie Hebdo takes a particular delight in poking fun at Islam and Muslims. In 2006 it reproduced the derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The office of Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011 after it published a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. In 2012 it published several cartoons of the Prophet, including nude caricatures.

In July 2013, nearly 50 Muslim Brotherhood supporters who held a peaceful sit-in demanding the reinstatement of ousted President Mohammad Morsi were massacred by the Egyptian security forces. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo mocked the dead with a savage front page that carried the caption “The Quran is shit (nastaghfirullah!), it doesn’t stop bullets.”

Is Freedom of Expression Sacrosanct and Absolute?

Freedom of expression is considered a sacrosanct and inalienable right in Europe and the United States. In reality, a great deal of hypocrisy, double-speak and contradiction surrounds the issue. No country, including those in Europe, allows complete, unfettered freedom of expression. Freedom of expression in nearly all countries is restricted by prohibitions against defamation, libel, blasphemy, obscenity, national security, incitement to hatred, and judicial and parliamentary privilege. A survey of media freedom in 20 European countries, entitled Goodbye to Freedom?:A Survey of Media Freedom Across Europe, published by the independent Association of European Journalists in 2007, found that in 2007 alone, journalists in 18 out of 20 European countries faced criminal prosecution or were jailed for breaking various laws involving libel or secrecy.

Denial of the Holocaust is a punishable offence in several European countries, including France, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Spain. The world’s best-known Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel, who was deported from Canada in 2005, faces 14 charges in Germany. British historian David Irving, author of 30 books on World War II, was jailed for three years by an Austrian court in 2006 for denying the Holocaust and the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz in a speech he had given in Austria in 1989. A German court fined British bishop Richard Williamson £12,000 in November 2009 for denying the Holocaust in an interview he gave to Swedish television last year that caused outrage around the world.

The French Senate passed a bill on January23, 2012, criminalising the denial of the alleged genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman troops in 1915. The law provides for fines up to €45,000 and a jail term of up to one year. Against the backdrop of a brutal killing of a Franco-Israeli rabbi and his two sons by a 23-year-old French Muslim of Algerian descent outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, France on March 19, 2012, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would make it a crime to consult websites that espouse or propagate terrorism and hate crimes.

There is an anti-blasphemy law in the UK, Denmark and Greece, but it is applicable only to Christianity and not to other religions. Curiously, Denmark’s Liberal Party, which is against the blasphemy law, and the ruling Conservative Party have opposed a parliamentary move to overturn the blasphemy law. In Britain, the Race Relations Act 1976 (later amended by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000) outlaws discrimination on grounds of race, colour and ethnic or national origin, but not religion. Until a few years ago, discrimination against Muslims was not considered illegal because the courts did not accept that Muslims were an ethnic group, although, paradoxically, Jews and Sikhs are recognised as ethnic groups. Nick Griffin, a leader of the far-right and morbidly anti-Muslim British National Party, said in a statement in January 2006 that Islam was “a wicked, vicious faith”. He was tried for incitement to racial hatred under the Race Relations Act 1976, but walked free at the rather swift end of the trial. In his defence Griffin argued that he attacked a religion (which is not an offence in Britain, except in the case of Anglican Christianity), not a race.

A Spanish court in November 2007 convicted Manel Fontdevila, cartoon editor of the popular satirical weekly magazine El Jueves, and cartoonist “Guillermo” on charges of “damaging the prestige of the crown.” The journalists, who were fined 3,000 euros, had published a cartoon in July 2007 which made fun of Prince Filipe, heir to the Spanish crown, and of the government’s scheme to encourage women to have more babies. Within a few hours of the cartoons’ appearance, the court ordered the confiscation of all copies of the magazine.

On the other hand, far-right politicians, writers and journalists in Western countries are allowed to indulge in hate speech and to make derogatory statements about Islam and Muslims with impunity and with no fear of prosecution. Susanne Winter, a leader of Austria’s far-right FPO Party, while campaigning for the Graz City Council elections in January 2008, said that the Prophet Muhammad wrote the Quran in “epileptic fits”. The late Italian writer and journalist Oriana Fallaci famously described Muslims in Europe as “terrorists, thieves, rapists, ex-convicts, prostitutes, beggars, drug-dealers, dangerously ill.” Her pamphlets, which contain a stream of invective against Islam and Muslims, became bestsellers in French, German, Italian and other European languages.

Prominent leaders of the Christian Right in the US often denigrate and demonize Islam. In late 2001, Franklin Graham, the Rev Billy Graham’s son and successor, described Islam on BBC News as “very evil and very wicked religion”. In September 2002, televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition, the Rev Pat Robertson, called Prophet Muhammad “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic….a robber and brigand….a killer”.

Modern information and communication technologies, including the Internet, videos and films, are being increasingly used to disseminate hate against Islam and Muslims. A Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh made a derogatory film called Submission, which was aired on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. The script of the film was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a self-styled Somalian-born rebel who sought asylum in the Netherlands. The film opens with a prayer and then presents, through Ali’s voice-over, the stories of four Muslim women telling God about the abuse (including incestuous rape) they have suffered at the hands of men. The film shows semi-nude images with verses from the Quran inscribed on their naked bodies. The film quite explicitly conveys the message that Islam denigrates and enslaves women and that the abuse and humiliation of women is sanctioned by the Quran. The film caused great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims in the Netherlands. On November 2, 2004 a Muslim youth of Moroccan origin stabbed Gogh to death.

In September 2005, a minor Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 highly derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In one of them he was shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban (thus portraying him as a terrorist). It is interesting to note that Jyllands-Posten had earlier refused to print cartoons of Jesus Christ because it involved the risk of hurting the religious sentiments of Christians. In early February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries reproduced the cartoons, which caused an enormous amount of resentment among Muslims around the world. At the height of the controversy, Roberto Calderoli, a member of the Italian parliament, wore on television a T-shirt depicting the cartoons. This sparked riots against Italy’s consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which 11 people died. There were massive protests in Muslim countries in which scores of people were killed. Danish embassies in Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Syria were attacked and vandalised. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their envoys to Denmark. Large numbers of Muslim consumers across the world boycotted Danish products on a massive scale. Trade between Denmark and the Persian Gulf, which amounted to billions of dollars each year, came to a halt. By and large, European writers and intellectuals and the media justified the publication of these cartoons in the name of freedom of expression.

Some European countries are trying to reconcile the conflicting pressures of safeguarding freedom of speech and protecting citizens from racist and hate crimes. In 2005, Luxembourg tried to push through Europe-wide anti-racism legislation during its presidency of the European Union, but it was blocked by Italy’s centre-right government on the grounds that it threatened freedom of speech. The European Convention on Human Rights, while recognizing that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, allows European nations to impose restrictions “in interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.”

On April 19, 2007 the European Union approved the draft of a Europe-wide legislation that would make hate crimes punishable by jail sentences. The legislation called for jail terms for “intentional conduct” that incites violence or hatred against a person’s race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. The same punishment would apply to those who incite violence by “denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes”. Curiously, the legislation states that the constitutional protection of freedom of speech in individual European countries would be upheld. In other words, publishing the derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad would not constitute an offence in any European country because it would be protected by the provision of freedom of speech. The critics of the anti-hate legislation accuse the European Union of having double standards in that while it protects established Christian religions against blasphemy and outlaws anti-Semitism, it does nothing to protect Muslims against demonization and Islamophobia.

The right to freedom of expression needs to be tempered with social responsibility and sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others. An unbridled right to freedom of expression is fraught with socially disruptive consequences. A report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia points out that freedom of expression is not an absolute right. International law and the legal order of EU Member States lay down certain limits that democratic societies consider important and necessary in order to protect other fundamental rights. The report adds that freedom of expression and the protection against racist and xenophobic language can, and have to, go hand-in-hand.

Since 1998 the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has been pressing for a series of resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly on “combating defamation of religions.” Western countries and their allies have opposed these resolutions on the ground that they run against the cherished principle of freedom of expression. Consequently, the support for these resolutions has been dwindling. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on December 21, 2010 on “combating defamation of religions.” The resolution was passed with 79 votes to 67, with 40 abstentions. In view of the dwindling support for the resolutions, the OIC agreed on March 25, 2011 to set aside the 12-year campaign, allowing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to approve a plan to promote religious tolerance. The new approach shifts focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers. This represents, at best, legal sophistry and will be of little help in combating defamation and slandering of religions. The new approach looks at beliefs in abstraction and mistakenly assumes that they can be disembedded from believers.

An important judgment of the Indian Supreme Court can provide some enlightenment on this issue. On May 5, 2007 the Supreme Court of India ruled that no person can take undue advantage of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression to indulge in ‘malicious criticism’ of other faiths. Upholding the government’s power to confiscate books which contain references that can spark violence, the Court observed that no person has the right to hurt the feelings of others on the premise that his/her right to freedom of speech should be unrestricted and unfettered. The Court observed: “It cannot be ignored that India is a country with vast disparities in language, culture and religion, and unwarranted and malicious criticism or interference in the faiths of others cannot be accepted.” The learned judges pointed out that there was no doubt that freedom of speech and expression was an important right and should be available to all. At the same time, while exercising the right, one should be careful not to hurt others’ feelings.

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