Like just about everybody, I was shocked last week as news emerged of the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the cold bloodied murder of the magazine’s journalists and cartoonists, visitors the office, police officers and, later, customers of a kosher supermarket.
And, while I would have liked the terrorists responsible for the attack to have stood trial for their actions, I have absolutely no sympathy over their fate at the hands of the French security services.
And I share the revulsion that most people have about the threat to democracy and freedom of expression by such Islamist extremists; but, I have a problem with one aspect of popular reaction; and it’s this: Je ne suis pas Charlie.
The point is, I don’t think I need to be Charlie to share revulsion at what happened; to sympathise with the victims and their families; or to believe that people should not fear death – whether at the hands of terrorists or oppressive states – for what they write, draw or publish.
But Je suis Charlie says more than this. It associates you with the victims in ways you may not wish to. I’ve wrestled with this a lot over the past week and I have resisted writing a blog about it. I have decided to do so now following the arrest today of controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
More on that later; but first, why Je ne suis pas Charlie.
Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine. This means that, like the UK’s Private Eye, it will publish items – including cartoons and pictures – that are sacrilegious, mocking, anti-establishment, legally dubious, close to (if not clearly) defamatory, and, offensive.
Prince Andrew would probably have been very uncomfortable with the cover of this week’s Private Eye; as would anybody in his circumstances pleading his innocence. I know I would be extremely angry if I were in his shoes and the cover was about me. But I’m not, and it wasn’t; so I laughed instead (and won’t be cancelling my subscription).
That’s how satire works.
Similarly, Charlie Hebdo refuses to bow down to “limits” on its freedom of expression and will mock people irrespective of status or perceived sacredness: which is why it has regularly published cartoons depicting Mohammed. And this is where I have difficulty with Charlie Hebdo.
They appear, from snippets of interviews broadcast in the UK, to have gone from a position of willingness to portray Mohammed in cartoons; to a position where it was necessary to print such a cartoon in each issue. The depiction of Mohammed had become an in-joke. Rather than printing a cartoon and not being bothered if some people found it offensive; they publish with the aim of being offensive.
The cover depicts Mohammed, crying, carrying a Je suis Charlie poster. Above him are the words Tout est pardonne – as all is forgiven.
I have no doubt that this cartoon will be offensive to many. But it carries a message which is more than about aiming to offend. I don’t have a problem with such images and I’m happy to publish it here. My problem is with images, jokes, gestures, or whatever, that are only designed to offend; as opposed to jokes that are funny even though some will find them offensive.
Of course, we are told that in a free society we have a right to offend and be offended. And that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that we should set out to offend as a primary purpose or aim. Offending people who don’t like what we do is one thing. Being deliberately offensive is a different matter.
Does that mean that I think Charlie Hebdo should have been banned? No.
Does that mean that I think Charlie Hebdo should have faced death threats? No.
Does that mean that I think Charlie Hebdo should have been fire bombed and its staff gunned down? Absolutely not, in bold and double underlined.
But it does mean that Charlie Hebdo should have thought about the implications of what it was doing – and by “implications”, I am not talking about the actions of the terrorists; but rather the angst it causes the many thousands of ordinary Muslims in France.
Of course, in a liberal democracy; the way to way to respond to a magazine that publishes material you find offensive is not to buy the magazine. And, if free speech is to work both ways, to speak out about it if you like.
One of the most unusual outcomes of the Charlie Hebdo massacre has been the way in which some proponents of free speech are demanding that publishers should print cartoons of Mohammed; and condemning the majority of British newspapers and broadcasters who chosen not to print the cartoons.
At the weekend, broadcaster Stephen Fry called on the media to do so; and a petition calling on journalists around the world to publish the cartoons has attracted more than 6,000 signatures.
The petition’s creator, Chris Moos, says on its change.org page that “Any act of censorship of the cartoons for which the Charlie Hebdo journalists have paid with their lives is another victory for the perpetrators and their aims to intimidate people into silence. Let’s not give the murderers the satisfaction that they have achieved their goals.”
This is somewhat perverse thinking. The perpetrators appear to have carried out their act in order to enforce their editorial decisions on others. Now Chris Moos and others are trying to do just that – albeit with a petition rather than a threat of violence.
Freedom of speech, if it is truly free, includes the freedom not to speak as well as the freedom to speak.
There are a number of reasons why a publication might choose not to publish images of Mohammed; from fears for the safety of their staff; to a desire not to be unnecessarily offensive to a large section of the public.
It is sad that any newspaper or broadcaster should restrict what they publish through fear. And I condemn those that have created such an atmosphere. However, it is right and proper that companies consider risks to the safety of their employees.
I have published this week’s cover of Charlie Hebdo because I think it sends an important message. I have done so through choice, knowing that it may cause offence to some. But I would not demand that other publications or websites do the same: free speech means that everybody can make their own choice; and I wouldn’t choose to publish a cartoon that was offensive for offensive’s sake.
Another reason why Je ne suis pas Charlie is that the phrase is divisive. Many thousands of Muslims share the revulsion at the terrorist attack; condemn it, and sympathise with the victims – but they do so without associating themselves with a magazine that set out to offend them.
One of the most profound Tweets over the past few weeks was by Abou Jahjah who said: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed”.
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed
— Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) January 8, 2015
Condemning the attack and sympathising with the victims does not require you to associate yourself with this group, or that group. And as the attacks continued there was another slogan to go along with Je suis Charlie and Je suis Ahmed: I am Jewish, or Je suis Juif, created as a mark of solidarity with those killed in the kosher supermarket.
And so what was intended as an expression of solidarity became unintentionally divisive as different people and groups chose which one best represented their viewpoint.
Today, the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has been arrested under French laws prohibiting the support of terrorism. He had posted on his Facebook page “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” as an apparent expression of support for Amedy Coulibaly, the less well-known of the terrorists responsible for last week’s attacks.
If Dieudonné was going to express support for any of the terrorists it was bound to be Coulibaly: he is the man who laid siege to the kosher Supermarket and killed four Jewish customers. Dieudonné has a habit of making anti-Semitic gestures and comments; and has received numerous convictions for these.
Most Brits hadn’t heard of him until the FA issued a five-match ban to West Brom’s Nicolas Anelka for celebrating a goal with Dieudonné’s trade mark quenelle gesture – an inverted Nazi salute. But French Jews had heard of him – his supporters and “fans” are responsible for a number of anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues and other Jewish targets, including schools and businesses.
Most are “low-level” vandalism and graffiti; others are photos of them doing the quenelle outside the premises. But if you are part of a community who, in living memory, was nearly wiped out in Europe through the holocaust; and who is today living in fear of attacks by Islamist extremists and other anti-Semitics; then there is very little that can be described as “low-level”.
And this is where there is a problem with Je suis Charlie. What, exactly, does it mean?
If you are for completely free speech; then surely that means you respect the freedom of Dieudonné to say he feels like the terrorist? And, presumably, the freedom of Anjem Choudary to describe this week’s Charlie Hebdo cover as “an act of war”.
Or perhaps not.
During a debate at the Church of England’s General Synod a few years back; one of the speakers (I don’t remember who); made the point that when it comes to trade, the churches generally argues for fair trade rather than free trade; and that the same should apply to speech: fair speech rather than free speech.
Words have consequences (and, no; I’m not blaming Charlie Hebdo’s staff and journalists or the words they wrote or pictures they drew for last week’s barbaric attacks. I’m blaming the terrorists, pure and simple).
Thanks to the terrorists (and idiots like Choudary), many ordinary Muslims fear speaking out about the offence that they feel about the cartoons (not that all Muslims are offended by them, of course) for fear that they will be branded as extremists themselves or accused of being against free speech. Where is their free speech if they can’t express the offence they feel? Does Je suis Charlie apply to them?
And what about Dieudonné? It is undeniable that his words and “comedy” material has encouraged his supporters to attack members of the Jewish community and Jewish properties. Is that a price to pay for his freedom of speech? Its easy for me and, I assume, most of my readers to comment – we’re not the ones, on the whole, that are subject to the attacks.
The phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” has real meaning; and so the issue of free speech is a lot more complex that simply saying that everybody should be free to say what they want.
What people often mean by free speech is that “people should be free to say what they want, so long as I am not offended by it.”
This is quite a long post. And if you’ve managed to reach this far, thank you.
I think I could have said it in far fewer words. One of the those who took part in the protests in Paris on Sunday managed to do just that: “I march; but I’m aware of the hypocrisy and confusion of the situation”, he said on a placard, captured in a photo shared on Twitter by the writer Stephen Marche.
Most French thing ever to happen? "I'm marching but I'm conscious of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation." pic.twitter.com/b9dzTulbRS
— Stephen Marche (@StephenMarche) January 11, 2015
Je ne suis pas Charlie, Je suis Gavin.
I condemn the killings of the journalists and others in the Charlie Hebdo office; I condemn the killings of the French police officers; I condemn the killings of the people at the Kosher supermarket; and I sympathise with the friends and families of those killed.
I don’t blame Charlie Hebdo for the killings but the terrorists who are directly responsible for them.
I don’t believe in totally unfettered freedom of speech – nor do I believe that most people do.
But I much prefer a thoughtful self-awareness of the impact of words rather than state-censorship; except in cases where one person’s words has the potential to cause real damage to others.
This does not mean that I know where that line should be drawn.