Charlie Hebdo proves that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword

12 people have died in a terrorist attack on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo

Incidents of terrorism have become a relatively common feature of the modern world, but yesterday’s violent attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo carried far more political significance than most. It was an attack which claimed the lives of 12 people, including some of France’s most beloved and talented cartoonists, whilst also striking at that most cherished democratic principle, freedom of expression.

Charlie Hebdo is one of France’s most prominent organs of satire, a publication which mercilessly pillories the great and the good, from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to the French political elite. Not everyone always saw the funny side, and indeed as a Christian myself I find some of their attacks on Catholicism to be in rather poor taste. However, I also firmly believe that they have every right to print such content, and that any infringement on these rights would represent a deeply disturbing shift towards censorship and authoritarianism.

However, not everyone has been happy to tolerate the magazine’s irrepressible anti-religious outlook, and over the years Charlie Hebdo has been widely criticised by those within France’s sizeable Muslim community who believe it to be disrespectful and even Islamophobic. Such accusations of irreverence are indeed correct, but surely that should be expected from a satirical publication. However, many Muslims claim that Charlie Hebdo has crossed the line on numerous occasions, most notably in publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, and as such they have now been forced to pay a rather substantial price for simply exercising their freedom of speech.

It is not often that I find myself in agreement with socialist intellectual Noam Chomsky, but with regards to freedom of speech he is absolutely correct to claim that ‘if you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.’ Charlie Hebdo may at times contain content which is offensive to Muslims, Christians or any other religious or political group, but in a free society it has every right to print such views and we should resist any attempts to limit their freedom to do so.

In 2012, the comedian Rowan Atkinson led a campaign here in Britain to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which states that ‘insulting words or behaviour’ can provide legitimate grounds for an arrest. Atkinson and his fellow campaigners rightly pointed out that freedom of expression should also include the freedom to insult or contradict the beliefs of others, as long as nobody is prevented from holding their own particular beliefs, and in France we see a similar situation emerging. Any attempts to create a society in which offensive material is prohibited represent a dangerous attack on traditional conceptions of freedom.

However, not all people agree, and in the wake of the Paris shootings the radical Islamist cleric Anjem Choudary has written an article for USA Today in which he declares that ‘Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression,’ whilst quoting the words of the Prophet Mohammed to justify the actions of those who ‘take the law into their own hands’ in order to defend ‘the honour of the Prophet.’ Such words are not only intrinsically dangerous, but they also show that there are indeed those who believe that the Islamic religion should be a no-go area for satirists and comedians.

In a free society, there should be no areas which are out of bounds in this way – all religious, social and political outlooks should be freely criticised and mocked, as long as this mockery does not prevent individuals from subscribing to such worldviews. Like it or not, Charlie Hebdo provides French satire with a much-needed platform, and I hope that it emerges from this attack stronger than ever before.

George Reeves

Previously posted on the author’s personal blog:


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