Before Wednesday’s attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead, I had never heard of the satirical magazine. It not only took a stand against Islamic fundamentalism, but against all forms of intolerance, religious and secular.
But I have heard of the magazine now, and so have you.
The attack has already failed in its objective, as the profile of the magazine has been dramatically raised throughout the world. At the same time, the image of the Prophet is diminished, as the attack draws attention to the fact that so many intolerant idiots are his followers.
French police have taken Hamyd Mourad, 18, into custody after he surrendered to authorities, but his classmates say he is innocent and was in school at the time of the attack. The New York Times quotes Prime Minister Manuel Valls as saying that “several” other people had been detained, as well. But the two central suspects in the attack remained at large.
Police issued a plea for help in finding two French-born brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, aged 34 and 32 respectively. As of early Friday morning, authorities reported the brothers were surrounded in the small village of Dammartin-en-Goele, 25 miles northeast of Paris. They have possibly taken at least one hostage and say they want to die as “martyrs.”
By dusk French time and noon US central time Friday, police had stormed the building where the martyrs-to-be were hiding, and the Kouachi brothers came out firing and were killed during the confrontation.
It is unclear whether there were any other casualties.
Now that they have gotten their wish, it at least cleans out the gene pool a little bit. There are enough fanatics in the world.
In a related incident, a friend of the brothers, Amedy Coulibay, had taken five hostages in a Kosher market on the eastern edge of central Paris. The media reported that four hostages plus the hostage-taker were killed during a siege which took place at approximately the same time as against the Kouachi brothers.
A manhunt for a fourth suspect, a female named Hayat Boumeddiene, continues on Saturday. She was apparently an accomplice in the Kosher market incident and the shooting of police officers the day before.
When will it become a social norm that it is never an intelligent thing to tell other people how they should live their lives and back one’s personal beliefs by political might or violence?
In the end, it always backfires.
Charlie Hebdo offends—and we must defend its right to do so
The motive behind the tragic shootings at the headquarters of satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris has not yet been confirmed but it seems clear that there is a link between the publication’s stance on controversial content and the decision by several masked gunmen to launch such a murderous attack against the staff.
The perpetrators of the attack, in which 12 were killed and several more critically wounded, must be apprehended—but, more broadly, we also need to reaffirm the importance of absolute freedom of expression in an open society—regardless of how offensive it might be to some and, on occasion, how puerile it may become. The solution to bad ideas—as the enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill noted—is not censorship but more speech with which to counter them.
By all accounts Charlie Hebdo has certainly been scurrilous and provocative in the past and hasn’t relented in its approach since 2006, when it republished controversial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, or since 2011 when its offices were fire bombed. Recent front covers have poked fun not just at the Muslim prophet, but the pope, Jesus, Jews, various world leaders, and celebrities. Infantile as some of this may seem, it is also a reaction to an increasingly censorious society.
While this attack and others like this shock the world, it is governments, as well as the media itself on occasion, that have been at the vanguard of banning free expression and regulating ideas in recent years. The French government has demonstrated its censorious and anti-Enlightenment outlook by banning Muslim women from wearing the veil in public, for example. Meanwhile, in the UK, the past year has seen an art exhibition in London shut down and a public debate on abortion cancelled at the University of Oxford.
In the wake of the Paris attack, it will be interesting to see how leaders react. Barack Obama, for instance, recently defended the right of film makers at Sony to poke fun at the North Korean President Kim Jong Un and accused North Korea of orchestrating a cyber-attack against the company in an attempt to stifle its freedom of expression. Whether or not he will be willing to come to the defense of Charlie Hebdo in such an absolute and uncompromising manner remains to be seen.
Indeed, it is our confusion over such matters that have acted as a green light to others to take action. Just 25 years ago, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was reviled for issuing a Fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. Today, it would seem as though much of Western society has embraced similar regulatory impulses through the form of self-censorship—holding back from expressing views even before anyone demands it. Clarifying these confusions for ourselves will be the first necessary step towards avoiding such incidents again in future.
Rather than living in fear, we must stand robustly against anyone who would stifle freedom of expression—be they governments, other authoritative bodies including arts institutions and universities, the media, or a handful of self-appointed and readily-offended fools.
In recent years a therapeutic culture has emerged across all Western societies that effectively seeks to prioritize our emotions or how we feel about things over reasoned debate and objective insight. As a consequence, a generation has emerged that is more readily offended than its predecessors. Within this generation, a tiny minority is encouraged to act and sometimes does so violently. They are only encouraged by mainstream confusion and equivocation on such issues.
Freedom of expression is absolute or it is nothing at all. It cannot be parceled out so that we are only free at particular times or in specific circumstances. That’s how it becomes a privilege rather than a right. That’s how the self-appointed guardians get to decide what is an isn’t acceptable.
Unpalatable as it may be on occasion, we all have the responsibility to engage robustly with those we dislike, or even despise. We have to do it in a manner that excludes violence and encourages discourse, debate and clarification.
It seems we have moved a long way from the apocryphal saying attributed to the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire: “I disagree with everything you say but I will defend to my death your right to say it.” An over-sensitive culture has emerged, not in some faraway place but right here in the West. Violent attacks like those in Paris are still rare but this is a culture that will engender many future acts of conflict unless we regain the real sense of what tolerance means. It is not indifference to others or turning a blind eye but healthy, pointed and, on occasion, offensive engagement.
Bill Durodié is Chair of International Relations in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.
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