Charlie Hebdo Redux: Another Blog on Freedom of Speech
Introductory Note: On January 9, 2015 I posted a blog entitled “Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Speech,” which you can find here. http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2015/01/charlie-hebdo-and-freedom-of-speech.html. One of the readers of the blog, Pranoto Iskander, Editor of the Indonesian Journal of International and Comparative Law, then asked me to write an extended commentary on the Charlie Hebdo murders and freedom of speech for his journal. It was published on-line this week, and I am posting it here with Mr. Iskander’s permission. Warning: This is a much longer blog than usual; about 4500 words. If you want to cite this blog for any reason, please use the complete IJICW citation, i.e. Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, “Commentary: The Charlie Hebdo Murders and Freedom of Speech,” Indonesian Journal of International and Comparative Law, vol. II, no. 2, (April 2015), pp. 467-80.
Commentary: The Charlie Hebdo Murders and Freedom of Speech
The murders of twelve people at the site of the French satiric publication, Charlie Hebdo, are the latest in a series of incidents that have rocked the Western liberal faith in the importance of freedom of speech.
The first incident was the Salman Rushdie affair in 1988-89. Rushdie, a novelist and British citizen of Indian Muslim background, had already written several well-known novels, among them Midnight’s Children, set in India (Rushdie, Salman 1981) and Shame, set in Pakistan (Rushdie, Salman 1983), both based on real political characters and events. In 1988 he published The Satanic Verses (Rushdie, Salman 1988). Some Muslims believed that the Satanic Verses was blasphemous, and an international incident ensued. The leader of revolutionary Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa on 14 February 1989 ordering that Rushdie be killed; As a result, Rushdie was under guard for several years using the name Joseph Anton (see his memoir, Rushdie, Salman 2012). Several translators, publishers and other connected to the book around the world were killed or wounded, including a Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi.
The second incident was what became known as the “Danish cartoons” affair, In 2005 Flemming Rose, the then culture editor of the newspaper Jullands-Posten, commissioned a dozen Danish cartoonists to draw cartoons about Islam or Islamism. The purpose was to test Danish fear of Islamist violence. Again, international controversy erupted, including massive demonstrations by Muslims and violent attacks on Danes. 139 people were killed worldwide as a result (Keane, David 2008, 857-61). The United Nations Rapporteur on racism believed that the cartoons were racist, while his counterpart, the UN Rapporteur on freedom of religion, disagreed (Keane, David 2008, 867-73). The issue was further complicated by the fact that Jullands-Posten had previously rejected cartoons lampooning the resurrection of Christ (Keane, David 2008, 869).
On January 7, 2015, two gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo. They killed 11 people there and one police officer outside, all men except one Jewish woman. Two of the victims, a copy-editor and the policeman, had Muslim names; both were French citizens of Algerian background. These murders were followed a few days later by an attack on a kosher grocery store in Paris in which four people were killed. The attacker in this case had apparently known one of the Charlie Hebdo murderers in prison.
After the attack on Charlie Hebdo there was a massive demonstration of one to two million people in Paris, with many French and other political leaders in attendance and many demonstrators carrying signs saying “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). This was not the first instance of danger to Charlie Hebdo. In 2011 it was firebombed after publishing its “Sharia Hebdo” issue, purporting to have the Prophet Muhammad as guest editor, with a cartoon of Muhammad saying “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing” (this cartoon is included in a set of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, published with explanations by the online magazine Vox http://www.vox.com/2015/1/7/7507883/charlie-hebdo-explained-covers) (Taub, Amanda 2015 January 7). Thus, Charlie Hebdo had been aware that its cartoons were likely to incite violence, but courageously kept on publishing them.
Should these cartoons be published?
Journalists, publishers, scholars and many others all over the world have debated whether Charlie Hebdo should have published its cartoons. Often in these discussions, reference is made to what “moderate Muslims” would prefer. I dislike this term, as it implies that Muslims must always define themselves against the few fanatics who purport to share their religion. Christians, do not have to define themselves this way, stating that they are “moderates” as opposed to, for example, “white race” survivalist Christians.
Nevertheless, it is worthwhile considering whether one should cause offense to someone of a different religion, or whether good manners or “liberal civility” should prevail. I personally found some Charlie Hebdo cartoons (which I viewed on-line or as they were described in the media) to be gross, rude, tasteless and offensive (e.g. in the Economist 2015 January 17). My preference, then, is not to publish such cartoons. But this is only my personal preference.
Another reason not to publish such cartoons may be that they constitute incitement to violence. On January 9, 2015 I listened to a debate among three Canadian journalists on the Canadian Broadcasting Company about whether to publish the cartoons. One journalist (not perhaps incidentally from the French-speaking province of Quebec, which shares some of France’s republican traditions) argued that every newspaper in Canada should publish them. The two others disagreed, the journalist from the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail arguing that since it had not published the cartoons before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, there was no need to publish them afterwards (Canadian Broadcasting Company 2015 January 9). I found this argument specious; a newspaper would not say that it did not publish a murder victim’s picture before the murder, so why publish it afterwards. These journalists, it seemed to me, were using journalist ethics and responsibilities to readers as a justification for not publishing the cartoons, when in fact they were afraid to do so. It would have been better simply to have stated that this was the case.
In any event, it is not the cartoons that are the incitement to violence. Rather, it is, as Flemming Rose said, the decision of someone else to react to free speech with violence (BBC 2015 January 13, 2015). This is “Hitler’s veto” as Rose put it, or “the assassin’s veto,” as Timothy Garton Ash put it. Ash suggested collective action, that all European newspapers should republish the cartoons on the same day, to minimize the risk of further attack after, for example, the German newspaper the Hamburger Morgenpost was firebombed day after it printed the cartoons: (Ash, Timothy Garton 2015 February 19, 4).
The Right to Satirize
Some commentators on the Charlie Hebdo murders argue that its cartoons about Islam are part of a long-standing French satiric tradition against King and Pope (and now Islam), starting before the 1789 Revolution. Charlie Hebdo resolutely defends French secularism and likes to mock all kinds of pretentious authority. It supports a complete separation of church and state, a principle introduced during the Revolution. Before then blasphemy had been punishable by death; indeed, laws prohibiting blasphemy were not finally scrapped until 1881, “as part of a bloody struggle against the Catholic church” (Economist 2015 January 24, 53). Laws in the 1800s still forbade the satire of kings, but eventually it was permitted. Much of it was grotesque, indeed scatological, and was deliberately meant to offend (Heet, Jeer 2015 January 10). As a result of this long struggle in France and other Western countries, Westerners now enjoy the freedom to criticize Christianity and cause offense to Christian religious authorities: Westerners are no longer subject to the Catholic Inquisition, with its torture, burning, and execution of heretics. Nor are Westerners in liberal democracies subject to the long history of libricide (literally, book-killing),of which the best-known historical examples are the Inquisition and Nazi book-burning (Knuth, Rebecca 2003).
But should this tradition of permitting blasphemy be extended to Islam, a minority religion with little power in France, especially given other “anti-Islamic” measures such as a ban on the wearing of religious symbols in public institutions such as schools? If satire is meant to ridicule the powerful, that does not appear to apply to the religion of Islam or to Muslims in France. On the other hand, we see what happens when routine state censorship denies any right to satirize. Much of this occurs in Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia recently sentenced the secular blogger Raif al-Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for insulting Islam, leading to a proliferation of “je suis raif” signs (Economist 2015 January 24, 54). This punishment of a supposed heretic should be called by its correct name, state terrorism. In my view, although French Muslims may have little power, Islam—as a spreading evangelical religion—is a powerful institution. It deserves to be satirized as much as Christianity was satirized in earlier centuries, before the power of the Roman Catholic and other churches was defused by the principle of state secularism. It is more important to be able to satirize such powerful institutions than to avoid offense against “ordinary” religious believers.
Limits of Freedom of Speech in Canada
This does not mean that there are no limits to freedom of speech in Western democracies. Indeed, the 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a United Nations treaty, specifically prohibits hate speech, stating in its Article 4, a that “[States Parties] shall declare an offense punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred…” (United Nations General Assembly 1966). Canada is a party to this convention.
In Canada, there are numerous laws that control speech. Canada has libel laws as well as recent laws prohibiting on-line bullying of minors and laws prohibiting the posting of intimate pictures of another person without their consent. Child pornography is also banned, although pornography depicting adults is not. In the 1970s and 80s there was a vigorous debate in Canada about pornography, with some feminists arguing that it should be banned as it degraded women while others argued it was a form of freedom of speech. The upshot of this debate, among other things, was an attempt by Canada Customs to prevent lesbian pornography from entering the country on the grounds that it was obscene. In 2000 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a split decision that although the relevant customs legislation violated section 2, b of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (covering freedom of the press), the violation was justified under section 1 of the Charter, which states “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The reasonable limit, in this case, was the necessity to prevent harm occasioned by the importation of obscene erotica (Mapleleafweb 2003 November 18).
This somewhat communitarian approach can also be found in Canada’s hate speech and blasphemy laws. Canada prohibits hate speech, although it is extremely difficult to define what exactly constitutes it. It is illegal under section 318 of the Criminal Code to advocate or promote genocide. Under section 319 of the Criminal Code, it is illegal to incite hatred against an identifiable group (including a group distinguished by its sexual orientation), and under section 320 it is illegal to distribute hate propaganda. However, according to section 319, 3, b, one cannot be convicted “if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text.” This suggests that in Canada a publication like Charlie Hebdo could use the good faith provision against any accusation of hate speech, arguing that it used satire to express its opinion on a religious subject.
Canada also has a law that expressly addresses blasphemy. Under section 296, 1 of the Criminal Code, “Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offense.” However, under section 296, 3 “no person shall be convicted of an offense under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.”
At first glance, I thought that this was a good law. As a matter of courtesy or “liberal civility” I thought that anyone discussing religion should do so in good faith, using decent language. But then I thought of my own anger at the Catholic Church in Canada, the United States, Ireland and other countries for tolerating for so many decades priestly abuse of young boys and girls. I might wish to express this anger in ways that the Church hierarchy considered uncivil. An actual victim of this abuse might well wish to convey his anger in a public place in a matter considered uncivil; for example, he might wish to call the Catholic Church an organized criminal gang. It is often the marginalized or oppressed who most need the right to freedom of speech, including uncivil speech using indecent language. This might well apply to a Muslim criticizing her own religion, or a particular branch of Islam. I cannot think offhand of any cases in Canada in which an individual has been prosecuted under section 296, but I think it is probably a bad law that should be changed.
The “Western Imperialism” Argument
That Canada has a blasphemy law puts the lie to the common perception in other parts of the world that “the West” is one large monolithic entity, whose values conflict with those of the “non-Western” world. Nevertheless, it is common for “non-Western” critics of the West to refer to the international value of freedom of speech (enshrined in Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR] as “freedom of opinion and expression”) as an example of cultural imperialism. For example, discussing the Charlie Hebdo murders, former Indonesian President Yudhoyono referred to a “clash of values” between the West and the Islamic world, arguing that Muslim culture requires some limits of freedom of expression and that caricaturing the Prophet constituted defamation and blasphemy (Parameswaran, Prashanth 2015 January 15).
A set of commentaries published by the on-line African news source Pambuzaka News in mid-January 2015 encapsulated many of the arguments made by scholars critical of liberal defense of freedom of speech. Indeed, one commentator referred to the Paris march after the murders as a “white power rally,” implying freedom of speech had no value for the non-white world (Baraka, Ajamu 2015 January 15). Another theme was the hypocrisy of the many dictatorial and/or fascist world leaders joining the march (Hamouchene, Hamza 2015 January 14). Indeed, the leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia condemned the attacks in France at the same time that the editor of the Jakarta Post was being investigated for blasphemy for publishing a cartoon with Islamic State flag in it, even though he retracted it, and a Malaysian cartoonist was facing sedition charges for satiric cartoons (Parameswaran, Prashanth 2015 January 13). These critics also mentioned Julian Assange (North, David 2015 January 13), who fears extradition to the United States for his Wikileaks release of secret US documents. The same charge of hypocrisy could be levelled at the US for its pursuit of Edward Snowden.
Critics also mentioned the failure to put what they perceived as Islamophobic Charlie Hebdo cartoons into context, and noted its particular preoccupation, or so it seemed, with Islam (Baraka, Ajamu 2015 January 15). They noted the failure to differentiate between lampooning the powerful, as in the French tradition of satire, and lampooning the powerless, in this case Muslims (North, David 2015 January 13), referring especially to the relative powerlessness of Muslim immigrants in the West (Baraka, Ajamu 2015 January 15). They contended that Charlie Hebdo’s constant cartooning of Islam fed into right-wing anti-Muslim politics (North, David 2015 January 13; Hamouchene, Hamza 2015 January 14). In a reference to a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting girl slaves of Boko Haram as French welfare mothers (a cartoon easily available at several websites), one commentator argued that the cartoon was “racist hate speech” (Kimberley, Margaret 2015 January 15). In general, one commentator summarized, “the seventeen people that were killed would still be alive had one-tenth of those who rallied in Paris last Sunday shouted down Charlie Hebdo and condemned the excesses of its editors over the years” (Magaji, Abdulrazaq 2015 January 14).
Critics also referred to “Western imperialism” all over the Islamic world as evidence of the West’s anti-Islamic bias, and noted former Western financing of jihadist groups, as well as the fact that the West’s ally, Saudi Arabia, financed them (Hamouchene, Hamza 2015 January 14). They also asked why twelve dead people in Paris were worth more than all those dead in Syria and Iraq (Fachrudin, Azis Anwar 2015 January 14). They asked why there was no similar march to protest the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria that occurred at about the same time as the attack on Charlie Hebdo (Baraka, Ajamu 2015 January 15)
The answer to this last question lies in part in the natural tendency of all people to have a concentric circle approach to concern, in which concern for family, friends and nation trumps concern for distant others. But it also lies in the concern for the central liberal value of freedom of speech. Yet some laws, particularly laws against hate speech and Holocaust denial, suggest that freedom of speech is not absolute.
The Holocaust Denial Debate
Critics of the “Western” attitude to hate speech often refer to what appears to be a double standard, in which there is far more outrage against anti-Jewish expression in the West than against anti-Muslim expression. One commentator in Pambuzaka News, for example, noted that in 2008 Charlie Hebdo fired cartoonist Siné (Maurine Sinet) for an “writing an allegedly anti-Semitic article” (Santos, Boaventura de Sousa 2015 January 14). (For a discussion of this incident, which had to do with a cartoon lampooning the apparent privileges of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son, see (Erlanger, Steven 2008 August 5)).
Indeed, there is a long-standing debate among Jews and others about freedom of speech versus hate speech, with particular reference to anti-Semitic cartoons, especially blood libel cartoons that refer to the myth that Jews eat Christian babies at Passover. Anti-Semitic cartoons are very popular in Arab world. (For a selection of these cartoons, with commentary by Joel Kotek, go to http://jcpa.org/article/major-anti-semitic-motifs-in-arab-cartoons/) (Kotek, Joel 2004 June 1).
After the Charlie Hebdo murders, the Canadian Jewish News published a debate about whether denial of the Holocaust constituted hate speech and should therefore be banned. Marni Soupcoff argued that bad speech ought to be fought with good speech: bad speech should not be banned but refuted. “It is a truism that distasteful, unpleasant or highly controversial speech is usually the only kind of speech that really needs defending…If questioning the Holocaust… becomes a crime...then the truth of the Holocaust’s horror is no longer something that must be thought about actively and defended passionately,” she argued (Soupcoff, Marni 2015 January 29, 8, 33).
Opposing her view, David Matas argued that there was a difference between blasphemy and hate speech. Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo murders, the Senegalese-French comedian Dieudonné, known for his tendency to promote anti-Semitism, was arrested and charged with “apology for terrorism” for apparently sympathizing with the attacks, a crime that carried a penalty of seven years’ imprisonment (Economist 2015 January 24, 53). Matas argued that Charlie Hebdo should be free to satirize Islam but Dieudonné should not be permitted to make anti-Semitic jokes. Incitement to hatred, as in anti-Semitism, had no truth-seeking purpose, Matas argued, while blasphemy did: thus, Matas supported Holocaust denial laws (Matas, David 2015 January 29, 33).
This debate has more than local resonance. Critics of Western “hypocrisy” often cite the laws in Germany and Austria that criminalize denial of the Holocaust, asking why this particular form of speech, pertaining to Jews, should be outlawed whereas blasphemy against Islam is permitted. The answer lies in the particularity of German and Austrian history: Germany was responsible for the Holocaust, while Austria participated in it. Moreover, the Holocaust denial laws do not prohibit criticism of or blasphemy against Judaism as a religion: they outlaw denial of the fact that Jews were murdered. Nevertheless, seventy years after the Holocaust it is, in my view, time to end these laws, and let “good” speech outweigh bad when any public figure denies that the Holocaust occurred, as Soupcoff suggests. But Matas is also correct, that blasphemy can be a form of speech that seeks the truth in religious doctrine, while hate speech promotes hatred of and violence against a particular group of people. The question is, when does blasphemy turn into hatred.
In Defense of Freedom of Speech
The value of freedom of speech is not part of a “hegemonic Western discourse” that is irrelevant to non-Western countries or societies. It is not, unfortunately, hegemonic at all (Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E. 2013, 180), but it is a discourse with much appeal to oppressed people everywhere, including those oppressed by extremist forms of Islam or by so-called “Islamic” governments that cannot tolerate criticism.
The clash is not one of the “the West” versus “the Rest.” Statements such as “The West must learn to respect the views of others,” made by the head of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization (Jakarta Post 2015 January 15), homogenize and caricature both the West and non-Western societies. The clash is actually between liberalism and illiberalism, between an open society in which people are permitted to say what they think, however offensive it may be to the those in power, and closed societies in which people are forced to keep their thoughts to themselves.
This is not the place to discuss extensively the role of freedom of speech in the development of the prosperous, relative rights-protecting societies that exist in most of the West today. But one should remember the role that freedom of speech—including the right to blaspheme--played in enabling Westerners to achieve all the rights they now enjoy. Without freedom of speech, African-Americans, women, indigenous peoples, and minority groups of various kinds (including gays and lesbians) would not have attained the rights they now have.
Indeed, if I could choose one only human right that everyone should enjoy, it would be freedom of speech. Freedom of speech would allow dissident Russians to challenge the hegemony not only of Putin’s state, but also of the Orthodox Catholic Church. Freedom of speech would assist Christians, Muslims, and Falun Gong to practice their religion in China. Freedom of speech helps minority Muslims in Western countries to assert their rights to equal treatment, but also helps minorities within that minority, such as Ahmadi or Ismaeli Muslims. This is why a private Russian proposal to review the UDHR, especially article 19 protecting freedom of opinion and expression, is so dangerous (Rapsinews 2015 February 12). So is all state censorship, such as the Turkish announcement that it will prosecute the newspaper Cumhuriyet for republishing some of the CH cartoons (Ash, Timothy Garton 2015 February 19, 6).
At the current juncture, we have more to fear than the state censorship I’ve noted above. We now have to fear non-state censorship, indeed lynch censorship, as well. Fanatical Muslim extremists are trying to stop all portrayals of Islam that they consider offensive, and we should be just as critical of these groups as we are of states. In March 2015, for example, secular Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy was lynched when he went to Bangladesh for a visit (Laughland, Oliver and Hammadi, Saad 2015 March 7). Raif al-Sadawi was still in jail in Saudi Arabia when I wrote this commentary, a victim of state censorship, but Roy, a victim of non-state lynch censorship, was dead.
As I noted at the beginning of this article, I found some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons (or the descriptions of some of them) offensive, gross, childish and disgusting. I would not want to show them to any Muslim I know, except in the context of a discussion of freedom of speech. Nevertheless, I have to defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of expression. The alternative is too dangerous.
I am most grateful to the faculty and students of the Human Rights and Human Diversity Program, Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford campus, for their comments on a lecture I delivered based on this article on March 11, 2015. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Andrew Robinson for his discussion of my argument.
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