I am Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Speech is limitless

By Matthew Pennekamp

Forum Editor Emeritus

We awoke on the morning of Jan. 7 to find that the bullet primed and loaded for Salman Rushdie a quarter century ago has burst as a live round into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, in the city Voltaire once graced.

One could only have hoped that the resulting condemnation would be unconditional. Instead, we were treated to a sniggering spread of equivocation – from the crass: they made their own bed… to the more subtle if equally insidious: If they had only been more tolerant… “They,” it sadly must be pointed out, refers to the victims and not the perpetrators.

It was the usually tongue-tied British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg who managed the most articulate sound-bite about this matter: “There is no such thing as the right not to be offended.” Glancing at the sheer volume of ideas and opinions that regularly smash together like billiard balls on Denison’s campus alone, this statement takes on a certain obviousness.

The offended, in other words, has the right to turn the other cheek; he even has the right to produce an argument that not only counters the criticism leveled against his faith but does its best to persuade others of its merits (though the sun-scorched Salafism of the Kouachi brothers might be a tough sell in Europe). But the moment he offers up the right to respond by force of arms, he not only crosses the rights of others to air their equally compelling opinions, but also embodies an equally durable quote by H.G. Wells – that “the first man to raise a fist is the man who’s run out of ideas.”      

Many friends have asked me how I can take my stand with coarse caricatures of Islam’s Prophet. However, the fact of the matter remains that I am not required to endorse the periodical’s content; according to Voltaire’s time-honored rubric, I need only “defend to the death their right to say it” unhaunted by the specter of violence. But just so we’re clear, I believe the work undertaken by these “scribblers” was not only their prerogative, but also absolutely essential.

Islam makes awesome claims for itself. Its most reactionary adherents, as the late Christopher Hitchens noted, are ones who “claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism.”  Nor, for that matter, is Islam the only party guilty of this. All religions to varying degrees presuppose a mantle of inarguable morality.  And as nobody has failed to notice, political demagogues have proven just as masterful at the art of the grand pronouncement and the one-size-fits-all solution.

Examples like this – sharing a certain arrogance in their monopolizations of “truth”– require the same antidote: rigorous questioning by the type of freethinkers who categorically refuse to accept any status quo as immovable (it’s worth mentioning that Charlie Hebdo’s predecessor publication was shuttered for holding fast to satire even during the spectacle of General de Gaulle’s funeral). Indeed, who among us can think of a new era that was not ushered in by iconoclasm?  Whether it be Christ before the seemingly all-knowing Pharisees, or the likes of Galileo and Luther confronting a Church that deigned itself a political and scientific monolith, what they taught us remains as true today as it was then: that those who will claim the world have merited a world’s worth of critique.

Finally, some have suggested the Parisian crime has less to do with dogmatic extremism than with the legacy of imperialism and orientalism ripped straight from the pages of Edward Said; a “last straw” moment for a dispossessed Muslim minority.  Very well then, let’s just allow ourselves a simple thought experiment. If it had been merely a matter of taste, then Salman Rushdie should have been safe when he authored a novel that, although sticking a pin in the notion of Koranic literalism, did so in tasteful and culturally sensitive language. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker whose documentary Submission chronicled very real sexual crimes against Muslim women, should also have been immunized against false claims of Islamophobia by the fact that his screenwriter, the Muslim-reared Ayaan Hirsi Ali, carried a certain amount of ethos in having fled the same abuses.

Would it surprise you to know that neither was the case? Rushdie, after having a fatwa issued against him in 1989 by the Ayatollah Khomeini, spent the next decade of his life playing safehouse hopscotch under an assumed name. Van Gogh, meanwhile, was shot and decapitated on the streets of his native Amsterdam by an extremist who found his cinema distasteful. His protégé to this day lives under twenty-four hour police protection. If anything, here is our proof positive: it doesn’t, in the militant’s eyes, matter how we render criticism; it’s that criticism is being rendered in the first place. Western society needs urgently to recognize its fact, lest it auction off its Enlightenment inheritance to the lowest bidders imaginable.