I am not Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Speech has limits

By Kristof Oltvai

News Editor Emeritus

On Jan. 7, armed gunmen stormed the offices of Paris’ satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. Al Qaeda and ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, citing the magazine’s repeated, often inflammatory caricatures of the prophet Mohammed as an offense against Islam.

Immediately, the free world was up in arms. “Je suis Charlie” was the chant of approximately 2 million protesters in Paris alone, joined by about 40 world leaders in the capital and solidarity marchers across Europe. This public outcry was seen as a staunch defense of free speech and freedom of the press, rights which are not to be limited by “provincial” biases like religion.

A more nuanced perspective provided by David Brooks and other critics who condemned the terrorists while at the same time pointing out that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons reek of racism, xenophobia, and orientalism. As New York Times columnist David Brooks said, “if [Charlie Hebdo] had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds.”

He’s right. If The Denisonian published cartoons remotely resembling Charlie Hebdo’s—caricaturing, for example, members of the Muslim Student Association or the Black Student Union—I think it is fair to say that campus protests would soon erupt.

The Hebdo debate must, however, be about more than prejudice and racism versus freedom of speech. It is quite obvious that in the West, violent extrajudicial killing is never a justifiable response to any act of offense. Free speech is only limited when it is extraordinarily likely to incite physical harm, such as yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre or inciting a mob. Blasphemy, in a secular society, is fair game.

The question is thus not whether a society dedicated to secularism should defend a “right to blasphemy.” The real question is whether or not a society that does not protect against the defamation of religion is reasonable given an increasingly globalized world..

The West must acknowledge that its secular values are symptomatic of its particular historical development, especially in the form of the highly atomized, highly industrialized capitalist society we live in today. Correspondingly, the Western world sees  “religion” as a set of privately held notions that influence the relationship of the individual to a confined set of practices and beliefs. Because religious values are individually determined, they are distinctly kept separate from politics and law in the West.

To impose this same framework on other cultures, however, is an act of colonialism. In many non-Western societies, vestiges still exist of the original function of religion as a political and practical organizing principle, a set of public as well as private practices meant to relate the community to a set of shared spiritual experiences. In these settings, it is not our place to impose demands of “freedom of religion” or “freedom of speech” when these ideas took thousands of years to develop in Europe.

This is all complicated by the fact that in the globalized world, cultures are often no longer geographically distinct. Both of the Charlie Hebdo attackers were born and raised in France, but clearly were not paragons of France’s secular values. The attackers were, in fact, the children of Algerian immigrants—sons, as it were, of France’s own imperialist history.

In many ways, then, the Hebdo attackers epitomize the problem of the contemporary West, which has given up the territorial pursuit of its universalist mission while still clinging to it ideologically in the form of liberalism and capitalism. We pay lip service to ideas like decolonization and multiculturalism while expecting “the immigrant” to leave much of his cultural baggage at the doorstep.

The time has come to realize that, in a truly multicultural world, we will encounter ideas and ways of life that we cannot ourselves accept. Restrictions on freedom of speech when it comes to religious matters may be one of these.

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