The latest issue of French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, shows the prophet Muhammad holding a sign that says “I am Charlie”. However, this gesture, which was supposed to be about the freedom of the press, has instead created an “us/them” mentality between Muslims and the supposedly open-minded West.
With their simple phrase “Je suis Charlie,” the journalists at Charlie Hebdo have managed to engage the public in a movement of solidarity with what has become a supposed celebratory right to champion free speech. While people might defend the paper and all that it stands for, the truth is if they had tried to publish anywhere in America they wouldn’t have lasted. Instead, they would have been accused of hate speech and certainly not seen as martyrs for freedom of expression.
Charlie Hebdo has had a long running tradition of taking on many satirical subjects, including its series of slanderous cartoons against the Muslim community and their religion. Satire is supposed to be about exposing the rich and powerful, not about mocking a minority community of Muslims in Paris.
Anti-immagrant sentiment is already alive and well in most of Europe with the rise of political parties that want to eradicate Islamic fundamentalism and bar their borders to immigrants. Charlie Hebdo’s decision to inflame the debate between anti-immigrant parties and the Muslim communities that reside in most European countries today has not shed light on what must be done to preserve free speech in the midst of terrorists who try to take it away. Instead the newspaper has only stereotyped Muslim minorities who face ever-increasing discrimination.
Should Charlie Hebdo have been censored? No. Free speech implies the right to publish even if the message is tasteless and offensive. The massacre two weeks ago was meant to stop the journalists at Charlie Hebdo in their effort to write satire and cow others who were and still are doing the same. The journalists at Charlie Hebdo had every right to go ahead and draw a cartoon featuring Muhammad. However, it is possible to protect freedom of speech without being offensive and that’s what Charlie Hebdo got wrong. Instead of being constructive or even clever, the newspaper makes jabs at Muslims and the Islam religion. Never mind that most who follow the religion aren’t violent extremists.
To reduce Islam to one caricature is dangerous and misleading. It lays the blame at innocent people’s feet and paints Islamist terrorism as a tenet of their religion. What Charlie Hebdo seems to have forgotten is that having the right to pursue freedom of speech does not necessarily mean having the freedom to be discriminatory.