Sunday

24th Sep 2017

Opinion

Charlie's false friends

  • "If freedom of speech means anything, it means having the right to mock ideas that are open to mockery" (Photo: Valentina Calà)

For a fleeting moment after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, it felt like all of Europe was united in revulsion at the cold-blooded murder of cartoonists in central Paris. But it soon became clear that being Charlie means very different things to different people.

First, there are those who never considered themselves Charlie in the first place – disaffected young Muslims from French suburbs who feel insulted by the crude caricatures of their religion in the satirical weekly, hotheads from Niger to Chechnya burning French flags in anger at caricatures of their prophet, and anguished intellectuals who admit they are simply not brave enough to be Charlie.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Call them heartless, but at least the ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ faction are honest.

Then there are the ‘I am Charlie’ hypocrites: representatives of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain who had the gall to march beside President François Hollande in Paris as their governments jailed journalists and flogged bloggers back home.

No wonder one cartoonist pictured the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists looking down from heaven at some of their new fans and saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”

Next are those, like Pope Francis, who initially condemned the killings but then appeared to say the cartoonists deserved their fate.

In extraordinary comments to journalists en route to the Philippines, he said: “If [a close friend] says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose … one cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”

This has been the justification for the killing of millions of people in the name of religion throughout Europe’s bloody history. In many parts of the world, it still is.

In Pakistan, blasphemy laws are used as a weapon to bludgeon those of other faiths. And in Saudi Arabia, apostasy carries the death penalty and merely mocking Islam can lead to public flogging – as blogger Raif Badawi discovered this month.

Finally, there are those who condemned the killings and made passionate pleas for free speech while making it clear they have no truck for what the satirical French paper stands for.

In this group – let’s call it the ‘I am Charlie, but…’ category – can be found newspapers like the New York Times that refused to republish Charlie Hebdo cartoons out of “respect” for the sensitivities of its Muslim readers and officials like EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who said that freedom of speech must be tempered by “respect” for Islam and other religions.

This logic is both weasely and contradictory.

If freedom of speech means anything, it means having the right to mock ideas that are open to mockery – whether Christianity, Islam, fascism, communism, Euroscepticism or EU federalism. It also means having the right to offend those who offend you – whether representatives of religions that preach peace while sanctioning slaughter or those that eulogise equality while enslaving women.

“It’s impossible to know all the limits and taboos of every individual in society if you want to follow the ‘do not offend’ rule,” Flemming Rose told me earlier this week.

“It will lead to a tyranny of silence.” Rose, who first commissioned cartoons of Mohammed almost 10 years ago when an editor at Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, adds: “I think respect, like tolerance, is one of the most abused words. People turn these concepts on their heads in order to intimidate people with whom they disagree.”

It is a tactic that appears to be working.

Earlier this week, the Hergé museum in Louvain-la-Neuve announced it was cancelling an exhibition about Charlie Hebdo for security reasons. Says Rose, who is on the same al-Qaeda death-list as the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists: “If we start to behave as they want us to - to feel intimidated and threatened - they have won.”

The final category of false friends of Charlie are French government politicians who profess to believe in free speech but only if it is the right sort of free speech.

These are the ones who had no hesitation arresting offensive fools like the anti-Semitic ‘comedian’ Dieudonné while making elegant speeches about the right to ridicule.

Of course, very few favour unfettered free speech – the right to shout ‘fire’ in a cinema or to incite people to commit violence, for example – but these must remain exceptions, because dangerous thoughts do not disappear by banning their expression.

Instead, as John Milton wrote over 370 years ago, we must have the confidence in our own values to “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Take away the right to mock and you can wave goodbye to the type of crude humour that Charlie Hebdo revelled in and has been the bread and butter of satirists since the enlightenment.

Offer too much respect to the stupid ideas of others and you let lazy thinking triumph and mysticism reign. And remove the right to offend anyone and you roll back centuries of progress towards free thought, free speech and free societies.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company (www.cleareurope.eu) He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding.

News in Brief

  1. EU to hail 'aspirations' of former Soviet states
  2. UK says credit downgrade was wrong
  3. Dutch state appeals ban on taking air-polluting measures
  4. May proposes 2-year transition period after Brexit
  5. May to call on EU's 'sense of responsibility'
  6. Catalonia has 'contingency plans' for independence vote
  7. Last German polls confirm Merkel's lead
  8. EU to step up sanctions on North Korea

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEEU Finance Ministers Agreed to Develop New Digital Taxation Rules
  2. Mission of China to the EUGermany Stands Ready to Deepen Cooperation With China
  3. World VisionFirst Ever Young People Consultation to Discuss the Much Needed Peace in Europe
  4. European Jewish CongressGermany First Country to Adopt Working Definition of Antisemitism
  5. EU2017EEFour Tax Initiatives to Modernise the EU's Tax System
  6. Dialogue PlatformResponsibility in Practice: Gulen & Islamic Thought
  7. Counter BalanceHuman Rights Concerns Over EIB Loan to the Trans Anatolian Pipeline Project
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina Leads the Global Clean Energy Transition
  9. CES - Silicones EuropeFrom Baking Moulds to Oven Mitts, Silicones Are a Key Ingredient in Kitchens
  10. Martens CentreFor a New Europeanism: How to Put the Motto "Unity in Diversity" Into Practice
  11. Access MBAGet Ahead With an MBA Degree. Top MBA Event in Brussels
  12. Idealist QuarterlyIdealist Quarterly Event: Building Fearless Democracies With Gerald Hensel

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUPresident Xi Urges Bigger Global Role for Emerging Economies
  2. EU2017EEAre We Socially Insured in the Future of Work?
  3. European Jewish CongressFrench Authorities to Root Out "Societal Antisemitism" After Jewish Family Assaulted
  4. European Federation of Local Energy CompaniesClean Energy for All? On 10.10 Top-Level Speakers Present the Clean Energy Package
  5. UNICEFUp to Three Quarters of Children Face Abuse & Exploitation on Mediterranean Migration Routes
  6. Swedish EnterprisesEurope Under Challenge; Recipe for a Competitive EU
  7. European Public Health AllianceCall to International Action to Break Deadlock on Chronic Diseases Crisis
  8. CES - Silicones EuropePropelling the construction revolution with silicones
  9. EU2017EEEU 2018 Budget: A Case of Three Paradoxes
  10. ACCAUS 'Dash for Gas' Could Disrupt Global Gas Markets
  11. Swedish Enterprises“No Time to Lose” Film & Debate on How Business & Politics Can Fight Climate Change
  12. European Free AllianceSave The Date!! 26.09 - Coppieters Awards To... Carme Forcadell