Freedom of expression is one of the most firmly held values in modern western society. The ability of an individual to express their views without fear of legal ramifications is rightly held in extremely high regard. And that’s great, for the most part, people should absolutely be able to express their views without having to consider the fact that they may indeed be locked up for them. However, there are two important things about freedom of expression that must be taken into account. Firstly, it does not serve as a legal protection against hate crime. What is more, it does not protect you from criticism or censorship from any non-legal platform.
The attack on French cartoonist Charlie Hebdo by Islamist extremists was an unbelievable tragedy, that much should never, ever be forgotten. Whatever one believes about the moral value of these cartoons, twelve people were killed. The cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published are not, and could never be adequate motivation to commit such crimes against their creators. There is no adequate motivation, explanation or justification for the events of January 7th 2015. No matter what your views are on the work that Charlie Hebdo produced, one’s prime concern should be for the dead. However, we should not use this incident as a justification for sweeping, misdirected hatred.
The “Je Suis Charlie” movement claims itself to be a movement in defense of the freedom of expression, the idea that the message that Charlie Hebdo put out should not have resulted in the crimes committed against them. And in that regard it’s a movement that should absolutely be defended. To show solidarity not necessarily for their ideas but the rights that they have to express it.
However, it’s arguably lost its way. There’s a big difference between defending the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish its cartoons freely and defending the messages it’s publishing. Charlie Hebdo is, essentially, an Islamophobic, sometimes anti-Semitic, largely offensive paper. If people wish to defend that then that is utterly their prerogative, but we cannot favour certain messages in our attempts to defend the right to freedom of expression.
Immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, revenge attacks began to pop up all over France. In Le Mans shots were fired at a mosque, in Villefranche-Sur-Saone a kebab shop near a mosque was blown up, in Port-La-Nouvelle a Muslim prayer hall was shot at. The Daily Mail published an article on the attacks in which they said: “The retaliation comes as French citizens, and the international community, attempt to come to terms with yesterday’s shocking and deadly assault on free speech.” By contrast, when an NAACP headquarters was bombed in Colorado, no revenge attacks were reported.
To me at least, this speaks of a flaw in the way we talk about Islamic extremism, namely, we treat it as the norm. We treat an attack by Islamic extremists as an attack by Islam, one that we are justified in having revenge for. Similarly, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons contributed to these sweeping, generalizing stereotypes. And if that’s what “Je Suis Charlie” stands for then I’m sorry, but “Je Ne Suis Pas”.