Charlie Hebdo: When freedom of speech and expression are shot down

Controversial cover of Charlie Hebdo, cartoon depicts the Prophet Mohammed making out with a Charlie Hebdo artist. 8 Nov 2011

by Rev. Kess

On 7 January 2015 in the city of Paris, France, two gunmen entered the offices of a magazine and killed 12 people. Charlie Hebdo, a satire magazine known for sometimes taking their exercise of free expression to extremes, became another statistic in the “war on terrorism” that has been waging since long before 9/11.

Many have made this tragic shooting into a discussion of religion (which it may well be), others have tried to claim that the shooters’ religious beliefs had nothing to do with their actions. and others are making an attempt to say that the tragedy had nothing to do with the cartoons and other satire published by Charlie Hebdo.

All over the interwebs, especially on social media, I have seen numerous postings by average people regarding this incident. Everything from outcries against Jihadists to victim blaming, from confused and terrified people to bored and I-don’t-give-a-damns (though if they are posting about it they obviously do care, or are trolls).

What I see the most is people saying this tragic shooting of 12 people (including two police officers, one of which is said to have been Muslim, Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility) was an attack on the freedom of speech and freedom of expression that so many of us in Western culture hold as sacred.

I would tend to agree with that. Here in the United States we have a constitutional right to the freedom of speech, expression, and the freedom of the press. Not to mention the freedom to worship as we choose. Granted, each of the freedoms goes only as far as they can without encroaching on the rights and freedoms of others in our country. That is, we can worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster if we want, but we can’t sacrifice children in the name of Marduk. We can expect that our journalists, even our “news commentators”, to say pretty much whatever, as long as they remain within the facts and do not make false statements against another – even op-ed pieces need to be as accurate as possible. We can tell a police officer, “In my opinion,” and flip them the middle finger without it being a crime, but we must be prepared for the consequences of that and other actions. We must always be aware of the possible consequences of our words and our actions. Journalists are not immune to being sued for libel and slander, artists’ work can (and have been) banned for the images or content of their art, authors’ books have been banned from public institutions for content, and a flipped off police officer is most probably going to look askance at you for your hand gesture.

Let me make something clear right here. I am not pro-censorship. Not by any stretch. I just realize that some of what I create as an author and as a commentator may be construed as unfit for general consumption. Does that stop me from creating it or saying it? No. Though I do mind my language when on community radio. My words can have an adverse effect on the station, not just on me. That said….

New Age instrumentalist Sajjad’s Defiant.

“Our hearts go out to our friends, family and all impacted by the horrific events in Paris. This feels seismic. Solidarity with all who value freedom of speech and expression. Nous sommes tous Charlie.” – Frenchy and the Punk, Samantha Stephenson and Scott Helland

On the same day a small incendiary device went off outside of the NAACP office in Colorado Springs. It wasn’t clear at the time if the office was the intended target. Thankfully no one was harmed in the incident. It did smack of similar incidents from past decades of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

At least one newspaper, in Germany, that republished some of the most controversial cartoons from Charlie Hebdo has also been targeted. The offices off Hamburger Morgenpost were fire bombed after going to print. Again, no one was hurt. A fire bomb was tossed into a back window of the newspaper, setting their archive rooms on fire. Al Qaeda has taken credit for these attacks on the cartoon publishers, both in France and Germany.

Over the course of the last week many things have happened, both on the ground and on the internet, in response to the attack at Charlie Hebdo and the bombing of the NAACP office in Colorado Springs, Co. One thing that has been repeatedly brought up on social media is the Boko Haram slaying of over 1,000 civilians and how it seems that mainstream U.S. media coverage of that terrible event has been ignored and all the focus put on Charlie Hebdo. (My heart breaks to hear about all those innocents lost.) It should be noted that Boko Haram is closely tied to  Al Qaeda, even though Al Qaeda has said in the past that Boko Haram is sometimes too extreme for even them.

I think why the U.S. media is not giving as much air time and print to the Boko Haram slayings is that everyone is up in arms over the apparent disregard for something that we in the United States do hold sacred: Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression (not that we do not hold human lives sacred). Much of “Western Civilization” adheres to these ideals – much of Europe, North America, Australia. It has even been creeping into the minds and lives of people in the East. What we tend to forget is that a good portion of this planet does not hold to the same ideals as the United States and countries influenced by us and Europe. It wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union that our friends in Eastern Europe were able to openly embrace these ideas. China, the Middle East, much of Africa, and parts of South America do not have the luxury of being able to rest on their laurels when it comes to these freedoms. And not all of these countries are controlled by those who claim Islam.

The attack by Al Qaeda on Charlie Hebdo was not just an attack on a magazine. It was not just a retaliation against those who had maligned the image of the Prophet. It was a calculated attack on the Western ideals of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I know that is a strong statement to make. But I feel it to be true. As do many others. Indeed, Al Qaeda has threatened that the worst is yet to come.

When a terrorist organization takes the life of anyone it is a tragedy. When they attempt to silence the speech or the expression of an individual or a group it is doubly so. When those two gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo they didn’t just take aim at 10 individuals in the offices (and later two police officers), they took aim at the idea of being able to freely express ourselves. Yes, their Prophet was insulted by the satirical cartoons that had been published. Yes, they felt that they needed to retaliate in some way. No, they did not have the right to kill as a means to retaliate. No, they did not have the right to kill to avenge their Prophet.

As activists, as writers, as artists many who read this site fight for the right and exercise the right to freely express themselves.  As activists writing on this site we exercise and fight for the right to freely express ourselves. Not everyone has that right, as I pointed out above. But all journalists, all artists, all writers, all of those who – if only in the minds – are free thinkers are hurt whenever someone or a group of someones take actions to silence that expression, to silence that speech.

The Free Speech Movement at UCLA-Berkeley in the 1960’s faced less violent attempts to silence them, but faced strong opposition nonetheless. The late Margot Adler wrote extensively on the FSM in her memoir A Heretic’s Heart. She and others involved in FSM were threatened, bullied by school administration, arrested, and jailed. Some even suffered physical violence at the hands of their oppressors. It was only after much debate and civil unrest on the campus that many of the faculty and staff at Berkeley stood in strained solidarity with the FSM that the freedom to demonstrate, hold peaceful gatherings, and host information tables on ideas and politics that differed from the main was not only allowable on campus but a right of the students. Adler was no stranger to political thoughts and actions that went against the main, her family’s involvement with the Communist Party and their connection to free thinkers in both the Soviet Union and East Germany brought her up in a sub-culture that was at odds with the mainstream way of thinking in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

On a more personal note, I have experienced the oppression of expression and speech in my own life. While attending a public high school in Lincoln, NE in the mid-90’s I was subjected to the authority of close-minded teachers and staff. My physical education teacher took umbrage to my proudly displaying pro-gay buttons on my jacket. She said at one point “I have a 12-year-old, I’m not ready to deal with that.” To which I wanted to say, but did not feel that I could, “you have a 12-year-old, you better be ready to deal with it.” My science teacher that same year was a Catholic teaching biology. He started the semester out with a conversation about pseudo-sciences and freely lumped psychology, sociology, and other “soft sciences” in with the “crackpots” who would still believe the world to be flat and the Earth at the center of the universe. By this time I was already on my Pagan journey and took offense to such words, but again felt that I could not safely speak up. The result of those and other experiences, seemingly sanctioned by the authorities of the school, I did not feel that I could express myself freely in school. My time at that school ended with homophobic actions being taken against the personal property of fellow students and friends who had been seen driving me to and from school – vandalism of their car with hateful anti-gay slogans painted across the smashed doors. Lucky for me I had called out sick from school the day that happened. I left that school, indeed I dropped out of high school at that point for fear of my own life.

Original piece by Mike Edholm.
(c) Mike Edholm 2015

Hosts at the community radio station I volunteer at have taken such a stance, two of them opening up an invitation to Nebraska authors, poets, etc to submit their own works on these freedoms. In this evening’s episode (Thursday 15 January 2015) of The Platte River Sampler three Nebraska based cartoonists are interviewed about how the tragic “assassinations” (to use the hosts’ word) of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and staff have impacted them. You can tune in live to that program at the KZUM website at 6pm Central US.

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