By Shoshanna Israel
On Wednesday January 7th, around midday, armed gunmen forced their way into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They killed twelve people, journalists as well as security personnel and a police officer and wounded several others. Later that week, two separate hostage situations resulted in the deaths of five more people. Thousands upon thousands of people in France, and all over the world, flocked to the streets donning “Je suis Charlie” signs, or “I am Charlie,” and indicated their support for the magazine in the face of this terrible tragedy. Over 3.7 million people participated in a series of Unity rallies in France on Sunday, January 11, including many world leaders and heads of state. This strong showing is certainly a victory for free speech and a free press, but a series of counter protests in predominantly Muslim Pakistan and Niger show the divisiveness and controversy surrounding these cartoons and their depiction of the prophet Mohammed, which is forbidden in Islam. There are those from all different religions and ethnicities who have criticized the magazine for its “disrespectful” cartoons. One of Charlie Hebdo’s founders criticized its editor for “dragging” the magazine into trouble with provocative and divisive drawings, referring to the event in 2011 where the magazine’s offices had been firebombed after they published an offensive cartoon depicting Prophet Muhammad to salute the victory of an Islamist party in Tunisian elections.
The contentiousness of these cartoons and the inexcusable violence of these terrorists bring an important issue to light. One of the great battles of our time is deciding what these freedoms, like freedom of press and speech, really mean. Can we support Charlie Hebdo even if it attacks and makes a mockery of a religion? Is that free? Can we qualify our support, adding an asterisk, while still condemning the radical Islam responsible for these attacks? There are a lot of good answers to this question, but, in these times, we must remember that the battle for free speech is always fought on the fringes. The work of magazines and newspapers like Charlie Hebdo reminds us, even if those reminders are crude, that freedom and secularism are rights we are not willing to give up. Speech, especially at its most radical, tempts us to restrict the freedoms that liberal society was built upon. Those who succumb to this temptation, who use deadly force or legislation to quiet the voices of which they disapprove, are a threat to freedom everywhere. The great irony of the Charlie Hebdo attack is that its cartoons were considered vulgar and was relatively unpopular, with a readership only around 50,000 people. Meanwhile, there will be over 5 million copies of its survivors issue. The rudeness of the cartoons themselves pales in comparison to the atrocities of the terrorists who committed these crimes, reminding people around the world that the real enemy is hatred and extremism, the very foes Charlie Hebdo fought against, even if they did so with the intention to shock and offend. The words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall ring especially true here, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That, and no less, is the standard for a truly free society.