Not everyone wants to be Charlie Hebdo

“To be Charlie you have to be ready to defy real death threats and firebomb attacks; to press on, like the murdered journalists, in the face of patent risks to your life while working under police protection (the dead included two officers)," says
“To be Charlie you have to be ready to defy real death threats and firebomb attacks; to press on, like the murdered journalists, in the face of patent risks to your life while working under police protection (the dead included two officers)," says Financial Times' Robert Shrimsley. PHOTO: REUTERS

What is one to make of the Charlie Hebdo episode?

Right-minded people will surely condemn the murders of the cartoonists and journalists of the French satirical magazine.

No one should be killed for expressing their views, however offensive to others. Laws may curtail a person’s expressions to safeguard others’ interests; but death is no recourse.

Among the reams of comment out there, there are four discernible strands of thought. All are imperfect.

1. “I am Charlie”

I empathise and salute the instincts and feelings that drove thousands to express solidarity with the cartoonists and journalists of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killed by armed gunmen allegedly shouting Islamic slogans.

Who would be so churlish as to decline to show sympathy for those who stood up for freedom?

But as the emotions cool, many commentators have stated the obvious: No, we are not all Charlie.

Financial Times’ Robert Shrimsley put it thus: Be glad someone had the courage to be Charlie.

“Emotionally and morally I am entirely with that collective display — but actually I and almost all those declaring their solidarity are not Charlie because we simply do not have their courage.

“To be Charlie you have to be ready to defy real death threats and firebomb attacks; to press on, like the murdered journalists, in the face of patent risks to your life while working under police protection (the dead included two officers). It is to continue publishing cartoons and jokes that you know will only inflame people who already need little incitement to kill. It is to hold your life and the fears of your family less dear than the absolute principle of freedom. It is to be so determined to fight the fascism of fundamentalists that you keep on publishing when all rational thought tells you to stop. These people were not just satirists; they were freedom fighters wilfully agitating a foe they knew to be deadly.”

Truth? No, most of us are not Charlie.

2. “Everyone should want to be Charlie.”

Some commentators appear embarrassed that they can’t be as brave as Charlie, as though it is self-evident that everyone who values freedom - and who does not? - should want to be Charlie.

But in fact, not everyone wants to be Charlie.

New York Times columnist David Brooks puts it thus, when he wrote a column saying he too is not Charlie Hebdo. He explains why: “Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.

“We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

“But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.”

He acknowledges the role of satire and ridicule as a social leveller, but argues that there’s a kids’ table and an adult table. Brooks argues that healthy societies allow both - but draws a distinction between the two. Wise scholars at the adult table are heard with respect. Satirists are heard with “bemused semirespect”.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people.”

Truth? Not everyone wants to be Charlie.

3. “Charlie is an equal opportunity insulter.” (Subtext: It’s alright to insult if you insult everyone equally.)

Some of those championing freedom of expression justify Charlie Hebdo’s egregious assaults on the sensibilities of some groups on grounds that it is even-handed. It insults all and sundry: political figures, Christian and Islamic clergy; Prophet Mohamed, Jesus.
But as some commentators note, the magazine fired one of its cartoonists, Siné, for drawing a cartoon deemed anti-Semitic. As the Guardian reported in 2008, the cartoon depicted Jean Sarkozy, son of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

“The young man, Siné wrote without a shred of evidence, was planning to convert to Judaism before marrying Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of a huge electronics chain. 'He'll go a long way in life, this lad!' Siné commented. The piece was published without controversy - until several days later, when a radio presenter referred to it as anti-Semitic. The families of those concerned were said to be 'sickened'. (Editor Philippe) Val, who took the controversial decision to re-publish a Danish newspaper's cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed two years ago in the name of freedom of the press, agreed that the piece was offensive and told its author to apologise.

“Siné refused, saying he would rather 'cut his own nuts off' and was, more or less, fired.”
For many of us in Asia, that cartoon would certainly appear less offensive than one showing Prophet Mohamad in pornographic poses.

Truth: Charlie backed down when the one offended was the French presidential family.

4. "Charlie baited Muslims and had it coming."

In the heated debate now over freedom of expression or freedom from egregious insult, here is one view that argues against the abuses of freedom.

Bill Donohue, head of the American Catholic Leauge, wrote that Muslims have a right to be angry:

“Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.

“Those who work at this newspaper have a long and disgusting record of going way beyond the mere lampooning of public figures, and this is especially true of their depictions of religious figures. For example, they have shown nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms. They have also shown Muhammad in pornographic poses.

“While some Muslims today object to any depiction of the Prophet, others do not. Moreover, visual representations of him are not proscribed by the Koran. What unites Muslims in their anger against Charlie Hebdo is the vulgar manner in which Muhammad has been portrayed. What they object to is being intentionally insulted over the course of many years. On this aspect, I am in total agreement with them.

“Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him.

“Anti-Catholic artists in this country have provoked me to hold many demonstrations, but never have I counseled violence. This, however, does not empty the issue. Madison was right when he said, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”

To sum up? I am not Charlie. Most of us are not Charlie. Most of us don’t want to be Charlie.

Charlie is flawed, perhaps even lacking in common sense, as Europe Editor of the Financial Times Tony Barber suggested in this piece.

But no, the cartoonists at Charlie should not have had to die for their folly.

muihoong@sph.com.sg