Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Charlie Hebdo: On the front lines in the war on freedom of expression

There is a world-wide, religious war going on right now, even though Western, democratic and governmental leaders don’t want to admit it.

It’s not a war prosecuted by all Muslims, not by any stretch. But it is a war, a campaign against freedoms the West purports to stand for: freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom from arbitrary exercises of force and authority.
According to news
sources, after three men with assault rifles murdered 12 people and wounded another 20 at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris today, one yelled “Allahu akbar!” and one yelled “Hey! We avenged the prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo.”

Apparently, these murderers were offended by the satirical magazine’s cartoons depicting, and making fun of Muhammad.

This isn’t the first instance of this kind of thing.  Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed in 2011 following the magazine’s cover with a cartoon of Muhammad on the cover. In Islam, any depiction of Muhammad is forbidden.

Thing is, France is not governed by Islamic law. The magazine’s editor, St├ęphane Charbonnier, who was killed in the attack, once said he did not live under Sharia law.

And neither, thankfully, do I. I am happy to live in a secular, pluralistic society, one which allows each person to follow whatever religion or philosophy they wish, and which allows me to express myself as I wish.

But back to the war on expression and on democracy, freedom of expression and secular humanism.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, or Morning Jutland Post, published cartoons of Muhammad, setting off a storm of protest that escalated into violence, attacks on churches and nuns and more than 200 deaths.

Boko Haram continues to kidnap children in Nigeria in the name of its perverted conception of Islam. The name of the group apparently translates to “western education is forbidden.”

The Islamic State organization, also known as ISIS and ISIL, continues its war in Syria, Iraq and the Levant with the goal of establishing a caliphate, a religious state ruled by strict, fundamentalist Islamic law—which includes rejection of secular law, the embrace of violence to achieve religious goals and death for anyone who leaves Islam. It’s also known for beheading aid workers and journalists.

Those are just a few examples. And the threat against freedom of expression isn’t carried out only by people who think they’re Muslim. Christians in the US and Canada have been known to ban Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and various school boards have from time to time banned books that represent same-sex couples or homosexual relationships. China jails  members of Falun Gong; Cuba jails dissidents who dare criticize the government.

Granted, banning books is not as extreme as the murders of journalists, writers and other artists. But they are indicative of the threat against a freedom and a right that I, and many others, believe is fundamental to the society I live in and wish to live in.

The logical clash

I believe that the overwhelming majority of Muslims and all people in the world do not wish to impose their beliefs on other people, but are just trying to live their lives. Unfortunately, there are always obnoxious assholes in every society who believe they can tell other people what to do and think.

To me, and I hope to others, the right to think freely and to express my thoughts freely is fundamental, sacred and not to be infringed.

However, to the murderers of St├ęphane Charbonnier and the others at Charlie Hebdo, their religious sensitivities trump freedom of speech and the right to life.

The necessity of freedom

Freedom of expression is essential in a democracy, because history is replete with tyrants, religious and otherwise, who repress expression to hide their misdeeds and shortcomings.

But we can take a narrower perspective. As a child, I learned how important it was to tolerate teasing and insults. Reacting to an insult with anger only leads to a worse opinion of the target of the insult in the eyes of others. The far better reaction, the one that will be best for the original target of the insult, is humour and to tease or insult right back. If you can be funny while doing so, even better.

That’s a lesson that those who get offended by criticism of their beliefs need to learn.

Where do you stand?

This is a war, a war between hard-won freedom and the protection of elites—because what ideas will be repressed, other than those that oppose the powerful?

We who live in open, democratic and (mostly) free societies, like France, Canada, the US and other countries, and those who want to live in a free, open society, have to make a decision: do we support free expression of ideas that we might find personally offensive? Or do we think that some principles are so delicate that they must be protected against insult?

In short, do you agree with Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”?

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