Yesterday, The Daily Beast published an opinion piece called: “Trolls and Martyrdom: Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie“. Freely summarized, while it explicitly does not approve of the assassination of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, it argues that Charlie Hebdo was unnecessarily offensive and practiced free speech just for the sake of it, by which, within the context of free speech, it made itself redundant because its message (if any) got lost in the offensiveness spewed in the name of free speech.
It is fine to disagree with Charlie Hebdo. It is fine to not want to read the cartoons, to think it’s offensive or insulting, and to not want to be associated with it. Personally, I don’t think the cartoons are funny, educative, or even worth reading. However, saying that Charlie Hebdo was unnecessary and redundant, just because its purpose was to be offensive (some people would argue this, by the way), is like saying free speech shouldn’t be as free at all.
In the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders were threatened with their lives for speaking out against Islam. Theo van Gogh was murdered for speaking out against Islam. In Denmark, Kurt Westergaard was threatened with his life for drawing a satirical cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. And now, in France, 12 people have been assassinated for mocking Islam. Whether you agree with their views is not relevant. What is relevant is whether you agree with their right to speak out against a religion; not against muslim people, but against their beliefs. Fighting a belief with a belief of your own is fair game. Fighting a belief with violence is something completely different.
Now, to add some nuance, Geert Wilders has recently taken on a more radical course and targeted people of Moroccan heritage, which is by all means racism and by no means acceptable. Also, we must remember that the large majority of muslim people is peaceful and does not wish to be associated with fundamentalists or extremists. Violent, crazy people claiming to act in the name of Islam or the prophet Muhammad are not representative of all the muslim people we have among us.
But then, fundamentalists and extremists are not the sole justification of criticism and satire. In a free society, it is important to ridicule and criticize the institutions that hold power. No one is exonerated from this; not governments, not royalty, not prime ministers, not the Christian church, not war criminals, not even past or present wars. Anything loaded with social importance must (eventually) be ridiculed or criticized, simply because it stimulates social discourse, thinking, new ideas, change, and, most importantly, the freedom to speak one’s mind. Without these things you get absolutism, and with absolutism you get oppression.
Satire and criticism are the pioneers of a society in which people can practice their beliefs, however contradictory this may seem. Wherever there is one belief or opinion, there will always be one opposing it. By oppressing either you get dictatorships, tyrannies, violence, possibly (civil) wars. A democracy can not exist in a place where one belief or opinion is superior.
On that note, it is once again important to remember that the terrorists who assassinated the Charlie Hebdo staff did not act in the name of so many peaceful muslims. By stating solidarity despite the content of the cartoons, you defend free speech and with that muslims’ rights (as well as christians’ rights, and jews’ rights, and so on) to practice their beliefs. It is indeed so that the right to oppose something, however offensively, grants the right to practice something, and vice versa. (Since this is the internet I should add that I’m talking about non-violent practices; for example the right to oppose murder does not grant the right to commit it.)
So whether or not you agree with Charlie Hebdo, it is important to at least acknowledge the importance of its existence. And seeing as Charlie Hebdo continued its work in the face of violent oppression (death threats), it is not entirely off to celebrate them as martyrs, however uncomfortable that makes some of us feel. Offensiveness for the sake of it may not be your cup of tea, but the right to practice it and acknowledgement of the essentiality of it must be, at least if you appreciate the freedom to speak your mind. Therefore, Je Suis Charlie, even though I disagree.