The military-style murder of a dozen people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi in Paris was the latest bloody episode in a long struggle over freedom of expression. A deadly incident at a kosher supermarket a few days later pointed to the common humanity that transcends the fight.
Reactions to the Hebdo attack ran the gamut. CNN’s Don Lemon, whose gift of gaffe won him a Dart for worst journalist of 2014 from Columbia Journalism Review, asked international human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, “Do you support ISIS?” Conservative author Dinesh D’Souza said, “Liberals coddle this Islamic radicalism,” despite having sympathized with conservative Muslims himself. Rudy Giuliani told Fox & Friends that the U.S. should station police in every mosque.
Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said of Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, “It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.” In fact, Charb knew the danger he faced. After receiving death threats two years ago, he said, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
Conservative pundits indignantly asked why there were no condemnations by Muslim leaders of the attacks, when in fact there was a flood of them. On the other hand, it was jarring when several despotic regimes sent representatives to a massive Paris march for the murdered cartoonists despite their own repression of journalists.
Any facile sorting of friend from foe was refuted by news reports. The last victim in the Charlie Hebdo attack was Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet. During the kosher market incident, Muslim employee Lassana Bathily saved several hostages from terrorist Amedy Coulibaly by hiding them in a walk-in freezer.
A news report referred to Coulibaly’s “fluent French and broken Arabic.” Having come home to roost, the West’s imperialist chickens are less likely to fit the profile. Only cooperation across faiths and cultures can save us from endless retributive justice. Defending secular freedoms against racism and sectarianism is the best response to Marine Le Pen.
Author Salman Rushdie responded to the attacks by calling religion “a mediaeval form of unreason” and adding, “I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. … Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
Some say that people have no right to offend other people’s religions. But freedom of speech and of the press mean nothing if not the right to offend. Some assert Christendom would never tolerate blasphemy that hits closer to home. But Western art and literature are replete with blasphemy, from Nobelist Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum to South Park to Kanye West. (Heretics won the Reformation.) Irreverence may offend, but its banishment would make us hostage to the most delicate sensibility. What the mainstream media censors goes viral on social media.
Neither public servants nor clergy nor holy books nor heroes are infallible. Battling obscurantism does not mean we are saints of any kind. It means we will not accept a tyrant’s bogus paradise, and are free to form our own words and images and make up our own minds.
Words like these are my only weapons. I am free to choose them because of sacrifices by prior generations, and, perhaps ironically, due to NSA surveillance. Tools are less important than what we do with them. We do not know from whom our problems’ solutions may come. Our future innovators might have included a child slaughtered by Boko Haram in Nigeria, or a Pakistani student murdered by the Taliban, or a football-playing boy killed on a beach in Gaza, or a murdered Jewish hostage. We must think ourselves rich beyond measure to squander so extravagantly our dearest resource.
If we have a future, it lies in what Jefferson called “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.” I support the right to offend not for its own sake, but because we do not all worship the same, and because breaking old vessels is part of creating the new. We take many rugged paths to the stars.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2015 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.