In the immediate aftermath of the tragic shootings in Paris at the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, emotions were running extremely high throughout the western world. Islamic extremist gunmen murdered 12 people and wounded an additional 11 in retaliation for that publication’s distribution of cartoons considered to be offensive to Islam.
The blatant use of violence to silence a media source was correctly condemned universally — including by the imams of France’s 2,300 mosques. The outpouring of grief for the victims and their families is fully warranted and I would like to use this space to offer my condolences to all of those who suffered a loss as a result of this tragedy.
No one should be killed for the cartoons they draw, nor for the editorial commentary they write. That being said, most of what Charlie Hebdo has produced during its more than 50 years in publication was deliberately intended to provoke anger and controversy. Its content pushed the bounds of tasteless humour into the category of racist and religious hate literature.
Can anyone seriously argue that there is any merit in a drawing portraying the prophet Muhammad in pornographic poses, other than to enrage the people of the Muslim faith?
Would devout Christians not be mortified if an Arabic magazine pumped out similar images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ performing sexual acts?
Despite the magazine’s controversial content, in the wake of the attack, those killed have been instantly martyred as crusaders for free speech. In an act of defiant solidarity, to show the Islamic extremists that we will not be cowed by their violence, “Je suis Charlie” became the rallying cry.
From the mourning crowds outside the shattered office in Paris to media commentators in Canada and other western countries, “I am Charlie” became synonymous with being a defender of free speech. Acknowledging the offensive nature of Charlie Hebdo’s content, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg proclaimed, “In a free society, people have to be free to offend each other.”
A large number of international media outlets subsequently published a few of the more inciting Charlie Hebdo cartoons to demonstrate their own freedom to offend in defiance of Islamic extremism. As a staunch defender of free speech, I wish to clearly state again that no one should be killed for what they draw or write. However, I am not Charlie today. I was not Charlie yesterday, and I will not be Charlie tomorrow. I do not believe in mocking people’s religions or in publishing images meant to simply revile the reader.
Contrary to Clegg’s assertion that our freedom depends on being able to offend others, Canada has long-established laws prohibiting the distribution of hate literature. We would not permit — and rightly so — a publication that deliberately and repeatedly offends the Jewish community with cartoons intended to make a mockery of the Holocaust.
Freedom of speech is not about reckless provocation; it is about preventing government totalitarianism through media scrutiny and exposure.
To mourn the victims in this terror attack and to condemn the attackers is fully justified. However, even in death, the contributors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo do not deserve to be lionized as champions of freedom and guardians of western values. I also do not believe that Canadian media sources will, in the future, self-censor their content prior to publication for fear of extremist reprisals. This is because, while we do have satirical publications in Canada, we have nothing anywhere near as deliberately offensive as Charlie Hebdo prides itself on being.
I use the present tense deliberately, for as I understand it, the survivors of the deadly attack intend to continue publishing despite the loss of their colleagues. While I may not agree with their basic principles, I do admire courage. And for that, I commend them.