A Charlie Hebdo building with cartoons on the doors. Photo courtesy of Brigitte Djajasasmita via Flickr.
A Charlie Hebdo building with cartoons on the doors. Photo courtesy of Brigitte Djajasasmita via Flickr.

You don't have to support Charlie Hebdo's cartoons to support free expression

This piece was coauthored by RNS columnist Chris Stedman and Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect those of Jones’s employer.

A Charlie Hebdo building with cartoons on the doors. Photo courtesy of Brigitte Djajasasmita via Flickr.

A Charlie Hebdo building with cartoons on the doors. Photo courtesy of Brigitte Djajasasmita via Flickr.

On January 6, three gunmen burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical staple of French media, and murdered 12 people in a terrorist attack. “They spoke perfect French and claimed to be from Al Qaeda,” a witness told The New York Times.

It wasn’t Hebdo’s first brush with extremism. In 2011, radicals bombed its offices after the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed; its senior staff have required police protection for years.

Based on what we currently know, it seems clear that this was an appalling attack on free expression. This, and the resulting loss of human life, is at the root of our collective horror at yesterday’s massacre. As writers, we are committed to the principles of free speech and free press—and we believe that no belief system or ideology merits a free pass from criticism.

It is vital, especially now, to speak out for free expression and defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish freely and safely. But it is possible to do so without sacralizing their content—content that many critics contend is sometimes Islamophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, and racist, even when employed in the name of satire. In fact, to do so seems contrary to one of the magazine’s core ideals: There are no sacred cows.

It shouldn’t need to be said that you can support the right to free speech without supporting the content of that speech. But after this horrific attack, a number of people have ridiculed the very idea that people might be reasonably offended by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons.

As atheists, we saw some of this coming from our own community. But it is in fact possible to be offended by some of what Charlie Hebdo published and condemn violence absolutely and unequivocally. These are not mutually exclusive positions—and making this distinction does not minimize the horror of what happened this week, nor does it suggest that the paper’s staff deserved their awful fates because of what they published (take notes, Bill Donohue).

It is perhaps especially important to acknowledge that you can disagree with the content of someone’s speech and still support free speech in the case of Charlie Hebdo. Some of their work did, in our opinion, cross the line due to its reliance on racial stereotypes to depict Jews and Muslims. And while the paper has claimed to be an equal opportunity offender, its other religious targets—such as Catholics—aren’t marginalized in the same ways that Muslims and Jews now are in Europe. Anti-Semitism is on the rise on the continent, and so is anti-Muslim sentiment. Charlie Hebdo’s editorial decisions don’t exist in a vacuum. 

Yesterday, Vox’s German Lopez was one of many arguing that people who are critical of Charlie Hebdo’s content miss the point: “What the magazine's critics get wrong is that this was not an attempt to insult Islam or Muslims, but rather to maintain the balance between free speech and self-censorship.”

But here Lopez misses the point. Most critics aren’t suggesting that the magazine shouldn’t mock extremists. They’re pointing out that extremists weren’t their only targets, nor were they the only ones affected by the paper’s stereotypical portrayals. That isn’t the same thing as a call for censorship.

The conflation of absolute support for Charlie Hebdo’s work with support for free expression also has the potential to make minority communities feel all the more marginalized. If a Muslim, for example, doesn’t enthusiastically and vocally support the paper’s content and assist in disseminating it, many people may now assume that they do not care about free speech. (At least, according to this line of thought, not as much as the rest of us do.) 

This is a particularly dehumanizing and frustrating line of thinking—not only because it amplifies the false “Islam versus the West” narrative, as Nesrine Malik writes in The Guardian, but because it also erases the many Muslims using satire to advocate for free expression around the world and the many Muslim journalists killed in the line of duty.

It is disappointing that a number of opportunists rushed to make this tragedy about their personal anti-Muslim agenda—including some prominent atheists. But those who responded to this week’s tragedy by blaming all of Islam, or anyone offended by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, feed into the very "clash of civilizations" narrative that fuels the idea that people with different beliefs cannot live alongside one another. That, too, is a mindset incompatible with free society. 

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an act of terrorism, and it deserves our condemnation. But many of the people now blaming all of Islam are contributing to an ongoing campaign of violence and hatred directed at Muslims, in France, much of Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world—a campaign that has produced several anti-Muslim attacks in France in the last day alone. And many of the people vocally speaking out against the attack on Charlie Hebdo, including many atheist organizations and individuals, haven’t been as vocal about other acts of terrorism, like the anti-multiculturalism inspired attack in Norway that killed 77 people in 2011, or this week’s NAACP bombing—which, by the way, was also an attack on free speech and pluralism, and has received scant attention from US media.

Anyone implying that you cannot truly support free expression unless you enthusiastically support Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons sets up a false dichotomy. Worse still, expecting universal support for this content (and any content anywhere) runs counter to the very ideal of free expression. Taking issue with these cartoons doesn’t make you an apologist for extremism—and suggesting otherwise isn’t just wrong, it’s harmful.

This piece was coauthored by Chris Stedman and Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, Jones volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights.