The violence in Paris between January 7th and 9th, where attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices and subsequent sieges led to the deaths of 17 victims, has sparked a worldwide outcry of support for freedom of expression. The magazine was targeted by Islamist extremists because of its depictions of the prophet Muhammad.
On Sunday, January 11th, powerful pictures hit the international press of world leaders (Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, French President Francois Hollande, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merke, European Council President Donald Tusk, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) standing arm in arm in Paris during demonstrations where an estimated 1.5 million people marched to show solidarity with the victims.
The phrase “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) went massively viral, showing up on Twitter, Facebook, on signs at rallies all over the world, and even displayed by Hollywood celebrities at last Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards. Cartoonists the world over have shown their support for the victims of the attacks with countless drawings and cartoons expressing sorrow, hope, and renewed commitment to the right of artists and journalists to express themselves without fear of violence.
Some journalists and commentators have used this tragedy as an opportunity to discuss the larger issues of censorship and press freedom, and as always, this is an extremely complicated topic. Millions of people worldwide are proclaiming the right to freedom of speech, but what if that speech is offensive to certain religions or ethnic groups? Salman Rushdie famously stated, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
But some see a distinction between the freedom of expression and the “freedom to offend.” Some people have responded with a counter-slogan, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (I am not Charlie). Roxanne Gay, in a piece written for The Guardian, stated, “Murder is not an acceptable consequence for anything. Yet it is also an exercise of freedom of expression to express offense at the way satire like Charlie Hebdo’s characterises something you hold dear – like your faith, your personhood, your gender, your sexuality, your race or ethnicity.”
Others have had more extreme reactions to the “Je Suis Charlie” demonstrations. Beginning on January 19th, counter-protests broke out in several predominantly Muslim countries. While many of the counter-protests remained peaceful, several turned violent. In Niger, CNN is reporting that 10 people were killed during protests and several churches and homes were burned. In Pakistan, Algeria, and Jordan, protesters reportedly have clashed with police forces as well, although no injuries or deaths have occurred.
So, while the horrific events in Paris brought millions of people together to support free speech, they also revived a worldwide debate about what that freedom means. While some uphold that freedom of expression must include the freedom to offend, others disagree, feeling the need to defend their faith from speech and actions that they find offensive. These varying viewpoints will, hopefully, lead to respectful debate with the common belief that violence is not an acceptable response to artistic expression, no matter the content in question.
Want to learn more about this complicated issue? The UIUC Department of French and Italian and the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics and the European Union Center are hosting the following event:
Are We Charlie? – France, Europe, and the World after 1-11
A forum with brief remarks by special guests Nancy Blake (French & Italian and Comparative & World Literature), Maimouna Barro (Center for African Studies), Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi (History), Jean-Philippe Mathy (FRIT and CWL), and Yasemin Yildiz (Germanic Languages and Literatures).
Wednesday, January 21, at 4 p.m.
160 English Building
Contextualised Reasonable Balancing and Its Limits, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40:2,