Ever since the terrorist massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine last January, it’s been getting harder and harder to decide exactly who the bad guys are and what we’re fighting about.
At first it seemed obvious. A pair of gunmen, evidently French Muslims with links to Al Qaeda in Yemen, burst into the Paris offices of the satirical weekly on January 7 and opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 11 others. The apparent motive was to punish the magazine for its cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad. A third gunman, apparently an accomplice, went on a shooting spree January 8, killing two, and then took over a kosher supermarket the next day, killing four.
In the immediate aftermath, millions marched in Paris and elsewhere to reaffirm commitment to freedom of expression. We all agreed that storming an office building and opening fire is a bad thing. It’s especially bad, most agreed, to kill artists out of distaste for the ideas they express. We honored the Charlie Hebdo artists for their courage in keeping at it despite the dangers. They were on the front lines of our fight for freedom. We were all Charlie.
Then came the yes-but phase. Just what ideas were Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists expressing? Could the courage we were celebrating be mere brattiness? Granted that freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of democracy, but what about the rights of the minorities the cartoonists were insulting? Don’t they have a right to be free from incitement? Don’t we agree that hate speech is a bad thing?
This counter-sentiment gained momentum in op-ed essays and talk-show appearances by prominent Muslims. It took courage of another sort for them, mostly Western-born, to speak before Western audiences at that fraught moment and defend a faith community that too many believed had gone mad. But speak they did.
Most began by expressing personal outrage at the killings, then explained that the Islam that they and most Muslims practice rejects this sort of violence. But, many continued, it’s important to try understanding the feelings of the aggrieved when their faith is mocked in public. Then came the analogies: How would others feel if Jesus or Moses were mocked in this manner? Why is hate speech forbidden when it’s about Jews and gays but permitted when it’s about Muslims? And the inevitable clincher: Why is loose speech about the Holocaust considered taboo, even illegal in some countries, but not loose speech about Islam?
Let’s note here that most of these analogies don’t hold up. Anyone who thinks you can’t mock Jews or gays in America has never been to a stand-up comedy club. Displaying a collage of Jesus in a vat of urine or the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung could result in a picket line outside your door, particularly if you got a government grant for the project. But nobody gets shot for it. As for the Holocaust, some nasty comments may cost you tenure in a college history department, but others could win you a stack of Tony awards. Just ask Mel Brooks.
Nonetheless, the yes-but uncertainty continued and reached a peak of sorts in late April, when the PEN American Center announced that Charlie Hebdo would receive its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award at a gala dinner May 5. No fewer than 200 members of the distinguished writers’ organization wrote in to protest the choice.
While the Paris killings were “sickening and tragic,” they wrote, and while “the magazine seems entirely sincere” in satirizing anyone and everyone with “equal opportunity offense,” it’s also true that “in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.” Writers must consider the “inequities” of power between writer and subject.
In honoring Charlie Hebdo, the protesters wrote, PEN was “valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
In plain language, the protesters said PEN was honoring anti-Muslim hate speech. Never mind that the protesters contradicted themselves — first acknowledging that Charlie Hebdo cast its offenses far and wide, then complaining that its material was “selectively offensive.” Offense was taken by France’s embattled, victimized Muslims, reinforcing their sense that they’re under attack. That’s what mattered.
As if timed to prove the protesters’ point, an event happened in Texas on May 3, two days before the PEN gala, that repeated the Charlie Hebdo drama — same cartoons of Muhammad, same armed attack — but in a sort of cartoon parody version. The Muhammad drawings didn’t appear in a veteran satire journal but in a deliberately anti-Islamic “Draw Muhammad” exhibition, staged by one of the Western world’s most genuinely anti-Muslim campaigners, Pamela Geller. Also, the attackers were shot dead before they could kill anyone.
But Geller’s event, because of its utter transparency, has helped clarify who’s on which side in the underlying debate. On one side: free-speech purists who defend the right of anyone, including Charlie Hebdo and Pamela Geller, to say and draw whatever they want about Islam and its prophet. On the other side are those who sympathize with the Muslim sense of insult and see the cartoons as a form of hate speech, however vile the tactics of the gunmen who fight back.
Who’s right? The free-speechniks. It’s not a close call. True, free speech isn’t indivisible, even in America. There are numerous exceptions, known by their catch-phrases: hate speech, incitement to violence, fighting words, shouting fire in a crowded theater, reporting on a troopship that’s sailed, plus defamation, slander and libel. But violating a religion’s tenets by drawing a cartoon of its prophet doesn’t fit any of those categories. As an offense, it’s completely outside any current Western construction of freedom. We once had laws against blasphemy. Even burned people at the stake for them. But that was centuries ago.
Hate speech and incitement involve me saying something defamatory about you that might prompt a third party to harm you. It has nothing whatever to do with me saying something about you that might cause you to harm me. That last is called “fighting words.” It’s the most narrowly constructed of any of the exceptions. And, like all the others, it applies to demeaning you as a person, not questioning or even mocking the ideas you hold. Freedom to debate ideas has no limits or exceptions in Western doctrine.
Western free speech doctrine isn’t universally shared. Some Asian societies value social cohesion and domestic tranquility above individual liberty. Islam sees religion playing that unifying role and so deems it inviolate. But the attachment to the religion and its symbols go beyond theory. Think back to the riots across the Muslim world in 2005 after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of Muhammad. Those weren’t a pair of gunmen acting out, but tens of thousands. Not a majority, but not a handful either. And consider Salman Rushdie’s decade in hiding after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 calling on Muslims to kill him because he’d written a novel about Muhammad.
In the final analysis, Western and Islamic civilizations must learn to coexist. The world is too small and interconnected to go on ignoring each other. What that coexistence will look like is impossible to say from this vantage point in history. What’s certain is that we must learn to reconcile our different visions of the individual’s role in society. A good place to start is by acknowledging that our visions are different, and the clashes are genuine.
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).