Freedom of speech is a funny old thing. You offend roughly two billion Muslims by publishing a series of crass drawings of the Prophet Mohammed and the Western world’s media rushes to your defense, upholding your right to insult whoever you choose. Publish a cartoon showing Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom kneeling on the neck of actress-turned-duchess Meghan Markle, however, and your former allies turn on you en masse, howling “outrage” and labelling the illustration “appalling,” “disturbing … and wrong on every level.”
Even the schoolboy humorists at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, who are used to upsetting all and sundry, must be wondering where all that “Je suis Charlie” camaraderie went in the wake of its recent cover depicting the allegations of racism and schisms within the UK’s House of Windsor.
Clearly, Western satirists are much more likely to be celebrated as champions of free speech for attacking minorities within their communities than for picking on one of Europe’s wealthiest and most privileged elites.
Charlie Hebdo first began insulting Muslims in February 2006, when it chose to reprint a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed that had been published the previous year by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, adding some of its own illustrations for good measure. The staff of both publications were, of course, aware that doing so would offend Muslims, for whom depictions of any of the prophets – even respectful illustrations – are considered forms of idolatry, which is forbidden in Islam.
At the time, French President Jacques Chirac condemned the publication of the cartoons as an “overt provocation,” adding that “anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.” Freedom of speech, in other words, is not the same as the freedom to gratuitously offend.
In November 2011, Charlie Hebdo was at it again, renaming itself “Charia Hebdo” for one edition, featuring a new cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed on the cover. Its offices were firebombed. In September 2012, it responded to international outrage over the release of the anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims” by printing a further series of offensive depictions of the Prophet. Official approbation followed again.
“In France, there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined,” said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. “In the present context, given this absurd video that has been aired, strong emotions have been awakened in many Muslim countries. Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”
Finally, on January 7, 2015, the magazine’s offices in Paris were attacked by Said and Cherif Kouachi, two French-born Algerian brothers who killed a dozen people, including Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer. The following day, Amedy Coulibaly, a Malian-French acquaintance of the brothers, killed a policewoman in a Paris suburb. The next day, Coulibaly took hostages at a kosher supermarket, killing four before he was shot dead by police. At almost the same time the Kouachi brothers, who were holed up on an industrial estate northeast of Paris, died in a shootout.
The rush to express solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and to uphold the “right” to freedom of speech was expressed in all-encompassing terms that served mainly to underline the “them and us” attitudes toward minorities that lurk just beneath the surface of most Western societies. “We” – that is, the white and (for the most part, notionally) Christian majority – will not give in to “them” – the Islamic extremists who are threatening “our” way of life.
Except, of course, there was, and is, no such threat.
The “threat” was posed by just a handful of deluded, radicalized men and, in any case, was in no real sense any kind of a threat to the fabric of Western society.
Muslims, en masse, were in no way trying to undermine “our way of life.” The vast majority of Muslims – and the vast majority of all minorities in Western states – wish only to assimilate and to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Their response to the cartoons was the response of all minorities when they are reminded of their marginal status in society – a sad shaking of the head.
Yet the response to the attacks in Paris in 2015, even though it was provoked by the actions of a mere handful of people, was aimed, without logic or justification, at all Muslims, in much the same way that the offensive cartoons were calculated to offend all Muslims.
The Western media’s response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedies exposed a moral vacuity. Many media outlets, including the Washington Post, chose to reprint the offensive cartoons, arguing that not to do so was to “give in” to what was widely represented as an assault on the precious principle of free speech. This was a worse than vacuous stance, the product of a failure to define the fine line between free speech and a gratuitous offensiveness that can serve no purpose other than the perpetuation of bigotry and racial hatred.
Now, at least, the Western media is united in its understanding that the cartoon of Queen Elizabeth kneeling on Meghan Markel’s neck, evoking the death in 2020 of Black American George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, is an outrage that simply goes too far.
Time for a new internet meme, then, surely? “Je suis Charlie – as long as he’s picking on Muslims.”
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.