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The Charlie Hebdo Controversy

February 15, 2015

On January 7, 2015, France fell victim to a vicious terrorist attack.  Three suspects attacked the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 people dead.  Two of the suspects, brothers, were self-proclaimed Islamist gunmen and the third suspect, an 18 year old, surrendered later that day.  The attack was in response to the newspaper republishing a satirical cartoon, which had a controversial depiction of, what some people perceived as, the Prophet Muhammad – others believe it was only a Muslim fighter.  Michael Morell, former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the motive of the attack was “absolutely clear: trying to shut down a media organization that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad.” 

The assault on Charlie Hebdo raises the issue of freedom of speech in light of religious sensitivity. This attack, like all other terrorist attacks, forces us to consider the social consequences of our actions. Before I address this, let me be clear, there is no justification to open fire in an office building to make a religious or political statement. Still, there may be something we can learn.

Freedom of speech in the United States is sacred and, despite certain constitutional exceptions, Americans enjoy great freedom in this area. However, European nations do not have such clear standards for free speech. For example, the French Constitution does not have an article explicitly protecting the freedom of speech.  Does this mean that French journalists should be silenced if their publications are used as a justification for terrorist attacks? Certainly, the answer must be no.

The right to freedom of speech goes beyond what government allows. Human rights are inherent and do not come from a government document. However, governments, rulers, and tyrants all make justifications to limit speech. In the United States, Congress has limited speech that is found to have little political or societal benefit, such as “fighting words” and “true threats.” Islam uses a different standard. Generally known is that the Islam religion proclaims that no person, Muslim or not, may portray a visual depiction of the Prophet Muhammed. Many people agree that we must respect certain religious tenets even though we are not of that religion. A portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed may strike the same cord in a Muslim as the burning of a Bible to a Christian. Even many non-Christians would be offended by seeing a Bible in flames. Perhaps we should consider the idea that some religious satyrs strike with the same conviction as burning of religious items.

Regardless of your philosophy, violence does not solve the purported problem of unbridled free speech. It certainly did not with Charlie Hebdo. Surely the assault was intended to prevent Charlie Hebdo from continuing to create satyrical work involving the Prophet Muhammed. In fact, it has had the opposite effect. Charlie Hebdo is now a publication known round the world. Allegedly, Charlie Hebdo is expected to print one million copies of its next issue. Prior to the attack, sixty thousand copies were sufficient for each publication in order to meet consumer demand. Using violence has only created an outstanding support for the victim.

Freedom of speech is a universal right that applies to all humanity. Problems arise when that speech conflicts with what other people consider holy. Perhaps Charlie Hebdo was reckless with their article. It was certainly insensitive to the principals of others. But at the end of the day, we cannot expect people to know or care about every religious tenet. Al-Qaeda successfully destroyed any chance of a possible debate that may have resulted in France opposing the actions of Charlie Hebdo in a civil forum. At the end of the day, violence has not solved anything.

[1] See Dan Bilefsky & Maïa de la Baume, Terrorists Strike Charlie Hebdo Newspaper in Paris, Leaving 12 Dead, New York Times (Jan. 7, 2015),….

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] 1958 Const. art. 1-89 (Fr.).