Je suis Charlie

13 01 2015

What are the limits of freedom of speech? This was the major topic of discussion tonight at AAFW in the context of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. There were at least some who suggested all speech should be free, but the discussion of incitement of groups to violence categorically defined as hate speech is generally agreed upon to be restrictable. However, offensive or malicious speech not intended to incite violence? This is where I at least draw the line.

Charlie Hebdo’s pictures were racist, and rather insulting. Boko Haram Welfare Queens was especially despicable. However, in particular, this was not the issue at hand as defined by the attackers; it was explicitly the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed . The idea that the dead deserved this is infuriating. This might be an expected reaction, but deserving? No.

This however, is a very specific issue instead of a general free speech issue. The issue is that of criminalization of blasphemy, explicitly under most interpretations of Sharia. I know that a large portion of the worldwide Muslim population disagrees with this, but a large portion do. In Saudi Arabia, Raif Badawi was recentlly publicly lashed for having a liberal website that was supposedly against Islam. In Egypt, a young man has been turned in by his own father to be imprisoned for posting atheistic comments on facebook. I am explicitly annoyed at the tenet of the faith that human images should not be made, especially images of Mohammed. This extreme iconoclastic belief has robbed humanity from our collective culture, the art and history that has been destroyed in the name of it.

This is not inherent to all adherents of Islam. Malala and her father work against such extremism in Pakistan in the name of their faith. The mayor of Rotterdam, himself a Muslim, recently said, “And if you do not like it here because humorists you do not like make a newspaper, may I then say you can fuck off.”

Blasphemy and religious defamation laws are not unique to Islam however. We in Canada still have blasphemous libel as part of the Canadian Criminal Code Section 296. Ireland has a professor of Trinity College threatening to use libel laws to prevent people from re-posting the Charlie Hebdo images.

I do not condone attacks against people, especially in the recent climate of the anti-semitic attacks in France, the Pegida march in Germany, the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria. I do not condone the works of Charlie Hebdo. They were crass and in very poor taste. I wish to see more pluralism, and understanding between people. However, certain concepts such as blasphemy, extreme iconoclasm, and defamation of religion must be rejected, even if the others claim it is an integral part of their religion that must be tolerated. Donc pour aujourd’hui, je suis Charlie.

Harrison Gross




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