On 7 January 2015, a tragedy befell the capital of France, when two brothers attacked the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing and injuring many of its staff. Cause of the attack were the blasphemous cartoons on its front pages, which depicted Mohamed; a depiction that constitutes a reasonable cause for execution for many Islamists (“Islamists”, of course, meaning not all Muslims, but those who think they have the right to push their own literal reading of their holy texts on the rest of society). In the last 30 years this barbaric and backward tendency has reappeared in the world of Islam where it doesn’t forgive dissidents and does not refrain from punishing the crime of expressing a different opinion. Not so many years have passed since the Salman Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoons controversy, while those who ignore the threats and resist against religious totalitarianism will have their lives changed drastically, if not ended.
Ayaan Hirshi Ali, another blasphemer hunted by religiose barbarians, has talked about “spreading the risk”, referring to the risk taken by those who criticize Islam, by multiplying the anti-Islamist messages in the media, in order to create such a plethora of possible targets for the fundamentalists, that it would become impossible for them to retaliate. Freedom of speech is a public commodity, a commodity whose benefits we all enjoy, both writers and readers. Therefore, it would be reasonable for society to protect those who practice it and the readers who benefit from it, when it is threatened by the easily offended. Ayaan, a Somalian who broke free of the theocracy of her country to find herself in an elected seat of the House of Representatives in Holland, saw the dead body of her friend, the director Theo Van Gogh, in one of the streets of the country. Theo was stabbed for the crime of making a short film (Submission: Part I, 2004) about the mistreatment of women in Islam. The last stab held a note on the body threatening Ayaan, as she had helped in the making of the film. Instead of the public support she should rightfully expect, Ayaan is occasionally having difficulty even finding a place to stay, since potential neighbors don’t consent to her living close to them in fear of becoming collateral damage of another attack. This danger is, of course, not overestimated and Ayaan, who ‘won’t shut up’, resisting any form of racism, sexism and fundamentalism, had to leave Holland and is in constant need of bodyguard protection.
Similar protection measures burden the remaining staff members of Charlie Hebdo, as, in order for someone to visit them, he has to go through a security detail fit for a head of state in a time of war. And this is the least of their frustrations, since, after the events of early 2015, not only did they not have the support of other media, that largely refused to show the controversial drawings that annoyed the Islamists, but neither did they have the support of the general left, where they themselves belong. Beyond the short-lived and short-spanning motto “Je suis Charlie”, there was little support for the basic right of free speech that was attacked that day. On the contrary, renowned newspapers, such as the New Yorker just days after the attack, characterized the magazine as “islamophobic” and similar to Nazi propaganda –and of course others followed. Even the vice President of the USA recognized legitimacy in the attack, while the American government deemed Charlie to be “deeply offensive”. The cartoonists were reduced from victims to victimizers who should foresee the offense, who “asked for it”, so they probably knew “what was coming to them”.
A liberal, of course, is someone who supports liberal ideals. And the liberals who support freedom of speech on its merit but retract their support on occasion, are not just inconsistent but are actively siding with the totalitarian forces that the persecutors of Charlie belong to. How many of them condemned the magazine as being offensive when it satirized Jesus? How many spoke of “christianophobia”? These same liberals who find it so easy to post any blasphemous meme against Christianity, a behavior they consider an obvious illustration of their liberalism, do not dare to exercise the same critical attitude against another religion, simply because it is the religion of a minority (it’s only a minority, obviously, in the West).
“We feel terribly alone”, says the magazine’s financial director, Eric Portheault, echoing Ayaan’s appeal to spread the risk and the responsibility. “We hoped that others would do satire too. No one wants to join us in this fight because it’s dangerous. You can die doing it”. But it is not only fear that deters others from blaspheming against Islam -a valid fear. It is also a latent sensibility for the rights of a minority, whose members’ alienation they rather perpetuate in this way, not discourage. Why should the believers of a religion be treated differently than those of another? How well-grounded is it to consider that the Muslims or the Islamists should be protected from criticism and blasphemy or take it for granted that they are incapable to handle them? Surely if one considers religion to be a reactionary element they should consider all religions to be such in the same manner.
Further accusations against the magazine, that the vast majority of its content is anti-Islamic rather than on any other subject, are completely baseless, as is obvious in the statistics compiled by Le Monde on the subject of their covers of the last 10 years. It has been said (at The Young Turks) that “the 95% of its covers are anti-Islamic”, but in reality, out of 523 covers, only 38 of them are about religion and only 7 of those are about Islam (while 21 on Christianity), meaning 0.1% of the total of the covers!
Either this asymmetric logic, that considers criticism against Christianity valid while that against Islam reprehensible, is some sort of “suspension of intelligence”, or a product of rationalizing a valid fear by inventing apparently reasonable excuses, it is nevertheless destructive for the freedom of speech, a right we have admittedly lost on this issue.