A Creative Response to the Charlie Hebdo Attack
At half past ten on Wednesday 7th January, two masked men entered the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and shoot dead 12 people: the editor (Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier), four cartoonists (Jean “Cabu” Cabut, Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac, Georges Wolinski and Philippe Honore), an economist (“Uncle” Bernard Maris), a psychoanalyst and columnist (Elsa Cayat), a copy editor (Mustapha Ourrad), a caretaker (Frederic Boisseau), a visitor to the offices (Michel Renaud), a policeman (Ahmed Merabet) and a police bodyguard (Franck Brinsolaro). The two gunmen escaped the scene but were later cornered and killed by French police on Friday 9th January during a siege situation at a printing works some 20 miles outside Paris.
In an apparently related incident, another gunman killed a policewoman and took hostages at a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes in east Paris. By the time French police moved in and killed the gunman, he had killed four of the hostages.
I will not be naming the gunmen here. They have already had plenty of coverage elsewhere.
These atrocities were seemingly committed in response to Charlie Hebdo publishing cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, with the gunmen allegedly shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest”).
In the aftermath of the attack, illustrators and cartoonists across the world have stepped up to show, in hand-drawn style, solidarity with their work and their message. Many have chosen to imitate the style and content that caused the killings, others simply adopted the hashtag #jesuischarlie and offered their sympathies.
These events have prompted another debate on the subjects of freedom of speech, the free press and religious extremism. But do we really need another debate on this?
Yes. We do.
All of us who work in creative industries rely on the freedom to be creative. With over seven billion people living in this world, the chance of causing offense with anything we create is actually quite high. Historically, this hasn’t mattered that much because our audiences were limited in number and by geographical location. In today’s world, however, our creations can reach all corners of the globe and be consumed by people from a wide range of different cultures. These cultural differences (not to mention linguistic differences) can lead to misunderstandings, humour or offense. We should, of course, try to avoid causing offense, something the Charlie Hebdo cartoons failed to do in the name of satire, but we should not allow ourselves to be restricted by the fear of causing offense. Restrictions on creativity are stifling, reducing our ability to be creative.
Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of civilisation. We must have the freedom to criticise, examine and even ridicule everything and anything that impacts our lives. Satire is, in my opinion, essential for a healthy society. Throughout history, dictators have always attempted to stifle free speech to prevent dissent, often clamping down on attempts to satirise the establishment. Dissenting voices are deafening to those who would wish to rid us of our freedoms. The control of information is essential for control of the population – Orwell phrased it as “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past” – and satire is one of the most effective ways for the populace to defy that control.
Let’s be clear on one thing though: freedom of speech does not mean that one can say whatever one wants without consequence. You certainly have the freedom to say anything, but that doesn’t mean what you say has any kind of protection. People are free to argue, disagree with or ridicule your ideas in the same way that you are allowed to argue, disagree with or ridicule theirs. That is good and healthy. No ideas are immune to disagreement, few are immune to satire. The men and women of Charlie Hebdo knew this. The magazine did not limit its satire to Islam. On the contrary, they have directed their pens at politicians of all stripes, all major religions, public figures and much more. Nothing was off limits to them.
But now? Will the desire to express freedom of speech be tempered by the possibility of being killed for that freedom? Should some things be untouchable? Is religion off limits to satirists?
I can’t answer these questions with any authority. All I can do is offer my own opinions, flawed as they may be.
Firstly, if we do not utilise our freedoms, then we may as well abolish them. To paraphrase the great Mark Twain, “the man who does not exercise his right to free speech has no advantage over the man who cannot exercise it”. In other words, freedoms are worthless without the ability to exercise them. The editor and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo had received death threats in the past but refused to be cowed by them. They believed that the freedom to satirise anything was important and they were willing to risk death to continue to do so. Whether or not you agree with their politics, you have to admire that attitude.
Secondly, killing another human being is wrong, regardless of context. I understand that occasionally it might be necessary (war being the obvious example), but “necessary” does not equate to “right”. Killing another human being over a cartoon is abhorrent, no matter what that cartoon may have been. We have been repeatedly told that in Islam there is a prohibition on images of the Prophet Muhammad and punishments laid out for transgressors, but is this really the case? Many Muslims have spoken out about the narrow and prescriptive vision of their faith embodied by these murderers, pointing out that the Quran does not demand death for transgressors, rather that the faithful should simply remove himself from the presence of those who talk against Allah and then, if the conversation moves away from such blasphemy, to rejoin them.
Freedom of expression, freedom of thought and speech. These things are important, more so today than they have ever been. The modern world is awash in information and opinion from all corners of our shrinking world. Every day, more and more people have the opportunity to join the discussions on the internet, bringing us ever closer together. The more voices that talk together, that argue, discuss and joke with each other, the more we will realise that we are all the same, all just people.
Reach out a hand to someone today. Anyone. Make contact, share ideas. Let’s show this minority that we will keep talking. We will not be silenced by fear or aggression. We are all Charlie. We are all Ahmed Merabet. We are all every person who has lived and died for the freedoms we have.
Let’s make them proud.