Free speech is not just about words

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech

The first thing to note in the context of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this week is that this is not a religious debate and must not become one. This is not majority Muslim opinion versus the world; it is the act of a terrorist organisation versus the world. Islamic fundamentalists, claiming to be working on behalf of Al-Qaeda, stormed the offices of the satirical magazine, shooting dead 12 people, many of them senior figures within the company who the attackers knew by name, and injuring a number of others, sparking a countrywide manhunt that is now seemingly nearing an end.

Secularism, in theory, makes perfect sense in the same way that communism makes perfect sense, but our society of liberty and free speech just isn’t as simple as the theory. Free speech will always breed disagreement, hence forming the basis of our multi-party democracies. The key is to ensure that conflict remains simply peaceful debate and not violent actions. However, to ban religious practices and symbols from public places, as is the case in France, undermines the principles of free speech.

Charlie Hebdo publishes provocative and offensive cartoons, as it their right to do so. On the other hand, due to Nicholas Sarkozy’s laws of integration it is illegal for Muslim women to wear the burqa in a public place. The law itself is also aimed at hoods, helmets, balaclavas and any other form of concealing the face in public. However, in a society where free speech is rightly so actively encouraged, why should anyone be forced into removing a burqa, or indeed any religious symbol?

Charlie Hebdo sells out in minutes across France

Charlie Hebdo sells out in minutes across France

Charlie Hebdo, the weekly publication similar in style to Private Eye in the UK, is an icon of free speech and secularism in France, and has clearly pushed too far past the line. However, this is not a line drawn by society and democracy, it is a line conjured up by a minority of Muslims, seemingly intent on permanently defacing their religion and faith in the eyes of the world. Yet the French government clearly delivered their own ‘line in the sand’, and the burqa was deemed to be beyond it in terms of what they considered appropriate in society. It seems crazy that, whatever one’s views on the subject, the burqa, a religious symbol of Islam, is banned, while mocking and insulting this same religion and its prophet is allowed. Obviously, free speech must never be denied and the stance of publications such as Charlie Hebdo or Private Eye is commendable, but free speech is about the liberty of so much more than just words.

Protests and attacks are nothing new for Charlie Hebdo. A number of Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, as well as other religious icons from a number of other religions were published in 2006. This led to demonstrations outside their offices by Islamic protestors and even a petrol bomb attack. The building has been under armed guard ever since. The Danish cartoons went conspicuously unpublished in Britain with Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary at the time, praising the media for its thoughtful and considerate approach. Even now, in the aftermath of the murders at Charlie Hebdo, the pictures that originally proved so provocative remain unpublished in Britain.

There is a resounding feeling, voiced by many, that these pictures should be published in the British media. Many of the cartoons drawn in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and to support free speech mock only the killers. These characters are portrayed as masked men dressed all in black, with no direct indication as to their race or religion. The prophet Muhammad has not appeared in a single one. The media and the individuals within it are of course free to support Charlie Hebdo and stand up against this attack on free speech in whatever fashion they please. However, although many of the images drawn since the attack are extremely provocative and emotionally charged, it seems that through their actions, these terrorists have drawn a line in the sand that the media in Britain are still scared to cross, eight years later.

The difficulty in this situation will be to restore normality. Tensions and emotions will run high for days, weeks and maybe months to come. In France and around the world, anti-Islam protests have demonstrated the anger, and the ignorance, towards this religion. It is hugely important that these violent groups are not mistaken for the majorities that they claim to represent. Yet even more importantly, when it comes to peaceful free speech, there should be no more lines in the sand.

By Ben Grimshaw, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.

Twitter: (@bengrimshaw5)

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