Charlie Hebdo, Solidarity, and Free Speech

Every time people are murdered over drawings that Muslims find offensive, a segment of the public calls for mass-reprinting as a show of solidarity with the victims and support for free speech. Others react critically to this request, and sometimes lambaste the victims themselves. The critics appear to fall roughly into two camps. On the one hand, there are those who contend that it simply is wrong to do anything Muslims find offensive. On the other hand, there are those who, whatever they think about sensitivity to Muslim feelings per se, claim that proponents of reprinting are hypocritical; the proponents, they say, would never rally around someone who, for instance, drew racial caricatures of blacks or Jews, or who spoke critically of Israel. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, when these exchanges are occurring anew, and thoughtful people on the sidelines are not quite sure where they themselves stand, I would like to offer a few thoughts of my own.

I think the claim that it is wrong to offend Muslims is completely incorrect if we are talking about offending them by criticizing their religion. No idea should be off-limits for discussion and criticism, no matter how much that might offend some people. Outright ridicule of ideas can be in poor taste, but it also can be the most effective way to make a point or get others to think, so I have trouble viewing mere impoliteness as a moral wrong in such contexts. Now, if we are talking about offending Muslims in some other way than by criticizing or mocking their religion—say, by making fun of any distinctive sartorial or racial characteristics we might associate with them—then I think such things do tend to range from being in poor taste (in the sartorial case) to being outright wrong (in the racial case). However, even racial mockery is not so wrong as to warrant imprisonment, much less outright murder. That is the essential point when we are talking about cases such as Charlie Hebdo: the fact that people were murdered over drawings is not a tangential matter.

This brings us to the second criticism: the charge of hypocrisy. Here, I think the critics are sometimes correct. I will, of course, put aside nonsense that, for instance, effectively claims an equivalence between being murdered and being disinvited to speak at a university; however, it surely is true that some reprinting-proponents are hypocritical. To me, the question one must ask oneself is this: if someone were murdered over, for instance, an anti-Semitic or racist cartoon, would one support mass-reprinting of that cartoon in the name of solidarity? How about if someone were murdered over an approving cartoon of September 11 or the Holocaust? If your answer is anything other than “yes” in each of these cases, but you supported reprinting the Jyllands-Posten or Charlie Hebdo cartoons, then I think you do have a problem. It is not that there is no distinction at all between these cases: as I stated above, I think criticizing an idea (like Islam) is inherently much less problematic than mocking a race (which Islam is not) or making fun of the massacre of innocents; however, I have to return to the essential point that no one should be murdered over a drawing. To me, that trumps any consideration about the appropriateness of the drawing. If some piece of human garbage drew a cartoon making fun of September 11, and then was gunned down just for that, the murder would temporarily redraw the battle lines with him and me on one side and the killers on the other side. I would reprint the cartoon. I would do so not because I would agree in the slightest with its content, but simply to signal to the killers in terms they will understand that it is unacceptable to murder someone over a drawing. As I tweeted to one of the gentle and thoughtful people who was considering these matters: “I think the request that one not be murdered over a drawing is very modest. Questions about taste and sensitivity can come later.”