Al-Qaeda Attack Ignites Freedom of Speech Debates

Terrorists chanted “God is great,” and “The profit is avenged,” when they stormed the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7. 

On Jan. 8, the attack was claimed by Al-Qaeda. The attack was based on Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the prophet Muhammed, which has been a constant debate through Islam, for the fear of encouraging idolatry.  

After the attack, the question of freedom of speech and of the press have been questioned not only in France, but in the western world as a whole.

Freedom of speech has been considered a very important aspect in democratic states, and an essential human right is to speak a person’s mind without censorship or punishment. The United Nations adopted the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, stating, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”  

However, every country has its own set of rules on freedom of speech. France in their Declaration of Rights of Man and of the citizen, much like America’s Declaration of Independence, states that freedom of speech is “one of the most precious rights of man.” In 1972, France added the Pleven Act, which prohibits the press from libel, slander, defamation and writing against a group of people. It also outlawed racist speech against individuals and banned provocations of hatred, racism, violence and discrimination. 

Now, many of the cartoon depictions shown in the issues of Charlie Hebdo have been considered “indeed offensive, perhaps racist, and certainly well over the line,” according to the Daily Beast. However, under the protection of freedom of speech is the freedom to exaggerate, manipulate and to grandstand, which is the definition of satire. But at what point does freedom of speech become hate speech?

First of all, France has had an interesting relationship with the minorities in its country. In 2013, The New York Times reported that there has been a high rate in France of people converting to Islam in the last 25 years. This has presented a problem to the country, “where government and public attitudes towards Islam are awkward and sometimes hostile.” 

Dr. Maryanne Rhett, Director of Graduate Program in History, explained that since the French Revolution, the separation of religion and state has played a huge role in the acceptance of other cultures in France.  

She said, “Revolutionaries demanded, and succeeded in obtaining, a strict separation of church and State. In the present day this has led to banning of religious symbols like the hijab and kippah in French public school.” 

Since the assimilation of minorities in France has been one with bad history, should the portrayals of the cartoons have been published by Charlie Hebdo? Senior editor of the magazine, Caroline Fourest, said that she and the staff knew the risk they were taking as a team. “No one would imagine that they could put automatic guns on the heads of people.”

Dr. Don Swanson, Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Interdisciplinary Studies, and, who teaches Intercultural Communication, said, “There is no absolute freedom of speech in any society. Most people in the general public don’t recognize that there are particular strictures that come from the Supreme Court that say what you can and cannot say. However, it is always a difficult thing for the legal community to define when something is libel or hate speech. ” 

Dr. Gregory Bordelon, lecturer of political science, explained the hardship that comes with defining hate speech in a state. “As specifically to the Charlie Hebdo incident and the Pleven law in France, I’m sure it could have applied, [but] Democratic governments often do not want to place restraints on free speech except for the most compelling reason, and only in a way that is narrowly tailored so as only to disallow the minimal amount of speech possible.”

The debate of freedom of speech since the incident has carried overseas to America, where there is a large amount of satirical media. For weeks after, the conversation of the blurred lines between freedom of speech and hatful documentation dominated the airs. Many news stations, such as CNN and MSNBC, have opted out from showing many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to stay neutral with the provocative situation. 

According to spokesperson of the Associated Press on showing pictures of the Prophet Muhammad, “None of the images distributed by AP showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.”

Dr. George Gonzalez, assistant professor of philosophy, religion and interdisciplinary studies said, “Religion is what social scientists call ‘a total social fact’. It must be understood within its socio-political and existential contexts.”

 Rhett added, “The French state is founded on the principle that the people should be allowed to say what they want, but as many people since the attacks have pointed out, there is a point where freedom of speech may cross the line of simple respect.”

She continued, “[However], Charlie Hebdo did not just mock Islam. It has a long history of irreverent attacks on all major faiths. The big problem here is that it is generally believed that in Islam there is an absolute prohibition against creating images of the Prophet Muhammad.” 

Pope Francis said a couple days after the attack, on his way to the Philippines, that freedom of speech was a basic human right but that it does have its limits. “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits. If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

Zareen Shueib, a business administration major and a person who practices the Muslim faith, said, “I do not believe in censorship, however, as a Muslim who believes in the prophet Muhammad, I think the covers are offensive.”