CHARlIE HEBDO CONTROVERSY: EXCEPTIONAL OR JUST ANOTHER UPROAR?
Updated: Jan 19
Aradhya Singh, I Year of B.A.,LL.B, SLS NOIDA, Symbiosis International University.
Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly which from its initiation has been known to convey Anarchistic Critique in the form of provocative and daring cartoons that make fun of religion, Politicians and Public Figures. The caricatures were initially published by a Danish
daily-Jyllands-Posten who claimed that their work was intended to fill in as a commentary on the way of life of dread and self-control. Religious terrorists Said and Cherif Kouachi stormed the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris on January 7, 2015 killing up to a dozen cartoonists and injuring at least ten. The attack was provoked by the controversial cartoons of the Prophet which were published by the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Five years later, Charlie Hebdo republished those cartoons in January,2020, just a day before the scheduled hearing of the suspected accomplices who were accused of providing material, transport support as well as social security to the two terrorists.
Old wounds reopened. Many believed republishing the cartoons of Prophet was equivalent to pouring oil in fire. It is widely believed that by republishing the caricatures a day before the scheduled trial, the non-conformist weekly magazine wanted to make a bold and defiant statement in support of freedom of speech and expression.
According to Charlie Hebdo Journalists, “Not republishing the caricatures would have amounted to ‘Political or Journalistic cowardice’.” The cartoons have faced strong criticism and backlash for blasphemy, hurting the sentiments of the Muslim community as well as stereotyping them as terrorists.
Previous attempts to sue Charlie Hebdo for hate speech have been defeated in the Court. France is a nation born in the backdrop of a revolt against Church and the Crown. Thus, it cherishes derision to God and Provocation as an integral part of its revolutionary identity.
It criticized both the Catholic church and Judaism for a long time until it became unpopular for its anti-Islamic cartoons. But it was only after the Danish newspaper republished its cartoons that it became the object of Islamist attacks. In 2011, the office of Hebdo was firebombed, and the reporters and cartoonists associated with the paper have since been in police security. Many believe that Charlie Hebdo has lost its piquancy by going soft on Islamic terrorism after the condemned attacks which killed many cartoonists including some of France’s most celebrated ones. Indeed, the value of one’s life surpasses the freedom of free speech and expression. However, free speech shall cater to offence and criticism.
Speech that is free and yet does not offend anyone is refrained. It is suitable enough to curtail free speech if it leads to violence, massacre or crimes but with the right to free speech or as France calls it ‘Right to Blaspheme’, everybody has the right to crack jokes, draw caricatures or express opinions without fear of Prosecution or Duress. However, the support for the weekly magazine is neither Universal nor Unidirectional. There are intellectuals equally critical of the cartoonists as well as assassins. While almost every intellectual condemned the attacks and subsequent killings, there were people criticizing the insult to religion.
In today’s times of connectivity, development and wise lessons imparted by history, it must be noted and enforced that the offence to free speech should be shown by filing a lawsuit or bringing about a peaceful agitation against the offender.
France describes itself as not being religious at all. As one would agree, Secularism, in simple terms, is the separation of the State from religious institutions. In practice, religious faith is connected to the very basic identity of people from their birth (the religion of the family they are born in) to death (burial, cremation or leaving the body to decay in a tower of silence). Moreover, in today’s times a Nation’s government is either as good as the people or Authoritarian. Thus, it would be dishonest to say that the principle of Secularism or for that matter, just respect for all faiths is upheld by the Nation and its citizens, in all aspects.
Beliefs of different religions are often insulting to each other. Christian texts refer to followers of other faiths as being incapable of reaching heaven while some Hindus believe that supposedly bad humans are born into a pariah category – of Muslims, Christians or Jews. Muslims hold that followers of other religions are ‘Kaffirs’ or unworthy of heaven. All these religious beliefs are insults to other co-existent beliefs.
Charlie Hebdo’s republication of the cartoons drew vilification from states including Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. The cartoons had set off large-scale protests in many Muslim-majority countries even in 2005, when they were first published. This led to the magazine apologizing various times, every time the caricatures were published. The world was divided. France itself has been hustling between freedom of expression and Islamophobia over the scandalous caricatures. While the international world was debating over the happenings, the French publication seemed to be gaining unpopularity on Indian Twitter. #ShameOnCharlieHebdo trended in India on Twitter, with many Indian Muslims also joining the condemnation bandwagon after French President Macron defended the magazine and the "right to commit blasphemy" of France. There is uncanny as well as questionable hypocrisy in people following different faiths in India too. Many Indian politicians were inciting hatred by apparently praising the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine or not condemning the attacks sensibly. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo have been widely condemned in India by many politicians and leaders of the Muslim community. Politicians are anyway notorious for making controversial and religiously provocative statements, but how far can a public figure go to strengthen his or her threshold and weaken secular and democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution, leave alone peace and harmony which are expensive in today’s world!
Secularism in France is undoubtedly an accepted principle, but the boundaries of this Secularism have not been particularized. This has further led to the harmonious and politically desirable concept to be used as a carrot and stick for the very citizen of France. Why not condemn the violence and bloodshed without letting go of disrespect to Religion and Scriptures? This rarely happens.
Most critics-Intellectuals and common people alike believe that it was not just the cartoonists withstanding the worst of the violence but the very principle of free speech and expression. Cartoonist’s right to free speech, expression and indulging in humor seems to be swallowing up the religious sensibilities of people. This, however, is not confined to one religion (Islam).
Despite India's democratic and religiously accommodating Constitution, broad religious participation in different facets of society, including the government, administration, the active role of autonomous bodies such as the NHRC and the National Commission for Minorities, and the ground-level work of NGOs, occasional and often extreme acts of religious violence are the root causes of religious violence. They run deep in the history, religious activities, and politics of India. There was religious violence among Muslim-Hindu, Muslim-Sikhs, and Muslim-Jains on a gigantic scale during the 1947 partition.
Since then, in every decade of independent India, hundreds of religious riots have been reported. Many Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, and Buddhists have been among the victims of these riots. Religious aggression by rebels, government-sponsored militias, and the government's paramilitary forces became endemic on both sides in the peak years of the insurrection.
Why do some people respond violently to derogatory and offensive tropes about religion, religious scriptures, and God? Also, how would anyone, not just a Muslim, find a cartoon of the Prophet, as funny? On asking these questions to oneself, most unbiased and rational people would realize that these caricatures deem Muslims as terrorists or the descendants of a terrorist when they are already viewed as of the same category.
This explains how free speech is becoming a tool for Paramount and Subjugation due to lack of respect, lack of reflection over actions and not to forget, basic lack of consideration towards sensibilities of people who one shares globally.
This controversy acts as a clear indicator of an unprecedented change. If Secularism is about being unbiased towards religion, then it should come with delineations of mutual respect for each other’s religion. Criticism for the same should be led by informed arguments of Rationality, and one should avoid targeting and degrading the other, out of dominance and superiority. Secularism is enshrined as a modern principle which serves the cause of not leading or governing by religion but paving the path for equality. It acts as a parameter for the government to avoid divisive policies as well as supremacy of religion. What remains questionable is whether the change that I talk about is catalyzed to the very knowledge and understanding of the people. Also, it is a matter of concern that how far will governments of various Nations go to adapt to this change when in today’s times the value of human life is inferior to extremist sentiments, Machiavellian Politics and Fragile Egos exploding over myriad inconsequential things.