The horrific attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris prompted mass demonstrations. Many of the demonstrators waved placards declaring “I am Charlie” – identifying themselves with the satirical magazine whose mockery of Islam provoked such a vicious and bloody response from the men of violence.
Momentous and tragic events seem to demand deep and profound responses. Unfortunately, if we are not careful, those responses can come across as shallow bandwagon jumping.
For example, I’ve noticed that some of the same newspapers which now proudly identify themselves with Charlie Hebdo and its mockery of Islam were the same voices that decried a prominent Belfast pastor last year when he spoke out against Islam in strident terms. That seems hypocritical. “Je suis Charlie, mais je ne suis pas James McConnell”?
Another problem with the ‘Je suis Charlie’ approach is that it misses the whole point of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not about agreeing with everyone else, it’s about allowing us all the right to disagree. Freedom of speech means that you can strongly disagree with what someone says or writes, but that you still defend their right to keep on speaking and writing.
I am not Charlie. I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks, and, from what I’ve seen of it since, I think the Charlie Hebdo magazine is crude and offensive. But I want to live in a society where Charlie is allowed to be crude and offensive with out being killed or shut down by the law.
Here in Ireland we have blasphemy legislation, including a clause in the Constitution. Moves are afoot to remove that legislation. Since the Constitution is involved that will probably take a Referendum (unless the government chooses to side-step the Constitution as it did with abortion). I personally think that the blasphemy legislation should be removed because it is unworkable in a modern society. For example, if I say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then I am committing blasphemy in the eyes of Muslims. Since legislation cannot protect all religious people from getting offended, then it should not be used to protect any. I don’t want legislation that prevents me from getting offended by anyone else’s speech. I want legislation that protects my freedom of speech to preach the Gospel and to declare my faith – and that necessarily involves giving similar freedom to those with very different beliefs.
So, je ne suis pas Charlie – but I defend Charlie’s right to free speech, even when I find that speech offensive.