LONDON — Are we all Charlie now?
“Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie — was the cry that that raced around the world in the wake of the murderous attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It has been displayed on placards, scrawled as graffiti and shared millions of times on social media.
Soon, though, came a riposte: “Je ne suis pas Charlie” – I am not Charlie – as the tragedy triggered a debate about free speech and its limits, and whether the right to offend should always be used.
For many civil libertarians, the issue was clear. Charlie Hebdo had published crude, rude cartoons that mocked everyone from politicians to the pope to the Prophet Muhammad. It saw its mission as challenging taboos and sacred cows. The best way to honor the 12 killed and stand up for free speech was to print the cartoons again.
The group Index on Censorship ran a selection of Charlie Hebdo cartoons online and called on other publications and websites to follow suit, “to show that fear should not be allowed to stifle free expression.” Historian Timothy Garton Ash said that if newspapers didn’t publish the images, “the assassins will have won.”
Some websites and newspapers did print the Muhammad cartoons. But many, especially in the U.S. and Britain, did not, saying they violated editorial policies against willfully giving offense.
The Associated Press has decided not to run the images, explaining, in part, that “AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation. … While we run many photos that are politically or socially provocative, there are areas verging on hate speech and actions where we feel it is right to be cautious.”
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper, said “we completely defend Charlie Hebdo’s ethos and values and the right to offend in the way that they did.”
But he said that “there are some very offensive ones that the Guardian would never in the normal run of events publish” – and it would be wrong to change in response to terrorism.
Others point out that in all societies freedom of speech has its limits. In France, several people have been arrested this week for glorifying the killings on social media. And even staunch defenders of free speech may be alarmed that (hash)Jesuiskouachi – identifying with the brothers who were the assailants in the Charlie Hebdo attack – has become a Twitter hashtag.
Some who condemned the killings used the “I am not Charlie” hashtag to express unease at what they saw as publishing hurtful, inflammatory and sometimes racist images. Charlie Hebdo once depicted a black government minister as a monkey, and in 2012, amid an uproar over an anti-Muslim film, the magazine published drawings of Muhammad naked and in demeaning or pornographic poses.
Such Muhammad images offend many ordinary Muslims and, some argued, target a community that already feels beleaguered in France: under-represented in the corridors of power, over-represented in prison, and stigmatized by a law against religious displays that bans headscarves in schools and face-covering veils in public places.
American cartoonist Joe Sacco drew a cartoon in response to the attacks in which he mused that “lines on paper are a weapon, and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone?”
“Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen,” Sacco wrote.
Charlie Hebdo’s supporters say such criticism misses crucial context: The newspaper’s humor stands in a tradition that mocks hypocrisy and punctures pretension without fear or favor. French journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet described it as “rude, obscene, irreverent, and anti-religious … the last true heir of the French revolutionary and republican traditions.”
Amid the heated debate, some Muslims and others embraced a third hashtag: “Je suis Ahmed,” in tribute to Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman shot dead by the attackers.
Lebanese writer Dyab Abou Jahjah tweeted: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. (hash)JesuisAhmed.” His tweet has been reposted more than 25,000 times.
Julien Casters, a magazine editor in Morocco who was the first to tweet (hash)JesuisAhmed, said the slogan had become popular “because a number of Muslims felt stigmatized by the attack.”
“(Sharing) this hashtag is a way of saying, `We are Muslims and we are also victims of the religious fanaticism,'” he told the AP in an email.
As the free speech debate rages, one thing seems clear – Charlie Hebdo has not been silenced.
Individuals, media organizations and the French government have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the cash-strapped newspaper going. Before the attack, Charlie Hebdo sold fewer than 100,000 copies a week. The next issue will have a print run of 1 million.