The attack on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week generated a groundswell of support for the right to free speech. The attacks, supposedly perpetrated by two French brothers of Algerian descent, resulted in the deaths of 12 individuals working at the magazine, including four cartoonists and the editor. Recent cartoons in the magazine ridiculed the leader of the ‘Islamic State’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the past, the magazine had been targeted for cartoons mocking Mohammed as well.
After the magazine posted on its site the simple phrase, ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ it quickly became one of the key trending terms on Twitter. It echoes the famous decision of Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, to headline its story on the September 11 attacks with the phrase ‘Nous sommes Americains’, or We are all Americans. Both these statements represent moments of solidarity in response to horrific acts of violence.
But, unsurprisingly, such acts of solidarity are not so simple. Soon after the term began to appear, debates swirled on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere about whether or not we should adopt this phrase. Some responded by cautioning about embracing free speech so simplistically, pointing out that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons are quite offensive (and they are not only limited to insults to Islam, but other religious and political beliefs as well). Others argued that we should not only be upset by the deaths of French journalists, but the hundreds of thousands killed in conflicts in the Middle East brought on by the actions of Western powers such as France. Still others have argued that the problems Europeans (and North Americans) have integrating Muslims as immigrants and citizens are behind such attacks.
What I find interesting about this debate is the underlying assumption of the Je Suis Charlie Hebdo response. The assumption is that we should all be the same or all accept the same beliefs concerning free speech, religious belief, or political life. I wholeheartedly condemn the attacks and think those responsible should be punished to the full extent of the law. But, I’m not so sure I want to be Charlie Hebdo and adopt their particular expression of free speech. And, as a student of the Middle East for many years, I’m concerned at the demonization of Muslims and Islam that have been taking place in Europe in recent years and that seem to underlie some of the responses emerging from this attack.
But I do believe strongly in the liberal right to free speech. So, instead of declaring myself to be Charlie Hebdo, I suggest turning to one of the most important defences of liberty ever written – John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Written in 1859 by the English philosopher, the text provides a defence of liberty, particularly freedom of speech, as a good for society. But Mill does not defend liberty because it will make us all the same. Rather, he defends liberty because it creates a space in which ideas can be aired, examined and debated. Like the famous Speakers Corner in Hyde Park London, Mill envisions a public space in which individuals can make their case and must defend it before others. The brilliance of his argument is that he believes free speech is not just about giving individuals the right to speak but, even more importantly, it will make society a better place.
Of course, the global political space is not like Speakers Corner. Power differentials, historical injustices, and access to wealth and technology give some a louder voice than others. But, this does not undermine Mill’s basic point. The best defence of free speech is one that recognizes how radically different we are, but encourages us to listen to each other. We can disagree, and indeed, we should. But without listening to each other, we won’t know what to disagree about.
Once more, I condemn those who have undertaken this attack; indeed, they violated Mill’s ideas even more, as they sought to prevent discussion and debate about ideas with the least political tool of all, violence. At the same time, I don’t want to be Charlie Hebdo. I want to see satirical cartoonists, listen to believers in an Islamic state, and hear as many other opinions as possible. To hear them all will allow me to think differently about myself and the world around me – and it will, hopefully, make the world a better place, filled with diversity and difference rather than unity and similarity.