Free speech is one of the most important and cherished ideals in European democracies. However, as the recent publication of a caricature of Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo exemplifies – the protection of free speech is not always straight forward.

Charlie hebdo – the potential of satire

Following weeks of some of the most violent so-called “anti-West” riots to hit the Middle East, French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo took a very controversial approach to what they call “defending free speech”. On the 20th of September, the weekly newspaper decided to publish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad. The publication was made at a time when (more or less peripheral) groups of Muslims in several countries were on the streets protesting a recent anti-Muslim film made in the United States. The situation had already spiralled out of control well before the publication, with scores killed in violent attacks on American and European embassies in countries, where a big part of the population is Muslim. In reaction to the publication, the French government decided to shut its embassies and schools in 20 different countries out of fear of reprisals. At a time when both Arab and European leaders were calling for restraint and tolerance, the actions of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff have unnecessarily added more fuel to the fire by creating a dividing line that cannot be in Europe’s interests.

How to twist the knife in the wound | Illustration: Laura Hempel

Why exactly did Charlie Hebdo ignore all pleas for restraint and choose to publish inflammatory cartoons during such a dangerous crisis? According to the editors, the newspaper was defending freedom of expression. Reuters has quoted the newspaper’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, as saying, “We have the impression that it’s officially allowed for Charlie Hebdo to attack the Catholic far-right but we cannot poke fun at fundamental Islamists.” Charbonnier certainly makes a valid point: any form of radical extremism, whether it be Christian or Muslim, should be condemned and maybe subverted by satire. However, was this really the most intelligent and responsible way of going about it? And is the defence of free speech really the sole motivation of Charlie Hebdo’s editors? It is not the right to free speech, but the decision made by the editors to publish the cartoons that deserves some scrutiny.

Charlie Hebdo may have been acting in defence of the freedom of speech, but its chosen method in doing so has also put European lives in danger and has been the catalyst for an unnecessary wave of anger and hatred towards European institutions both abroad and domestically. By publishing the cartoons during such a particularly critical time Charlie Hebdo pushes its interpretation of press freedom from the necessary grounds of satire to the undesirable realm of provocation that leads to separation. Although the intent may have been to satirise radical, fundamentalist Islam, it’s actions have done no more than lower the newspaper to the very same standards as the extremists it attempts to ridicule: that of provocateur. The critical or maybe even emancipatory potential that satire may have, was exchanged for a moment of self-aggrandisement and the shout “we know what the world should be like!” And wasn’t this also a smart move to increase profits? Just as radical provocateurs in the Muslim world threaten to turn the Arab Spring into a war against what they construct as “the West”, provocateurs within Europe help them in their attempts to construct this dichotomy between “us” and “them”: it is exactly this created dividing line that makes a conflict between “Europe” and “the Muslim world” thinkable in the first place.

Europe does not need this right now. While the wave of violence that has swept over some countries is an undeniable problem (or its symptom), provocation is not the answer. The European press needs to be careful that it does not inadvertently promote hatred and help extremists construct an “us against them situation” while attempting to protect such cherished ideals as freedom of speech. This is not to say that all of the blame should fall on Charlie Hebdo. The reaction of a French man who was detained by police for making threats “to cut the throats of anyone he could find at the offices of Charlie Hebdo” is both appalling and unacceptable. That being said, it is equally unacceptable to use freedom of expression as an excuse to raise the voice of “truth” by publishing obviously inflammatory material during a time of crisis – thereby creating rather than satirically subverting dividing lines. Europe needs voices of reason, not provocation.

Cover Illustration: Laura Hempel

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