Responses to Charlie Hebdo: Beyond Just “Freedom of Speech”

International responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris have varied. Amidst the heated commotion that has stirred among the press, dominated by the Western gaze, something critical has been missing or overlooked in much public critique – a neglect, we might call it, to further analyze the attacks beyond what people have perceived to simply be a movement for “freedom of speech”.

The Parisian reactions to news of the killings focused heavily on this public conviction, the right to freedom of speech. The Paris March, which attracted both national and international politicians, was, in fact, dedicated to both the right to free speech and the war against terrorism. But what the French nation neglected to advertise is the congregation of European Union interior ministers—an event that occurred simultaneously with the free speech demonstrations—during which attendees discussed initiatives to more stringently regulate and censor potentially offensive online content. Extensive government involvement would not be new to France, a country whose President was once First Secretary of the Socialist Party, considering the nation heavily moderated its media before, during, and after the attacks.

In pursuit of asserting favor for freedom of speech, France and the United States have also worked together in order to not only condemn the violence, but also present themselves as two Western nations deeply devoted to the ideals of freedom of speech – unfortunately to the point of elevating Charlie Hebdo to a position of praise. As commissioned by the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, the facade of Notre Dame now carries an assuming poster with the words “Charlie Hebdo, Honorable Citizen of Paris.” Demand for the magazine also rose dramatically following the attacks, which was met with a mass shipment of 20,000 copies from France to the United States. In a grim twist of irony, the character initially symbolizing hate and inciting violence towards the Islamic World has now become an idol for the free world – a rather unsettling notion that warrants further questioning of the “freedom of speech” shield. Charlie Hebdo has now seemingly taken refuge under this cover.

Although Western media did not emphasize the response of the Islamic World to the attacks, those responses were, like those in the West, condemning of terrorism. A key difference between Western and Middle Eastern public reaction, however, has been the latter’s attempt to take the attacks as a call for proactivity. While French politicians made a show of their remorse for the violence by means of publicly demanding for free speech and disseminating “Je suis Charlie” commercial products, little effort was put into examining what caused the attacks and creating a movement to address the existing discriminatory practices that have consistently incited responsive aggression from MENA extremists. The Islamic World, on the other hand, made public requests for decency and respect. Iranian spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry Marzieh Afkham firmly condemned terrorism, but expressly recognized the unfortunate consequences of indecency in saying, “making use of freedom of expression…to humiliate the monotheistic religions and their values and symbols is unacceptable”.

The Western world has now moved on from the Paris attacks. What France once advertised as its 9/11 became a distant memory almost immediately following the Paris march. On the one hand, finding international community in upholding freedom of speech strengthened relationships amongst nations as a whole. On the other, neglecting to further analyze the attacks, to address the discriminatory relationship between France and Maghreb—or even greater, The West and the Near East—has resulted in a world that has learned nothing from what seemed to be a revolutionary moment in French, if not Western, history. Convincing millions of French national and international citizens to post “Je suis Charlie” signs and stickers is currently considered a satisfactory result of the attacks. A better result would be if millions were urged to ask themselves what it means to be Charlie Hebdo. Perhaps, in doing so, those same millions would come to realize that being Charlie is the problem, and not being Charlie is a critical step towards the solution.

One thought on “Responses to Charlie Hebdo: Beyond Just “Freedom of Speech”

  • September 1, 2015 at 5:53 am

    A clear explanation of the
    challenges. It was really informative.
    Thank you for sharing!


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