Freedom of expression is an absolute cornerstone of modern, liberal societies and should never have to be compromised.
And the right of journalists, commentators and satirists to challenge, provoke or criticise any and every establishment, institution, society, religion, politician, public figure or historical figure is absolutely essential to maintaining an honest discourse and is in the public interest.
There can be no exceptions; no belief, religion, individual figure or establishment considered immune from being criticised, challenged or satirised. If there is, then the entire principle of freedom of the press or freedom of expression and thought goes down the toilet. Attacking or murdering journalists – in this instance particularly satirists – isn’t just an attack on a provocative cartoon, but an attack against expression itself, an attack against openness in society, and an attack against the principles of a free society.
Of course journalists and satirists in particular have every right to be provocative and to be offensive. That is the very job of the satirist; to make incisive commentaries, even at the risk of rubbing people up the wrong way. And if anyone is fair game, then everyone has to be fair game; to make a sole exception for any sole religion or religious figure is untenable and it devalues the entire field and represents a culture – or at least a key part of a culture – being held to ransom by a belief system that in the case of France isn’t even native to the country. It’s the equivalent of when citizens living in a dictatorship are not allowed to criticise that dictatorship or write anything unflattering about it for fear of the consequences. No person, no institution, should ever be completely ‘off-limits’ from questioning, challenge or criticism.
Especially when it concerns a culture and religion as currently toxic, polarising and in crisis as the Islamic community; to simply curtail or forbid criticism and/or debate is only to exacerbate the problems. Stifling expression only serves to retard societies and the level of discourse. Stifling the debate or silencing the criticisms also causes large segments of populations to resent the people or subject that is being considered ‘off-limits’ and causes people to take the argument and the propaganda war into their own hands. Social media, for example, is permanently overflowing with vile, racist and largely uneducated Islamophobia and anti-Muslim propaganda; #killallmuslims and #MuslimScum were trending on Twitter last night, for example.
And one has to wonder how much of this is due to the inability or unwillingness of mainstream journalism or public figures to speak openly about the subject, making it an enormous and tense ‘elephant in the room’ and drawing in low-level, low-intellect commentary and slander in the absence of higher-intellect discourse.
Satire is the backbone of an open society; it is also a vital cultural institution, not just of our present societies and sensibilities, but also going way back to writers and speakers in classical Rome or Greece if not further. Without satire, including the most aggressive, incisive and provocative forms of satire, there would’ve been no Monty Python, no Spitting Image, no Have I Got News For You, no Frankie Boyle, no Bill Hicks, no Private Eye, no South Park… the list goes on and on. As offensive and unsavory as the Prophet Muhammad cartoons are, they’re just cartoons. Everyone else, no matter how sacred to any particular sect of people, is subject to satire.
Anything and everything, particularly if it is highly relevant to current social and cultural affairs, has to be open for discussion, debate and criticism. I could talk now also about how much alleged stifling of journalists or corporate control of mainstream media goes on in general or about how various journalists, whistle-blowers and critics have been silenced over the years in various ways or how major news outlets have biases and agendas colouring their broadcasts, but as pertinent as all of that is, it’s a subject for another time. There’s also a valid question as to how legitimate the official story of what happened in Paris is and whether a degree of deliberate ‘enabling’ allowed this atrocity to unfold as part of a deliberate, ongoing polarisation of society and inciting of tensions; but that too is for now besides the point of this post. As far as this specific, heinous mass murder in Paris is concerned, it really has to be seen to represent a line being drawn in the sand.
An argument can be – and is being – made that what should happen now is for every publication, every newspaper or magazine in liberal, forward-thinking societies should unanimously re-publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in solidarity with the murdered journalists and as a defiant statement of freedom of expression. It has to be a mass act; not the mere act of two or three rogue publications who might then be a target for retaliation, but everyone all at once.
Something of the kind was embarked on 2010, spearheaded by the South Park creators, leading to ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’; an event held on May 20th 2010 in support of free speech and freedom of artistic expression, inspired by those who’d threatened with violence for drawing representations of Muhammad. It began as a protest against the censorship of an infamous South Park episode pulled by Comedy Central in response to death threats (the image below is an example of something posted on that date).
And I advocate this actually as someone who disapproves of the Charlie Hebdo drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, considering them distasteful, deliberately provocative and a calculated disrespect to a religion and its adherents; but that’s not the point. We’re beyond that now and into a far more important, crucial issue of freedom of the press, freedom of expression and liberty of thought. Radicalized zealot brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi with their Kalashnikov assault rifles weren’t just gunning down some provocative cartoonists, but were trying to massacre a fundamental principle and right of a free society.
Particularly given the oppression of citizens and freedom of expression within the most intolerant of Islamic societies, the liberal societies in the world should be all the more willing to lead by example and to speak and debate with the kind of honesty that isn’t being afforded to would-be commentators and critics within those less free societies (such as parts of Pakistan where a ‘blasphemy law’ is still legally in effect and where people have been shot dead for perceived ‘insults’ to the religion or the prophet). An example is the case of Raif Badawwi, a Saudi blogger reported by Associated Press sources to have been sentenced last year to 10 years in prison (along with severe public flogging) for being perceived to have insulted Islam in an on-line forum.
Badawwi has been in prison since 2012 and his ‘Free Saudi Liberals’ website was shut down by the Jiddah Criminal Court. It is a deplorable state of affairs in the case of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its citizens, but it would be utterly unacceptable for that kind of suffocation of expression to be transplanted into otherwise free-thinking societies simply for fear of retaliation by zealot lunatics.
That doesn’t mean seeking to cause offense for offense’s sake, of course; that should never be embarked upon by any worthwhile or self-respecting journalist, publication or satirist. What it does mean is the free practice of honest and open expression, critique and debate, which is always to the benefit of common society and thinking. That is a principle that should always be defended in the most unapologetic and uncompromising terms.