The Fallacy of Absolute Freedom

Vidur Sehgal '15

Vidur Sehgal '15

By Vidur Sehgal '15

On January 7, 2015, a duo of Islamic terrorists gunned down twelve people at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. The targeted fringe publication (with a meager weekly distribution of 60,000 copies) gained notoriety for publishing cartoons depicting religious figures, including the Prophet Muhammad, a blasphemous act in the eyes of many Muslims around the world. The attackers claimed their actions avenged the insults the magazine doled out to Muslims by offending their faith in its pages.

The terrorists’ actions deserve nothing but utter condemnation; violence against innocent civilians is unjustified under any circumstance. We must especially not let the freedom of the fourth estate be infringed by the dogmas of a few. The huge rallies that occurred in Paris in the aftermath of this horrific attack echoed this sentiment, and the magazine returned with a multi-million-run issue, defiantly depicting the Prophet Muhammad on its cover.

While much of the world’s attention has rightfully focused on how such atrocities can be prevented and the press’ freedom to criticize be secured, less attention has been paid to Charlie Hebdo’s role in the attack. I don’t use the term ‘responsibility,’ as that would imply an element of victim blaming, which is certainly not my intention.

We cannot deny that Charlie Hebdo repeatedly mocked a particularly sensitive component of the religious beliefs of over a billion people (Muslims, including many of my Western-educated, liberal friends, believe that visual representations of the Prophet are sacrilegious). Satire serves an important role in society today, as it exposes the gritty underbelly of politics, religion and society in a shrewd and comical manner. Such criticism has its rightful place: if Charlie Hebdo’s editors have an issue with Islam (or any organized religion, for that matter) they have every right to vehemently and freely express their criticisms. But I don’t believe that those criticisms are most objectively conveyed by offending a particularly sensitive belief. If you disagree with the teachings of Islam, or with the edict that visual depictions of the Prophet are offensive, by all means go ahead and express that view. But why do so by indulging in the very same act that elicits such disdain in the first place?

Defenders of Charlie Hebdo have argued that the magazine offended indiscriminately. They often depicted gods of various religions in a less than flattering light. Many have asked why only Muslims have been so bothered by those cartoons. We as Booth students regularly rib each other; some of us are more sensitive to being picked on, while others have a thicker skin. Does that mean that we should all have the same tolerance?

Another defense is asking why religion should be such a sensitive topic, while politicians and movie stars are regularly lampooned by the press. Well, if a strongly held religious belief is fodder for satirists, then is nothing off limits?w Would we be able to justify, say, cartoons mocking children of politicians and movie stars? Stephané Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo (who tragically fell victim to the attack) told Le Monde newspaper: “I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.” But can I repeatedly slap people in the face because I have the right to flail my arms?

Some would misinterpret my views as a call for censorship. I am in no way arguing for curbs on the freedom of expression. What I am calling for is increased sensitivity. We live in a global world where our culture, our politics, our pandemics, and yes, even our terrorist epidemic, makes us more interconnected than before. As a result, our actions may offend those not in our immediate physical or cultural proximity. Until we reconcile the dichotomy between a harmonious coexistence and an absolute freedom to express, defenders and critics of those freedoms will continue to be at loggerheads.

My heartfelt condolences go out to the victims of the atrocious attacks in Paris. Nothing they did warrants the fate they suffered at the hands of brutal cowards on that cold Paris morning. But as much as I stand with Charlie and for our freedoms, I also stand in solidarity with my Muslim brethren, whose faith deserves more of our respect.