Debating Je Suis Charlie

Je Suis Charlie, by Jean Degeorge

Barely a day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, “Je Suis Charlie”—“I am Charlie”—became a rallying cry for millions of people around the world. But as the slogan #JeSuisCharlie became one of the most popular tweets in history, a new motto emerged: “Je ne suis pas Charlie”—“I am not Charlie.” Those who claim not to be Charlie argue that they cannot be Charlie because they think the magazine’s behavior was irresponsible and insulting – which I believe is irrelevant.

“I am Charlie” means I utterly condemn the barbaric killings and refuse to live in a world where men get killed for having a different opinion than a certain group. “Je suis Charlie” means I support freedom of speech and democracy; it does not mean that I support Charlie Hebdo. Voltaire’s words, now over two hundred years old, still ring true: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Some criticize Charlie Hebdo for mocking the weak: the Muslim minority. However, Charlie Hebdo did not; it mocked terrorists, just as it mocked powerful personalities like the President, the Pope, and politicians from the left and the right.

Furthermore, “Je Suis Charlie” means I value the right to insolence and irreverence. If I lose the right to offend, I lose freedom of speech. If I cannot draw Mohammed—despite not being a member of the Islamic faith and therefore not subject to the rules of the Qu’ran—then I cannot support abortion or gay marriage simply because it offends some Christians.

At the root of this debate is cultural misunderstanding. As Jamel Debouze, a famous French Muslim comedian of Moroccan descent stated in a recent interview to TF1, one of the main French TV channels, “Blasphemy is not in our culture.” In many Muslim countries, the press is censored; respect towards institutions, such as the government and Islam, prevails. In several Muslim countries around the world, including Niger, churches were burned and people were killed as a result of riots and protests against Charlie Hebdo’s recent issue. In Iran, a paper that had published George Clooney with a “Je Suis Charlie” badge was shut down by the government.

Conversely, one can almost say that blasphemy, or at least insolence is at the heart of French culture. Voltaire was famous for his criticism of the Court and the Church through irony in philosophical novels like LIngénu. Honoré Daumier, a nineteenth century French cartoonist, was put on trial for drawing the King of France’s face as a pear, which at the time was considered highly offensive. Le Canard Enchaîné and Charlie Hebdo, France’s two main satirical newspapers, have carried on this legacy of critique towards the powerful. “Je Suis Charlie” means I defend this essential aspect of French culture.

The danger for France now is that these cultural misunderstandings lead to conflict and prevent different communities from living together. I hope the solidarity that followed the attacks, illustrated by the historic Paris march on January 11th will help reinforce the values of democracy and freedom of speech. To do so, we must all be Charlie and defend both the right to insolence as well as the rights of those with whom we disagree to express their opinion.


Je Nes Suis Pas Charlie, by Dina Benderra

When more than 1.5 million people gathered on the Place de la République on Sunday, January 11 to show their support to the victims of the series of terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo, on a kosher supermarket, and on the city of Paris in general, the rallying cry of “Je Suis Charlie” became a symbol, nationally, and then internationally.

But while most see the slogan as a symbol of unity against fear, some are more cautious. While we all share the grief of so many lives lost to senseless attacks, turning the magazine into a symbol of solidarity is a dangerous slope. There is a distinction between mourning the deaths of individuals and absolving a publication of all its past deeds.

Charlie Hebdo has always been known in France as one of its trashiest publications. It fully embraces the French satirical tradition. Its humor is at times misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic or simply hateful in general. But most of its supporters forget that the French/European legal definition of freedom of speech is not absolute. It contains “duties and responsibilities,” among which “incitement to religious hatred” is forbidden.

Charlie Hebdo has skirted the line between this interdiction and the loophole provided by a most cherished Republican value—secularity. The French word “laïcité” is not defined in the Constitution, which allows for diverging interpretations, from a multicultural society to one where the public expression of religious beliefs is forbidden.

Lately, the French government has embraced the latter definition, for example, by passing a law which forbids “conspicuous signs of religious appurtenance” in public schools—a decision which has been contested by the United Nations.

While millions of French people gather in absolute, blind support of Charlie, choosing this publication as a symbol of freedom of speech against any and all criticism serves to further emphasize which of its expressions is acceptable—forgoing media responsibility in favor of demeaning those who do not fully embrace the prescribed definition of Frenchness, in looks or in religious beliefs.

Charlie Hebdo is perhaps most well known for having published demeaning cartoons of Muslims, including the Islamic prophet with a bomb on his head in 2008—a choice for which the magazine wasn’t legally condemned. It was, however, condemned several times for anti-Semitic publications, as recently as 2012. Recognizing a publication as inciting hatred in one case while allowing it in another establishes a context in which Muslims become an acceptable target for hatred. This is a clear reflection of the current wave of Islamophobia in Europe.

It also endangers the very definition of freedom of speech—if the law, as enforced by an institution, is not applied equally for all, then either the law or the institution becomes invalid. As the judicial institutions still stand, it is our right that has been fundamentally corrupted.

This is perhaps the most important threat to this right of free speech. In fact, in its post-Charlie application, this definition is becoming more and more restricted: children in public schools are reported to the police and government workers are fired if they do not respect the national minute of silence meant to honor the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Since January 7, there have been 117 arrests for “vindication of terrorism,” following a request by the Minister of Justice to be “extremely reactive to expressions of anti-Semitism, racism, or aiming to provoke hateful, violent, discriminatory or terrorist behavior.” This request, in practice, does not apply to the ever-growing number of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks.

Because I cannot condone this corruption of our fundamental values and constitutionally guaranteed human rights, because I cannot ascribe to this new national narrative, I am not Charlie. I cannot be Charlie.

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