Charlie Hebdo Massacre – “We should be shocked, but not rendered speechless”


January 9, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

Amongst the many articles I have been reading about Wednesday’s massacre of cartoonists, writers and editors at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical machine, a simple fact jumped out at me. David Aaronovitch in the Times noted that “for the first time since the defeat of fascism a group of citizens were massacred because of what they had drawn, said and published.” The magazine had published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. This “insult to Islam” is nothing of the sort, it is the job of satirical cartoonists in a world of free speech to point the finger at ideas and actions that may be seen by some as silly. There should, as Aaronovitch said, be no problem in suggesting “that the divine is in fact claybound, that the ineffable is really just another bloke in a robe.” People who kill for God, this argument continues, aren’t actually killing for anyone but themselves, and it is about them not being able to bear being thought silly.

Aaronovitch also reminds of the ridiculous situation that occurred a year ago, when a cartoon had emerged called Jesus and Mo, which did nothing more than depict a nice-looking Jesus and a nice-looking Muhammad. A Muslim politician called Maajid Nawaaz (who had once himself been an Islamist fundamentalist but had renounced that and was now standing for Hampstead and Kilburn in the next General election) tweeted this picture, to make the point that it was anodyne. There then followed a campaign against him because he had apparently “insulting the prophet”. What then followed was disturbing. BBC’s Newsnight hosted a discussion about the cartoon, but didn’t show the cartoon. Channel 4 News showed part of the cartoon but blanked out Muhammad. Not a single newspaper published the cartoon. Ludicrously, the Editor of Newsnight said that there was “no strong journalistic reason to use it“. Really, you are hosting a discussion about a cartoon and see no reason to show a picture of that cartoon? THAT’s journalism? No it isn’t. It is fear. Fear of violence.

That fear is today cascading through the media. Aaronovitch asks us to imagine any newspaper, magazine, broadcaster or publisher in the democratic world who isn’t reviewing its security today and imagining what would happen should the murderers turn up at their place? This sense of responsibility towards employees is understandable but let’s not run away from the fact that it does away with free speech. Surely the same tolerance that allows Muslims and Christians and Jews and so many other religions to practice their religion in this country should also allow that religion to be depicted, criticised or even ridiculed?

As Mehdi Hasan pointed out more than two years’ ago in the New Statesman, that seems to be the case in Muslim countries. In many majority Muslim countries, it is open season on plenty of religions. Hasan is as fed up as I am of these double standards.

Hasan, a Muslim himself who has been a political editor at the New Statesman, Huffington Post and now is Washington Editor for Al-Jazeera, is no enemy of Islam. Yet, he struggles to recognise the Islam that the kinds of people who attacked Charlie Hebdo profess. Islam, to Hasan, is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy, stating the Quranic verses 2:256 “There is no compulsion in religion” and 109:6 “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion”. Hasan notes that Islamists have a faith “disfigured by anger, faith and paranoia”.

Hasan accepts the basis of the anger over “cartoons depicting our beloved prophet as a terrorist/murderer/paedophile/rapist/delete-as-applicable”  but doesn’t accept that anger as being an excuse for extremism. He asks Islamists to ask “WWMD: What would Muhammad do?”. “Would the Prophet endorse your violent attacks on foreign embassies and schools, police stations and shops”. 

Most importantly, Hasan writes that “You and I have long complained of the west’s double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double standards. Egyptian state television has broadcast a series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonizing the country’s Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, he’ll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.”

You don’t have to search hard in the media in Muslim countries for cartoons, articles, TV programmes and video broadcasts about Judaism, containing horrendous accusations, stereotypes and insults. Yet I am not thinking of firebombing the Saudi embassy. That’s partly because I believe in free speech, and that it applies to everyone.

Hasan points out that “In a recent Gallup survey conducted in ten Muslim-majority countries, representing more than 80% of the Global Muslim population, believers, when asked what they admired most about the west, cited, political freedoms, fair trials, and…wait for it…freedom of speech” Therefore the actions of those who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre are undermining not just Islam but the worldwide Muslim community, whose members want to live in peace and freedom despite the provocations from the bigots, phobes and haters.

Sure enough, as Aaronovitch reminds us in the Times, all this plays into the hands of those like the organisers of the march of thousands of Germans in Dresden and elsewhere, who marched again in vague opposition to the Muslim presence among them. For them the Charlie Hebdo massacre seems like a gigantic placard held above them reading: “See? Told you!” Marine Le Pen, Leader of the Front Nationale, will remind French people, that “this” is what you get. And even some liberals who loathe the National Front will agree, in sadness.

Ultimately, our fear of offending violent Islamists have led us to the position where too many people have legitimized their right to take violent offence at rather normal and banal satire. This means that we in the liberal West have been gently conniving to turn Charlie Hebdo and others into targets. Surely, this must stop. Now.


8 thoughts on “Charlie Hebdo Massacre – “We should be shocked, but not rendered speechless”

  1. DH says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more! Click on the link below to see the rather normal and banal satire that has caused such offence.


  2. Komalpreet says:

    I find that your argument is very one sided, although I do agree, I also think that other religions do not receive as much criticism, and that Charlie would be criticised if they did it about Christianity. But I do think how they reacted was completely wrong.


  3. 🐙 says:

    I do agree and I thought that the views expressed were very true. I do think that it was the wrong way to go about solving the problem but they have to expect that it will upset the Muslims as it is a very sensitive issue and they believe that people shouldn’t draw their religious figures, so I feel that they shouldn’t have attacked but I also feel that they shouldn’t have drawn the comics despite freedom of speech, there is a line that needs to be drawn and I feel that they had crossed it.


    • To the unnamed commenter with the little purple symbol – if depictions of the prophet offend people they should just avoid looking at them. It is not their right to prevent people who are not Muslims (or even Muslims who are more relaxed about these things) from drawing, publishing, or looking at them.


      • Actually Jon I disagree a little with you. Given even the most moderate Muslims are offended by the depiction of the prophet Muhammad anyone who creates one and disseminates it is deliberately trying to wind up an entire religion. You say they can ignore that, but isn’t that similar to telling Jews that if people are drawing cartoons (as they do every day in many countries but particularly during the Gaza operation in August) that are aimed at offending the entire religion, they should ignore them, or not look at them? Sorry to make a massive leap in consequences here, but the Jews ignored the cartoons that started appearing in Germany in the early 1930s and that wasn’t ideal. Isn’t the key here that they can be offended by them, as nobody should have the right not to be offended, but when you get a cartoon depicting Muhammas as a terrorist for instance (which has happened), that is NOT satire, and should be challenged. The key is how that challenge happens, and it shouldn’t be mass murder.


      • OK Paul – I take your point (even though it seems to contradict your overall sentiments in the actual blog post) that freedom of speech and expression get more complicated when you get into the realms of group defamation – when ridicule and satire can lead to demonisation and then in turn to persecution as in Nazi Germany. It is very complicated, and the book I recommended here (‘On Offence’ by Richard King) is good on this I think – how do maintain the right to criticise and even mock ideas and beliefs – but not the people who hold them. So to continue your comparison with anti-Semitic cartoons, of the sort regularly published in Muslim majority countries where they rail against cartoons depicting Muhammad, I would say that cartoons that criticise and even mock Jewish beliefs (e.g. those that are considered blasphemous) should be allowed – but a line should be drawn if those images stray into depictions of Jewish PEOPLE in such a way that it denigrates or demonises them as people (as opposed to just criticising or questioning their beliefs) – and in such a way that it makes it more likely that they will be attacked – in other words, the test, as with speech, should be to do with ‘incitement’. Everybody understands that freedom of speech is not absolute – and you have often said yourself that you will fight for the right of people you disagree with to be able to voice their distasteful opinions. People have the right to take offence – but they do not have the right to demand that they are never offended by anything (unless they are being demonised in such a way that there is incitement to attack them or discriminate against them in a way which is not prevented by law). Why should religious believers of any kind have extra protection beyond any of that?


      • You are of course correct, and do identify the important difference between attacking beliefs and attacking people. Given the original post was written by a Year 10 I wanted to clarify with you where the line should be drawn for their benefit.


  4. Overall an excellent piece Paul.

    One danger we should be aware of is that, in my opinion, these Islamist terrorists actually WANT such cartoons to be published – and they WANT their murderous outrages to provoke other media outlets to republish the cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo (or previously with the Danish newspaper) – because they WANT to stir up more anger and hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims – they want to drive a wedge between us because they don’t want Muslims living in the West to assimilate or reform (as Jews and Christians have done for the most part over the last couple of centuries).

    So it is possible that re-publishing or showing things on TV is playing into the hands of the terrorists (just as invading Iraq and Afghanistan was) – but on balance I certainly think that Newsnight should have shown the picture in the Maajid Nawaz debate.

    Further to all this I recommend Maajid Nawaz’s Facebook page and his work with the Quilliam Foundation:

    And this book is excellent on how a sane and tolerant society should handle issues relating to free speech etc:


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