Je suis Charlie Hebdo? What the heck does that mean?

If being Charlie Hebdo means being for free speech, the slogan is a lie. From political correctness on campus to Dieudonné, satire is a dangerous thing.

Je suis Charlie Hebdo / Image: Fede Falces, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
Je suis Charlie Hebdo / Image: Fede Falces, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, January 17, 2015 – Now that the rallies and the hysterical, grave-side weeping are over, dare we ask what people mean when they declare, “Je suis Charlie Hebdo”?

Hardly anyone liked Charlie Hebdo before its staff was slaughtered. It offended everyone, not just Muslims, for instance referring to Pope John Paul II as “un pape de merde.” Its cartoons were crude, both in form and content – only in death did its cartoonists achieve the status of greatness – and it was about to go bankrupt. More than that, the people wailing over it now didn’t even like the one liberal value it now stands for: free speech.

A Charlie Hebdo would be shut down after the first issue if it appeared on an American university campus. Left-wing students, dismayed over the hurtful attacks on Islam, would have stolen and destroyed every copy, and college administrators would have denied it campus access and threatened with expulsion anyone who wrote for it.

Social and political satire is subversive, and when done well, it hurts. It’s also a blade that can turn suddenly and cut in any direction. Hence it is unreliable and discouraged on campuses, where the humor is most often accidental. American universities with their speech codes, political correctness, and their humorless faculty are most assuredly not Charlie Hebdo.

Neither are the French.

France has a long history of politically potent satire, from Moliere and Fontaine to Les Guignols de l’info. Charlie Hebdo did crudely what Le Canard Enchaine does with more grace. Yet far from being a hotbed of free speech, France is under the thumb of a 19th century freedom of the press law that prohibits “defamatory or insulting [comments], that would encourage discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or group of persons because of their place of origin, ethnicity or absence of ethnicity, nationality, race or specific religion.”

There are currently over 50 cases in French courts dealing with speech that “condones terrorism.” Among those being prosecuted are Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, a popular comedian who was arrested this week on the same day that Charlie Hebdo’s 5-million copy, post-attack issue sold out. He was arrested for writing on his Facebook page, “Je me sens Charlie Coulibaly.”

Authorities took that post as a message of solidarity with Amedy Coulibaly, one of the Islamist brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo. The anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic Dieudonné was charged with “incitement of terrorism.”

Though both have been taken to court on many occasions, the situations of Charlie Hebdo and Dieudonné are not quite the same. French law makes it a crime to direct hatred at individuals, but not at beliefs and religions. Since the Revolution, French law has had an anti-clerical cast to it. Charlie Hebdo stayed within the law when it attacked Islam, but would have fallen outside the law if it had attacked Muslims. Dieudonné has quite clearly directed his hate at Jews.

At the same time, it is a crime in France to insult the head of state, and a crime to deny the Holocaust. In France, speech is not as free as in America, and the freedom is tilted in political ways. It also takes on strong anti-religion tones, as with the law that forbids most religious expression in public – no headscarves for Muslim women in public schools or yarmulkes for Jewish men, no “large crosses,” and no face-coverings for women in public.

When the French say, “Je suis Charlie Hebdo,” they don’t mean what many Americans think they mean. They don’t mean, “I’m for free speech.”

Free speech is not as highly prized across the United States or in France as we might hope. People around the world were genuinely shocked by the massacre, and Je suis Charlie Hebdo is a statement to that effect. It does not mean that we like Charlie Hebdo, that we would tolerate its existence among us, or that we value free speech.

Salman Rushdie, who was put under a death sentence by Iran’s mullahs for his satirical novel The Satanic Verses observed, “And so artists who … push outwards often find very powerful forces pushing back. They find the forces of silence opposing the forces of speech. The forces of censorship against the forces of utterance … At that boundary is that push-and-pull between more and less. And that push and pull can be very dangerous to the artist. And many artists have suffered terribly for that.”

Rushdie’s comments are an argument for absolute freedom of speech. They stand in contradiction to Pope Francis’s support for free speech, which came with the caveat that we should also respect belief. No, we should not. If we pull our punches at belief, we deny the essence of free speech and reduce it to simple good manners.

This week’s Charlie Hebdo cover featured a cartoon of a weeping Mohammed holding a sign that says, “Je Suis Charlie” under the heading, “Tout est Pardonne,” or “all is forgiven.” The message is one of reconciliation, at a time when France needs one. A moment of silence in French schools for the victims at Charlie Hebdo did not find many Muslim students agreeing that they were Charlie Hebdo. That magazine mocked their deepest beliefs, in a country that denies the expression of who they are as Muslims while refusing to accept them as French. Why should they stand silent for that?

Why indeed. Until free speech for all is respected, there’s some cynicism to “Je suis Charlie Hebdo.” The world has some soul-searching to do before it can make sense of what it means to be Charlie Hebdo.


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