It should go without saying that there is no excuse for the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It’s a vile, murderous act, and completely unjustified. That does not in any way, however, make it right of Charlie Hebdo to have published the cartoons, nor does it make it a good idea to republish them as some form of protest, though I fully respect the motivations for doing so. Free speech is protected, and almost nobody thinks this was in any way justified. The right to say what you want without violence is not now and has never been in question; the awkward truth is that, like the freedom to not suffer other forms of violent crime, it is virtually impossible to protect against those who do not care about the legal consequences of their actions.
It is pretty plain, given the reaction to cartoons of Muhammad in the past, that publishing mocking cartoons of Muhammad is incredibly hurtful to a lot of people. Whether or not that hurt is, in your opinion, sensible doesn’t matter that much; these people are human beings with feelings and they are likely to be hurt by a widespread campaign of republishing these cartoons. These are people who have done nothing, and yet will still be hurt by these actions. This would be a different matter if the act of republishing somehow protected people; it does not. There is no herd immunity, for it will still be the creators and must high profile publishers of content who are the most likely targets.
All it does is fuel a belief that Western culture is contemptuous of Islam and feed into an already pervasive atmosphere of distrust. The “satire” itself is childish and unfunny, designed purely to provoke reactions, not to provoke discourse. How can meaningful discussion arise when the image is created in such a manner as only to cause offence? What does it prove? That many Muslims find depictions of Muhammad offensive? Adding fuel to the fire in this manner only creates a toxic environment in which legitimate discussion of the coexistence of Islam and modern liberalism becomes ever harder. Those with legitimate things to say are silenced by association with this intolerance.
Charlie Hebdo came from a position of power and mocked a minority within French society. They are essentially an example of the worst that free speech has to offer. They of course do not in any way deserve what happened to them, but they don’t deserve much praise for this either. Constantly sharing this ties acts of oppression like this to the idea of free speech itself; we are fighting oppression with oppression. Three people were so upset they did something awful, thousands more are likely to just be upset and doing nothing wrong. That offence is only increased now that this is some broad campaign, rather than some rogue cartoonists.
Furthermore, we are standing up for rights that already exist: a curious form of civil obedience. All three gunmen are, it would seem, dead. The French state could not be said to have left this issue alone. Where were the same voices standing up for all free speech when radical Islamist sites that got shut down by governments? Why do we not defend this blanket right to say hateful things when the situation is different? Further, would we be so keen to share the work of a cartoonist who had published mocking caricatures of black or Jewish people and then been attacked in this manner? I feel probably not. Even though we support the right of individuals not to suffer attacks, we do not have to support what they do.
However, republishing these cartoons doesn’t protect anyone, it just reasserts the right to be hurtful towards Muslims. If we are so determined not to allow our speech to be controlled by violence, we should ask ourselves why we are endorsing hateful, intolerant speech that we would never normally share. Is this too not a form of control? Ultimately, the danger here is not from the wider public, but from individuals who are not concerned by the legal consequences of their actions. Popular will is very effective when governments suppress speech. Doing the very thing that inflamed the tensions in the first place only preaches to the choir on the one hand and ignites anger on the other.
Je ne suis pas Charlie. I won’t be sharing the cartoons, not out of fear and intimidation, but because I wouldn’t have been sharing these hurtful images to begin with.