The struggle between perceived blasphemy and the liberties embodied in Free Speech and Separation of Church and State is not confined to America’s history. That was clearly shown by the mass murders at “Charlie Hebdo” and their aftermaths in early January 2015.
“Charlie Hebdo” (“Charlie Weekly” in English) is a French satirical periodical that prints an average of 60,000 copies per week. The publication is left-wing, poking fun at the right wing, religion, politics and other handy targets.
One of the newspaper’s religious targets is Islam. Many of us remember Salman Rushdie, the British author who penned “The Satanic Verses” in 1988 and has spent the ensuing decades avoiding assassination for “insulting Islam.” Based on Salman Rushdie’s experience, we learned at least two lessons: some Islamic people have no discernible sense of humor, religion-wise; worse yet, they don’t just frown – they murder.
Salman Rushdie’s example is a disturbing one and “Charlie Hebdo” has been targeted on even more occasions by Islamic extremists. Over the years, its cartoonists, editors and offices have endured legal hassles, assassination attempts and fire-bombing. Undaunted, 2 years before his 2015 murder by Islamic extremists, cartoonist and editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier stated, “We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism.”
Charbonnier’s statement was well-supported by French law. In the early 20th Century, France passed its law on the Separation of Churches and the State, including a policy of laïcité (“secularism”), whereby a person may practice his/her religion in private but may not impose it on others within the public domain. Furthermore, akin to the United States, France has considerable freedom of speech, tempered by defamation laws. As is also true of the United States, those liberties sometimes collide with religious beliefs.
It was religious belief that drove the several Islamic extremists to violence resulting in the deaths of 17 people, excluding 3 of the extremists, and the injury of 21 others in 4 locations over 3 days. According to a survivor, as the extremists ran from the first murder scene, one of them yelled, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo!”
He was mistaken: they murdered a number of people but they did not kill Charlie Hebdo. Freedom of Speech, The Separation of Church and State and that small publication upholding both those principles are all too great. Across the globe, “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) signifies the determination to uphold and practice Freedom of Speech and the Separation of Church and State. Days after the murders, approximately 2 million people, including nearly 50 world leaders, rallied in Paris to commemorate the murder victims and nearly 4 million people worldwide joined the commemoration. Finally, the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s next weekly issue shows Muhammad holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign and the caption, “All is forgiven.” Instead of the usual 60,000, they’re running 1 million copies of this issue.
You see? Charlie Hebdo wasn’t killed when those people were murdered, because Je suis Charlie.
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