People light candles forming the name Charlie during a gathering in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AFP Photo/Patrick Hertzog)

Charlie Hebdo Tragedy Proves There Are Limits to Freedom of Speech


JANUARY 11, 2015

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in her biography of Voltaire, wrote the phase, which is often misattributed to Voltaire himself, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This phrase would be a good epitaph for the tombstone of Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who was murdered by terrorists who attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirist magazine, and massacred twelve people, including Merabet.

The death of Merabet is ironic, considering that he was a Muslim defending the Charlie Hebdo office from an attack by terrorists who were claiming that they were avenging the magazine’s insults of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Yet, we have to ask the difficult question whether this is the free speech worth defending.

First, let’s get one thing straight. We, the authors of this piece, are of different faiths: one of us is a Muslem and the other is a Christian. We both unequivocally condemn the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It is senseless except to some people whose mindset is stuck in a backward era, and they themselves belong in the dustbin of history.

Still, it cannot be denied that Charlie Hebdo has gone out of its way to offend many people’s religious sensibilities. Granted, satire is one of the best ways to speak truth to power, to bring down a notch those who are in a position of power and authority and to point out the absurdities of many radical, intolerant groups. At the same time, should this be done solely by insulting regular, observant people? Is the freedom to offend really a necessary part of free speech?

We reject Charlie Hebdo’s style of satire because we both feel that it causes too much collateral damage: hurting random people who have nothing to do with whoever or whatever Charlie Hebdo opposes. What the magazine does is to create further divisions in the society, where regular Muslims, Protestant Christians, Catholics, and Jews feel aggrieved, insulted, and alienated, even though they do nothing to deserve this. And in some people, the magazine creates a bunker mentality that can fertile ground for extremism to flourish, regardless of the religion or creed they belong.

Yes, in a democratic society, the journalists of the Charlie Hebdo magazine are free to express their opinion and to actually offend people. Sure, people can make the argument that democracy creates a marketplace for ideas, where people can engage in constructive dialogue. Still, we have to recognize that with freedom also comes a number of duties and responsibilities, and Charlie Hebdo and its supporters have to realize that the magazine has behaved immaturely. Besides, Charlie Hebdo has contributing nothing to the dialogue apart from pontificating the sacredness of the freedom of speech and to offend. They haven’t listened at all to their critics — and the marketplace of dialogue is supposed to be a two-way street!

We were reminded of Immanuel Kant, who observed that we don’t live in an enlightened age, but “we do live in an age of enlightenment.” Enlightenment is “the emancipation from one’s self-incurred immaturity.” In essence, humanity is constantly in process to achieve maturity.

In line with Kant’s observation, by publishing offensive caricatures, Charlie Hebdo showed its immaturity. Instead of actually speaking truth to power, providing enlightenment to people, Charlie Hebdo provided ammunition and self-justification to other immature, infantile people, notably the backward, medieval-thinking Muslim fundamentalists whose only solution to every single problem facing them is violence.

The rest of the global Muslim society, in the meantime, faces the collateral damage from this violence in the name of their religion. The rest of the Muslims understand that the root of Islam is peaceful. In fact, the name of Islam is derived from the word salam, meaning “peace,” not “engaging in violence whenever you feel insulted” and thus the majority of Muslims not surprisingly completely reject the senseless violence in Paris.

Keep in mind that we are not advocating censorship or squelching the freedom of speech. What we are stressing here is the fact that with freedom of speech comes the responsibility to act maturely, lest this freedom of speech could lead to arrogance and irresponsible behavior that only add to society’s troubles.

Learning from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, we should also be wary of the damage that hate speech can cause, which is often spouted by radical religious leaders or hard-line groups in Indonesia, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

As an example, if you are one of more of 990,000 viewers of a YouTube video of a mass rally staged by the FPI, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, Islamic Community Forum (FUI), and Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (MMI) on Feb. 14, 2008, in the West Java town of Banjar, you will have seen how one of the speakers calls on people to murder followers of the Ahmadiyah sect.

Three years later, on Feb. 6, 2011, there indeed were three dead Ahmadis, brutally slaughtered by around 500 armed thugs.

Some might say that our example is stretching it, that it is silly to compare a series of cartoons that merely hurt people’s feelings to hate speech that leads to killings. Still, our point is that, following Kantian spirit of enlightenment, there are still so many people in this world living with immature, medieval mindsets that it is totally irresponsible to provide ammunition in any form to them.

Asrudin Azwar is an international relations analyst from the Asrudian Center. Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer in international politics at the National Defense University (Unhan).