Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Expression

“I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

France is seen as the seat of European culture, the temple of free speech: so when the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked by armed gunmen on the seventh of January and four famous cartoonists murdered in cold blood, international outrage was instantaneous. People took to the streets with placards bearing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) as a mark of solidarity: international leaders condemned the atrocity: and a massive rally was taken out in Paris on eleventh January where the leaders from forty nations participated. The attack was seen, rightly, as an assault against freedom of expression.

Charlie Hebdo rally

(Image courtesy: The Guardian)

The attackers were Islamic terrorists, and the reason for the attack was Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons purportedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The responsibility was claimed by Al Qaeda immediately. And predictably, the “Islam versus the West” debate started.

Most of the Islamic nations condemned the attack: some leaders even participated in the rally. However, the West’s tired old saw of “Muslims not doing enough to condemn and combat terrorism” started coming out in print, visual and social media. Muslims as a people were immediately placed in the dock and Islam as a religion was once again accused of fomenting terrorist ideas in its basic tenets.

Then, some interesting viewpoints started coming to light – interestingly enough from the liberal West, questioning the very sincerity of the protests. The first of this kind of article I read was about the “pencil cartoons”, a host of which appeared after the carnage. Many of them showed pencils regenerating after getting cut: pens and pencils in combat against guns and swords: and coming up trumps while weighed against guns and bombs. While these were not very offensive (though repetitive), there were others showing Islamic terrorists being bombarded with pencils, pens and brushes. The political theme of the second set was clear: “enlightened Western intellectual power” against the violent firepower of the “uneducated” Middle East. And in many of the cartoons, the terrorist was shown as a hawk-nosed, turbaned, scowling Arab – a familiar caricature in the West since the colonial times.


(Image courtesy:

Soon, another set of criticisms came up, about the participants in the Paris rally. Many of the nations expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo had notorious track records on free speech: Israel had jailed journalists in Gaza, Saudi Arabia had jailed and lashed a blogger for alleged blasphemy, and Egypt, Bahrain, Russia etc. also had less than pristine records on the right to free speech. Even USA had tried to bomb the offices of Al Jazeera and the case of Julian Assange is still alive as a huge embarrassment for America and Britain.

The third set of criticisms was about the magnitude of the outrage. The murder of twelve people in France created such a huge outcry, while the killing of around 2000 people in Nigeria by the Boko Haram was largely ignored. Inevitably, the Third World claimed that the skin colour of the victims was in direct proportion to the furore – that the killing of black and brown people did not matter.

The final set of criticisms was against the cartoons themselves. Charlie’s cartoons were meant to shock and disgust; they were grossly insulting religious figures and the religions themselves. Many people think that there is a limit to free speech, and that Charlie Hebdo crossed it long back.


I personally was also shocked to hear about the attack, and condemned it immediately in my own small way by posting a review on the Goodreads website.

I am usually not in favour of anything which purposefully harms religious sentiments. In India, we have so many religions so sometimes we have to walk on eggshells: and respect for all religions is taught from a very tender age. So when the purportedly anti-Islam cartoons were first published, I never paid much attention, except remarking privately it was in bad taste.

But now things are different. When the guns of intolerance are trained on artists, it is time for all of us who are interested in art and literature to take up arms – and by that I do not mean guns. The written word packs more power than a thousand guns – and when it is combined with laughter, the power increases hundredfold.

So let’s join in solidarity with the slain cartoonists, and ridicule these extremists and their dictatorial version of religion to death.

I have since then had the chance to view many of the cartoons. Most are in extremely poor taste; many are overtly sexual; and almost all of them are insulting to some degree to some group. But I have to say one thing – they are impartial. Charlie Hebdo has no sacred cows. They were not a Western institution insulting the East – they were irresponsible and arrogant mavericks making irreverent fun of anything and everything – including the French government.

I do not consider that Islam or Muslims in general are responsible for the terrorist attacks, any more than Jews in general are responsible for Israel’s war on Gaza or Christians for George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” in Iraq.  I also do not agree that it is a question of “the intellectual West” against the “extremist Arab” – this is a simplified viewpoint which ignores the complex ground realities in the Middle East.

I do not endorse the French claim that their country is the centre of the freedom of expression – according to me, the French law prohibiting Islamic women to wear the veil is as restrictive as the one forcing all women to wear the abaya in Saudi Arabia. Racism and intolerance are not the sole province of the so-called theocracies and dictatorships; they are present in democracies also. However, the main difference is that in democracies, one has the freedom to criticise everything, including the powers that be – this is all the more true in Europe, and France is in the forefront of this freedom. And Charlie Hebdo is the shining example of that.

As a member of a democracy which leaves a lot to be desired in the department of the freedom of expression, I salute Charlie Hebdo.

As a member of a multi-religious nation, brought up on the sanctity of all religions and the importance of not insulting any religion, I condemn the cartoons insulting religious figures.

I do not agree to what Charlie Hebdo is saying, many a time: but I will defend to death, their right to say it.


4 comments on “Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Expression

  1. Apropos the “pencil cartoons”, here’s the one I keep looking for. Someone must have drawn it by now?

    Theme: parody of 9/11 attack.

    Airplane = giant winged pencil
    Hijackers = CH cartoonists
    Twin towers = the prophet Muhammad

    Please tell me if you find it!

  2. We have the twin tower “pencils” being attacked, but not the reverse.

    I think the problem is, the prophet cannot be represented in ANY WAY AT ALL according to devout Muslims: so drawing the prophet may be a dicey enterprise for anybody not willing to create controversey.

    In this context, I remember a curious incident. I visited the “Museum of Islamic Art” in Doha, Qatar. There was a Turkish tapestry showing an incident from the prophet’s life – the face was blank.

    Similarly, in the movie “The Message” which is about the birth and spread of Islam, the prophet never comes onscreen, I understand.

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