Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Today, we are all Parisians. In a horrendous attack, gunmen fired in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve people, including the magazine’s editor and two police officers. President Francios Hollande said it was an assault “of exceptional barbarism”, telling reporters at the scene: “We are threatened because we are a nation of liberty”. Witnesses say they heard shouts of “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad” and “Allahu Akbar” from the killers. The search for the murderers continues in Paris.
Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, had received past death threats, and lived under police protection. In November 2011, their offices were firebombed and destroyed. This petrol bombing occurred a day after the magazine named the Muslim prophet Muhammad as the ‘guest editor-in-chief’ for its next edition, and the cover featured a caricature of the Muslim prophet saying: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter”. The self-described ‘journal irresponsable’ had also featured a cover of a cartoon Christian God being sodomised by Jesus.
Speaking, expressing and publishing opinions without fear of legal prosecution or violent persecution is the most important principle. This is the foundation of all freedom, as the proponent of greater liberty must be able to espouse their thoughts. It underlies our ability to inquire into new ideas, share information and innovations, and criticise and lambast governments. The freedom to investigate hypotheses, question authority and pursue rational change was the spark that lit the Enlightenment, and the inspiration for the American and French Revolutions.
To kill innocent people in the name of a religion is exponentially more offensive and grotesque than mere mockery of that religion. To kill innocent people in the name of a religion does not indicate strength onto the believer: it implies weakness. An idea that can only be defended through armament, not through arguments, is fragile and vulnerable. It is demanded that sacred ideas, such as religion, are gilded from any negative response. Blasphemy laws have coddled religious beliefs, with courts responding to the criticism of these sacred ideas with imprisonment and death. Galileo Galilei was convicted of heresy for suggesting that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, when the Catholic Church believed in heliocentrism. In 2012, seven Egyptian Christians were sentenced to death for their role in the Innocence of Muslims short film. When placed in charge of courts, religion represents the divine and otherworldly warrant for secular and material power over humanity.
Criticism of ideas need not be polite, formal and academic: it can be raucous, satirical and mocking. Such sardonic expressions can always be responded to with thoughtful critique, countered with further satire, or simply ignored. There is no justification for these deaths.
We should respond to this attack with a reaffirmation of our liberty, of free expression, rather than be consumed by the indolent pyres of fear and hatred. Our weapons are not the gun and the sword, but the pen and the word. Je suis Charlie. Nous aimons la liberté.