Much to consider after the dust settles

Much to consider after the dust settles

Many readers took exception to my giving links in my last piece to David Brooks of the New York Times, who wrote “I am not Charlie Hebdo,” and to Jordan Weismann of Slate magazine, who wrote “Charlie Hebdo is heroic and racist.” Others were angered by my asking why Maurice Sinet (Siné) was fired from Charlie Hebdo.

It was not my intention to denigrate the memory of those who died so brutally or to minimize the gravity of what happened. I would hate to think there are people who think it was. However, I still believe that the thoughts expressed by Brooks in particular will be much debated in the coming weeks and months.

The debate has, in fact, begun. Take, for example, the interview Stephen Sackur of “HardTalk” on the BBC had on Jan. 13 with Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands Posten, the Danish paper that created the caricature crisis in 2005.

Rose is clearly confused in his thinking. He criticizes his paper for “caving in” and refusing to publish Charlie Hebdo’s controversial caricatures, but says he understands the reasons, trying thus – ingenuously some might say - to touch both bases.

Marc Pierini, a former EU Ambassador to Turkey who is currently with Carnegie Europe, explains what I am trying to say much more eloquently than I ever could in a piece on the topic.

Pierini worries the initial show of unity in France after the killings may quickly come apart at the seams for party-political or social reasons, especially through widespread stigmatization of Muslims. He adds that if France is to remain a multicultural country, it will have to instill a much better understanding of Islam and of multiculturalism in general, into the population.

“For example, how many people in France know that Islam forbids images of the prophet, or that caricatures of the pope do not make caricatures of the prophet acceptable to Muslims? Freedom of expression may continue to clash with certain cultural or religious values. The authorities, media and educators will have to fill this huge gap” he says.

It cuts both ways, of course. Muslims in a country that claims to be democratic will have to accept the inviolable prerequisites of democracy, especially if they happen to live in multicultural societies. Freedom of expression is, after all, a cornerstone of democracy. The authorities, media and educators on this side of the fence also have to “fill this huge gap.”

Yet it is also worth asking if Brooks has a point when he says the following, even if it angers many:
“Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in. We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to ‘épater la bourgeoisie,’ to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs. But after a while, that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others.”

The message is clear. Freedom of expression must be attended by a voluntary sense of responsibility. Like Jyllands Posten, many Western papers are refusing now to print controversial Charlie Hebdo caricatures. Meanwhile, the Australian federal human rights commission has warned that many of the magazine’s cartoons would be banned under the country’s racial discrimination laws.

Are they all undemocratic now? In an ideal world, anyone can say anything and those who feel offended have the right to respond or seek legal recourse, instead of reaching for a gun. Freedom of expression remains paramount in such a world. Our world, however, is not that mature yet.

The matter is more complicated than some are willing to accept today in the highly charged and emotional atmosphere following the Paris attacks. Once the dust settles, though, there are serious questions that cannot be avoided.