Freedom of expression is under fire. College students, swollen with umbrage, agitate on campus to stifle dissent. Near-record numbers of journalists are imprisoned around the world. Tyrants, drug lords and religious fanatics abroad react to “objectionable” speech by murdering the offending speaker.
Such was the fate of Stéphane Charbonnier, editor-in-chief of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, who was slain with 11 others by Islamic terrorists on Jan. 7 at the publication’s offices in Paris. Charb, as the editor was known in print, now speaks to us from beyond the grave with a brief and impassioned manifesto on behalf of his blasphemous worldview and the freedom of expression that seems so widely imperiled.
Charb’s essay, a scant 80 pages preceded by Adam Gopnik’s poignant foreword, is on the surface a defense of the Charlie Hebdo worldview, with its powerful anticlerical bent, intolerance of cant and willingness to take on the most sacred possible cows in the most provocative possible way. Yet the pamphlet’s message will reverberate far beyond France, because the enemies of free speech have been busy here and elsewhere exploiting their supposed piety (on the right) and oppression (on the left) to silence critics and insulate themselves from troublesome facts and ideas.
And Charb’s message is anything but parochial. Central to his argument is his insistence that we distinguish between criticizing or mocking a religion, which he sees as just another “ism” open to any sort of abuse, and the kind of racism that condemns individuals on the basis of religion. “Sticking a clown nose on Marx,” Charb insists, “is no more offensive or scandalous than popping the same schnoz on Muhammad.”
Many will beg to differ, of course, but that gives them no right to start shooting. One big problem, in Charb’s view, is the term “Islamophobia,” which he calls a misnomer for the racism against Muslims (if racism can be used to describe prejudice on the basis of religion or ethnic origin) that he condemns as the province of “morons.” On the other hand Charb and his colleagues seem to be phobic about religions of all kinds. And he was certainly right to fear Islamic extremism, which ultimately took his life.
What the author wants passionately is for the rest of us to recognize the slippery slope that critics of Charlie Hebdo and its ilk have put us on. He says that if Buddhist terrorists start taking lives, we’ll next have to be careful never to portray them, and if vegetarians then follow suit, “we will be required to respect the carrot just as we are required to respect the brotherhood of prophets of the three monotheistic religions.”
In keeping with the distinction between “isms” and people, Charb assails politicians and other “pathetic demagogues” who want “Muslims to be seen exclusively as Muslims” rather than individuals. He accuses some French Muslim leaders of this sin, condemning their opportunism and hypocrisy, but reserves special vitriol for the fellow travelers who eagerly betray liberal principles. “It’s time,” he writes with characteristic ferocity, “to put an end to the revolting paternalism of the white, middle-class, ‘leftist’ intellectual,” who regards French Muslims as “poor, subliterate wretches” in need of sanctimonious ministrations from a self-righteous elite.
Sadly, free speech has always been under fire; even in America, where the First Amendment is enshrined in our Constitution, unpopular or inconvenient expression has been suppressed again and again. The unending nature of the struggle for this most fundamental of rights makes the death of Charb — and the message he’s left us in this pamphlet — likely to be of enduring importance. Heaven knows he doesn’t speak for everyone. But he died for all of us.