The attacks on the offices of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo sparked an international debate about terrorism and its threat to freedom of speech. In the initial days following the attack, support for France was widespread. “Je Suis Charlie” became a slogan that expressed solidarity with the newspaper and its bold use of free speech. The phrase has been used to support the best aspects of Western culture, the freedom to draw a visual representation of the Islamic prophet Muhammad if you desire to do so.
That freedom, of course, is often celebrated by those who do not understand or respect the Islamic rules regarding such visual depictions. The newspaper’s decision to publish images of Muhammad represents not just an exercise of freedom of speech but also a calculated attack on a particular religion. That wouldn’t be a big deal if all religions and groups could be openly yet peacefully mocked in France and other Western nations. But in modern day Europe, which has seen an alarming increase in anti-Islam demonstrations and protests, satire of religion can quickly turn to hate speech. Socially-acceptable hate speech can quickly demonize an entire population, even if most French Muslims would never dream of carrying out any sort of violent act.
The core value of a phrase like “Je Suis Charlie” is that no subject can be off-limits in a free society, but even France is hypocritical in its approach to freedom of speech. A major story has been the arrest of satirical French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala for a Facebook post in which he joked about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and expressed sympathy for one of the attackers. That arrest demonstrates how the Western world can rally for freedom of speech while arresting individuals for speaking out in ways that don’t align with the government or society's accepted viewpoints. As Saree Makidisi writes in the L.A. Times, all that a simplified phrase like “Je Suis Charlie” does is perpetuate the “us-versus-them” mentality that has deep historical roots in Europe and abroad. It's as much a denouncement of Islamic culture as it is a celebration of Western society. When there are Muslims within a Western nation, problems inevitably arise from sentiments such as that.
In order to gauge the public’s perception of boundary-crossing, targeted satire, we conducted a survey that poses the following question: “Do you support Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech?” The results are overwhelmingly positive, with 70.7 percent of respondents answering “Yes", compared to 29.3 percent who said “No”. Despite the majority of respondents voicing their support for Charlie Hebdo, 29.3 percent is a relatively large number to disagree with the newspaper’s fundamental right of free speech. That suggests that many view the Charlie Hebdo comics as crossing some sort of unnecessary line, of hatefully targeting a religion rather than making fun of it in a constructive, critical manner.
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The most surprising insight from our survey’s data is that the youngest group of respondents was the most likely to answer “No”. Nearly 39 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds answered “No”, which contrasts with nearly 22 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds. Also somewhat surprisingly, 33.8 percent of respondents that listed themselves as 65 years or older said “No”. The middle age groups were much more likely to vote “Yes”.
In the United States and much of the Western world, many take rights like freedom of speech for granted. Citizens are able to criticize their leaders, to mock religion or lampoon an entire nation like North Korea. There are laws prohibiting that speech from turning hateful or violent, as well as hypocritical laws that criminalize speech that can be deemed subversive to the state. Despite those hypocrisies, freedom of speech should be celebrated. Charlie Hebdo should be mourned, but a discussion as to how we police and govern hate-filled speech should also be had. Our society will be freer, safer and more tolerant only if the 70.7 percent who responded “Yes” to our survey can understand the reasons behind the 29.3 percent who said “No”.