The cover of the publication carried the Prophet Mohammed holding the sign “Je suis Charlie”. Tune in to find out how the world reacted to the tragedy and what will it take to come to terms.
January 7 saw a violent attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, that took the lives of 12 journalists. In the three days following the attack a total of 17 people were killed. The world community reacted by a wave of support for Charlie Hebdo in social media and on the streets of Paris posting and carrying slogans “ Je suis Charlie”.
Gilbert Mercier, a French journalist and editor-in-chief of News Junkie Post and Bill Bowring, a practicing barrister and a professor at Brickbeck Univeristy of London discuss the meaning of the freedom of speech in Europe and the repercussions of what happened.
What happened – shocked the world. There was hardly anyone left indifferent by this attack. As we all know, there were very, very hot debates. People had very different views and positions on the subject. But, I guess, one thing that united the majority is that everyone condemned these attacks. Everyone said that no matter what you think of Charlie Hebdo, reacting to their satirical images by killing them was not justified. Where do we draw the line between the freedom of speech and the freedom to be offended?
Bill Bowring: I'm a human rights lawyer and I do a lot of work at the European Court of Human Rights. In Europe we have a different approach from the US. In the US the freedom of expression is absolute. And in Europe we have a quite different approach, which is that the freedom of expression is not absolute and that the state has the right to restrict the freedom of expression in particular circumstances, especially where there is a pressing social need. Quite often it is difficult to balance between the right for the freedom of expression, on the one hand, and the rights of the members of the society on the other. So, with the issue of Charlie Hebdo, I'm sure that if it crosses the line, then the state could say “No!”. I suspect that is not the case.
What really disturbs me in this case is not that so much, because I think that in France and in other countries people know all about the European Convention on Human Rights and are sensitive to these issues. What I find very frightening is portraying the people who carried out these terrible murders as being somehow representative of Islam. You might as well say that Breivik in Norway was somehow representative of Christianity.
What are your thoughts on the freedom of speech?
Gilbert Mercier: Because of the First Amendment there is a notion in the US that the freedom of speech is absolute, but that couldn’t be any further from the case. In other words, the media adhere to self-censorship. That’s what they do for commercial and political reasons. That is something that a publication like Charlie Hebdo in France was never doing in the lifespan of the 44 years of publication, since 1971.
What lessons have we learnt as the result of what happened?
Bill Bowring: I'm not a religious person, but the fact of the matter is that Christianity, Judaism and Islam – all come from the same part of the world. They share the same God, by the way, the same prophets. And I think it is a great tragedy that one has these kinds of conflicts. And in Britain we've had an appalling conflict with tens of thousands of people killed in the Northern Ireland between Christians, between Protestants and Catholics. And it is not at all completely resolved.
On the other side, in Russia there are four official religions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. And actually, Mr. Putin is frequently seen with the Mufti and with the Chief Rabbi. And I think that it is very conscious that in Russia, which has a huge Muslim population, finding the way that Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists live together – that is one of the most important tasks in Russia.
Gilbert Mercier: There immediately was a reaction coming from France, from a friend of mine that this is our 9/11. Well, I certainly hope that France, or Europe at large, doesn’t take the direction that the US did, which is basically to turn a society into a police state, to enact the law like the Patriotic Act, where you basically can do anything to anyone at any time. If this is going to be the result of this, if fear and paranoia wins from this, then all of us will lose worldwide. We cannot let that happen.
I personally have an issue even using the terms like “terrorist” or “terror”. What does it exactly mean? The mujahidin freedom fighters of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s are now called terrorists. So, a terrorist for some can become a freedom fighter for another. The main question that I think we all need to think about is why do so many people look into the religious fundamentalism for a solution, for some sort of panacea from the problems that they have.
The immediate effects, as some of the bloggers are saying, would be that regular Muslims will be now afraid to walk the streets and will be doing that in fear of the inevitable reprisals. Is this fear justified?
Bill Bowring: In Britain we have a specific situation, which was that in the 1970s and 1980s the Irish became a suspect community because of the armed conflict in the Northern Ireland. Every single Irish person was suspected of terrorism and a lot of innocent people were arrested, detained and even sent to prison for long periods. Tragically, what we are seeing now is the situation in which Muslims have become a suspect community. Every Muslim is potentially seen as being somebody who is committing a crime or is thinking of committing a crime. That is extremely dangerous and it is on a par with anti-Semitism of the kind which we saw in Europe before the WW II, and which, unfortunately, is returning now.
Britain and France share a huge responsibility for what is now going on in the ME. Syria and Lebanon were the French mandate after the WW I under the Sykes–Picot Agreement. Palestine and Iraq were British. And basically all of the problems that we have ever since, they can be dated back to that time.
Is there a way to stop this or has the situation gone too far?
Bill Bowring: I would say that we have to forget about interventions. And here I would praise Russia strongly for being one of the reasons why there has not been an intervention in Syria. So, number one: the situations are to be worked out and sorted out by the people on the ground. What we don’t need is military interventions, what we do need is maximum support by the very rich countries of the West for the populations in those areas recovering from these terrible conflicts.