The Responsibility of Free Speech: Thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo Shooting

The tragic happenings in Paris came to a sort of end today, with the death of three of the Charlie Hebdo shooters at the hands of French police just outside of the city. The deaths of twelve people at the satirical magazine earlier this week has sparked an online debate of sorts about the balance of free speech and respect for religious beliefs.

By Guillaume from Paris, France (#JeSuisCharlie) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The believed cause for the shootings was the numerous cartoons that have run in Charlie Hebdo showing the Prophet Mohammed. In the Islamic tradition, it is forbidden to show images of any prophet, especially of the Prophet, not because they are considered especially holy, but because there was always a worry that images of Mohammed would lead to his worship. Of course, the enforcement of this rule, as is the case with many such religious rules, has been taken to the extreme in some cases, causing death threats to be lodged against non-religious European cartoonists who illustrate Mohammed in the same satirical light they cartoon Jesus or the Pope. It’s not about falling into a worshipful trap, it’s more the blasphemous nature of the images that has driven the enforcement of the No Graven Images rule.

(On a related note, isn’t it interesting that many of the American Christian conservatives who have sprung to the defense of the free speech rights of the magazine would shudder in any other situation to be allied with such an irreligious publication?)

Nevertheless, warranted or not, the outrage felt by many in the Islamic world is very real, and deserves the attention of the civilized world. One way we can give that attention is by discussing that dichotomy of free speech and respectful discourse. No one denies Charlie Hebdo the right to run cartoons of the Prophet at this point. But should they be running them?

This question has caused a lot of angst over the last couple of days. Those arguing on the side of free speech have implored publications across the world to reproduce images of the cartoons that set this all off. There has even been some discussion that such blasphemous conduct is essential to the practice of free speech, that if speech that offends and infuriates doesn’t occur, then somehow we aren’t living up to the gift we have been given in the First Amendment.

Another permutation of this argument  holds that failing to run the offending cartoons far and wide hands a de facto victory to Islamic extremists, that quivering, hand-wringing liberal weaklings are giving into the radical demands of terrorists by refusing to publish the very material that so offended them.

This argument quite gratuitously ignores the value of prudence, of evaluating our actions in light of how it treats others. Such sentimental musing is dismissed as the worst of that great sin, political correctness. Exploring the responsibility of our stewardship of free speech, of the bounds which we choose to police upon ourselves, is categorized into the same class as reading Bin Laden’s declaration of jihad in wake of the 9/11; the horrific nature of the acts disclaims any possibility of understanding what provoked such a response. Never mind that we could learn how to prevent future tragedies by learning what causes such acts; so many would rather ignore all rational cause and effect in favor of keeping our own hands clean and just telling ourselves they hate our freedoms, our shopping malls, our tolerance. And so we invade their countries and mock their religious icons, and we disaffect an entire generation, and then we wonder why they lash out.

This isn’t an argument that lays the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo at the feet of said magazine; but it also doesn’t make them innocent martyrs. It’s an argument that asks that same question as above: just because we can run those cartoons, does that mean we should?

Freedom of speech in a civilized nation means more than acknowledging the limitless bounds of our rights to say things. It means speaking with a self-imposed sense of propriety or respect. It means understanding that just because we can say something doesn’t mean we should, not because a government tells us not to, but because we know that with great privilege comes great responsibility. It means that we know that tact and restraint, respect for others and their beliefs, is not a weakness or capitulation, but the ultimate example of civilization. It is the hope for a peaceful and tolerant future.

As Christians, we are called to a life full of respect and love for others. Every Christian who felt deep offense and anger at something like Piss Christ should innately understand the anger Muslims feel over depictions of the Prophet. We can acknowledge the right of persons to display these images while also calling on them to show the restraint to not do so, in the name of tolerance and respect. This isn’t giving in to terrorists; it’s coexisting with others in a diverse world. It’s self-governance in it’s highest and more virtuous form.

My prayers go out to the families who lost loved ones this week, that they might find peace and comfort. They also go out to humanity, in the hope that we can coexist peacefully and respectfully. Amen.

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