Mirza Adrian NP
14 January 2015
On Wednesday 11 January 2015, two gunmen armed with assault rifles stormed the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. They shot dead 11 people including the editor and some cartoonists. While escaping, they also shot dead one police officer. In total, 12 people are killed in the attacks and 11 people are wounded. The gunners were taking revenge on Charlie’s frequent depiction of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) on their magazine cover which is an act of blasphemy for the Moslems since Islam has a strong tradition of aniconism, and it is considered highly blasphemous in most Islamic traditions to make a picture of Muhammad. This, compounded with a sense that the cartoons insulted Muhammad and Islam, offended the attackers and their supporters.
As a response, the world (or at least Europe and America) stood up in vigil for the dead and condemn the attack to Charlie Hebdo as an attack on freedom of speech. In the internet, the phrase Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie) became widespread as a show of support with those who were killed at the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and by extension, a show of support to freedom of speech and resistance to armed threats. Some journalists and cartoonists embraced the expression as a rallying cry for the freedom of self-expression and attached figurative drawings of the might of pens and pencils over guns. Charlie Hebdo itself ‘retaliates’ by publishing another cover of the magazine with Mohammad holding the sign “Je Suis Charlie” and print 1 million copies showing that they are undeterred by the attacks and will continue to act upon their freedom of speech and expression, even though some people might consider their action as blasphemy.
Many things could be learned from this event to prevent other shootings in the future and history will surely analyze this event as an example of turbulence in the 21st century – along with other horrendous massacres that had happened so far. For me, the event and its aftermath brought two important questions: (1) what is the limit of freedom of speech and expression? and (2) How should freedom of speech and expression conducted in a globalized world? In this writing, I will try to answer both questions and try to reach a conclusion regarding this event and its contribution to the discussion of freedom. Readers may note that, because of my limited understanding on the subject, this writing will contains mistakes and I hope for the readers to correct my mistakes and start a discussion.
I. The Limit of Freedom
The discourse of freedom and liberty has dominated the Western philosophy since ancient Greek. From the literatures that I have read so far, I concluded that in Western Philosophy, freedom is generally accepted as the ability to do what one wills without any coercion from outside forces – though this is a simplified definition. However, Western philosophy also realizes that since the world follows causality in which all actions will result in consequences, freedom also comes with responsibility. To act freely is to also accept the consequences of the act and all actors, therefore, must be prepared with all consequences of their actions, including death. Western philosophy also realizes that complete freedom for everyone will result in chaos. Thus some restraint must be used to limit the freedom of individuals to act out their will upon others. The concept of freedom, therefore, also comes with the concept of its limitation.
The source of limitation of freedom comes in two forms: the government and the society. To limit the freedom of each individual and ensure the smooth working of society, the government can impose law and punishment to limit the actions of individuals. To prevent citizens to say or express something, the government may impose law and punishment on certain topics or expressions and ensure those expressions are not produced or distributed in the society. As a result, the citizens are not free to say or express what they want according to the rule of law. The decision on which type of expression should be censored is a collective decision that comes from the cultural values of the society where the government exists. Every society places some limits on the exercise of speech because speech always takes place within a context of competing values. By historical process, society eventually decide how much value it place on speech in relation to other important ideals such as privacy, security, democratic equality, or even politeness since there is nothing inherent to speech that suggests it must always win out in competition with these values.
Both government and society limit the freedom of speech and expression to prevent speeches and expressions that hurt other people permeates in the society. In the discourse on the limit of freedom, this limitation comes from the principle that the freedom a person possesses cannot be used to harm other people. A very good example of this is the law that put ban on smoking advertisement or pornography because they cause harm to the general public – harmful to health in the case of smoking advertisement and harmful to moral in the case of pornography. Other limitation to the freedom of speech and expression is the principle that the freedom to express does not constitute a freedom to cause offense to other group of people. A good example of this is the censorship placed on racist expression or more generally hate speech that may threaten, offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people in the society.
But again, the decision of what causes harms and offense is made collectively by the society and greatly imbued with the norms and values that comes from the social collective experience on certain time and certain place. For example, there are publications from 1950s that were considered fit for publication at the time but considered to be racist and ignorant today or publications deemed to be pornography in 1950s but are acceptable today. Readers may also note that acceptability of expression in the society is a very complicated issue depending on who say what and how it is said. For example, it is acceptable for African American to say the derogatory word “nigger” (even the usage is accepted in mainstream media as demonstrated by many African American hip hop artists) but there would be a public outrage if a Caucasian say the same word publicly.
II. Freedom of Speech and Expression in the Context of Globalization
Since acceptability of expressions is judged by the collective morality, and of course sense of humour, that is unique on each culture, it can be said that each society is entitled to carry its own moral judgment, or even sense of humour. This poses a problem today because with the increasing penetration of internet in the world, any form of publication is effectively a publication to the whole world. The creator may want to address the works to a specific group of people that comes from the same cultural background and hold the same norms and values but may be received by another group of people that comes from a completely different cultural background. The interpretation of the works may be distorted by cultural difference. Thus, a cartoon created in France that is built upon French culture and sense of humour, is being viewed and interpreted by the Taliban that comes from a completely different culture and hold a completely different sense of humour.
As long as one social group does not disturb the other, no clash will occur. However, in a globally connected world in which information permeates the world ever wider, isolation is impossible and contact across social groups is inevitable. Eventually, the whole world will be integrated as one entity. The question remains, in such connected world, how should cultural differences across social groups be reconciled?
Indeed, this issue has been discussed before by Samuel Huntington in his seminal book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In the book, Huntington hypothesizes that the fundamental source of conflict in this post Cold War world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. According to Huntington, civilization, as the highest cultural grouping of people and as the broadest level of identification with which a person may identify, contains a general shared philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs, and overall outlooks on life. In his book, Huntington divided the world into nine civilizations: Western, Orthodox, Islamic, African, Latin American, Sinic, Hindu, Budhhist, And Japanese. The dominion of each civilization is shown in Figure 1. Each country that is grouped as one colour forms one civilization group. Though his generalization is far too sweeping, I feel that his hypothesis still stand.
Figure 1. Major Civilizations Proposed by Samuel Huntington
Many see the Charlie Hebdo shootings as the result of the incompatibility of Islam with secular-minded, liberal European values. The incompatibility mainly comes from the fact that the desacralisation that had happened in the West during the modernization process does not occur in the Islamic world where spiritual belief still stands strong. Unlike the West, modernization in the Islamic world brought rise to religious groups. Due to the economic and social changes brought by modernization, people are separated from long standing local identities and religion has replaced this gap, which provides a basis for identity and commitment. In many Islamic countries, new organizations arise with the base of religion. Because these new organizations based itself on religion, the identity and sentiments of the organization transcend national boundaries. For example, in Indonesia, there are movements rallied by Islamic organizations to support Palestine or Rohingya Moslems in Myanmar.
The rise of religion as basic identity brought a new dimension in the global dynamic because when faced against the West, Islam has a bad history: The Crusade. The rhetoric of the Crusade, along with the idea of the rise of Caliphate (Khilafah), is used by some Islamic groups to provoke the sense of Holy War against the infidels (Kafir) who are against Islam. Thus, all actions done by the West that discredit Islam is an act of war. Because of the Holy War context, violent retaliation becomes permissible and because religious identity does not bounded by national boundary, the extremist organization can always find the executors. As a consequence of these factors, the Charlie Hebdo office was stormed by two French Moslem citizens armed with automatic rifle, trained in the Middle East, horrendously killed 11 people because of the magazine’s frequent depiction of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that is forbidden by Islam but not by the secular-minded, liberal European.
As a conclusion, the writer acknowledges that freedom of speech is a prerequisite of a democratic society. Without it, the spread of ideas and the discussion that follows cannot occur in a society. However, like all freedom, freedom of speech and expression also has a boundary. The problem is that in globalization context, the boundary of freedom of speech and expression becomes very fuzzy. I feel the Charlie Hebdo case demonstrates this issue: a drawing that is drawn in France can provoke retaliations and end up in massacre because of conflicting values from the Middle East. The question remains, what is the solution to this issue? Creating a law that curbs the freedom of expressions is not an option because it would be against the spirit of democracy and the law would be impractical because there is no government strong enough to enforce it across the globe. However, without any constraint this problem will surely repeat itself. Therefore, because the constraint cannot come from outside forces, artists or journalists need to constrain their own works or in other word self-censorship.
In this ever more complex world, because we cannot enforce a uniform interpretation, I feel artists or journalists need to be more considerate of the works they produced. Many artists or journalists seem to see self censorship as a sign of weakness to not express what they have in mind. I feel this view can be mistaken. Yes, in many cases, the people in status quo will prosecute those who express against their interest and enforce a form of self censorship that infringes the ability to speak the truth. But this is not always the case. Self censorship does not necessarily mean fear, it is also a sign of respect to other people. The same reason artists today will not agree to draw or perform Black Minstrels, not because they fear the reprisal of Black people, but because they respect the Black people across the world, with a very rich history and culture and has contribute so much, that the depiction of Black Minstrel is grossly belittling it should not be depicted anywhere. The same argument should be applied to the Moslems. Artists should not depict Muhammad not because of the fear of reprisal from the Moslems, but because of respect to different religious beliefs. I think the phrase “just because you could does not mean you should” describe this matter perfectly.