Antony Wolkovitzky

Free-Speech Fundamentalist answer to Mehdi Hasan

Cartoonistarif, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Cartoonistarif, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, on 13.01, Huffington’s Mehdi Hasan, published a blog post on the newspaper’s website with the title “As a Muslim, I’m Fed Up With the Hypocrisy of the Free Speech Fundamentalists”.
In that post, he accuses “Je suis Charlie” Liberals of hypocrisy.

To support his case he makes several arguments, which are unfortunately miserably missing the point.
Nevertheless, I am very happy with this post, as it collects together a whole lot of common misconceptions regarding freedom of speech and the meaning of the solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, which I can now address together.

In his post, Hasan implies that no magazine would publish a cartoon that is mocking the Holocaust, or the 9/11 victims. He also mentions the Danish newspaper, “Jyllands-Posten”, which caused Muslim outrage for publishing caricatures of Mohammed, had reportedly rejected a cartoon of Jesus Christ, and proudly declared it would “in no circumstances… publish Holocaust cartoons”.

However, nobody said that freedom of speech means that every magazine or publication must publish content that it doesn’t want to publish. That’s not what freedom of speech is about.
If Charlie Hebdo’s editor or owner would have refused to publish a caricature of Mohammed, nobody would go to the streets to protest for the right of the caricaturist to be published, or to force their publication to print this kind of content. The freedom of speech protects the caricaturist’s right to draw his cartoon, and the right of the publication to publish it. That’s what solidarity with Charlie is about – and not the desire to see more published cartoons of Mohammed.

Besides, comparing the mockery of genocide, the survivors of which are still alive, to the mockery of a religious figure is a bit of bad taste.

Either way, Charlie Hebdo resume, included caricatures of naked Jesus, the Pope, Rabbis, Judeo-Christian God, and(oh, yeah, pay attention to this, Mehdi) unlike the Danish “Jyllands-Posten” – even the Holocaust.

Hasan also writes:

Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark?

Yes? What about it?

Nobody here is against criticism, even very harsh criticism of Charlie Hebdo. Even after what happened. That’s not what the protests of solidarity have started against. If somebody would only metaphorically “sack” Charlie Hebdo for alleged Islamophobia, the same way that Charlie Hebdo “sacked” Maurice Sinet for alleged anti-Semitism – nobody would protest against that.


Muslims, I guess, are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren.

Not true!

Actually, Muslims are expected to have exactly the same “thickness of skin” as Jews and Christians.

Charlie Hebdo also published caricatures that are mocking Jewish and Christian faiths(not that they must do so to “have a right” to mock Islam or anything and anyone else they want).

Nevertheless, neither of them attracted life threats, calls for governmental censorship, firebombing, or murder.

Context matters, too. You ask us to laugh at a cartoon of the Prophet while ignoring the vilification of Islam across the continent.

Nobody ever asked Muslims to laugh at the cartoon, or even to approve it. Most certainly not to avoid criticizing it. The solidarity with Charlie Hebdo does not mean to approve these cartoons, nor to delegitimize the criticism of them. It was only against the violence that was used to silence them.

Hasan uses Klug’s thought experiment that asks us to imagine “…a man had joined the ‘unity rally’ in Paris on 11 January ‘wearing a badge that said ‘Je suis Chérif’ – the first name of one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen… he carried a placard with a cartoon mocking the murdered journalists…” he concludes that “the man would have been lucky to get away with his life.”

Hasan mentions it to point out that the right to offend still comes with some corresponding responsibility.

That’s true. And if Charlie Hebdo staff would have come into a Muslim neighbourhood or some Muslim gathering and wave the Prophet’s cartoon – I would agree that in case they’ll get hurt there is some corresponding responsibility on them as well. Even though I’d still support their right to do so, just as I would support the right of the theoretical ‘Je suis Chérif’ guy to demonstrate in front of the Unity Rally, and would oppose any violence being taken against anyone… I will still say their both actions were highly irresponsible.

But that’s not the case with Charlie. In the real case, Charlie Hebdo published their issue as usual. They were already known for being offensive both to Islam and other religions. They didn’t wave this cartoon on some Muslim gathering and didn’t stick it into people’s faces. Whoever might be offended could easily just avoid reading it, avoid buying it, and just generally look the other way… There shouldn’t be any corresponding responsibility for doing what they did. Not more than should have been for publishing any other satirical content that might offend others.

And finally, POINT FOUR (which I, honestly, despise the most):

None of us believes in an untrammeled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn.

According to this logic, authoritarianism and Fascism are okay and “no biggie”. After all, “we differ only on where those lines should be drawn” – right? Wrong!

When we’re talking about the freedom of speech and expression, we are talking about one of the most basic human rights and civil liberties. And if we want to suspend this right, there should better be a damn good reason to do so.
On the other hand, there is no so such thing as “the right not to be offended”. Therefore it could never be a good enough reason to silence someone.

Basically, it feels that what Mehdi Hasan really complains about between the lines, is that the opinion that Charlie Hebdo should be censored by the state is suddenly considered socially unacceptable.

But I rather think it’s very good that it’s suddenly socially unacceptable. Because in my opinion, to think that the state should have forcefully censored the cartoon of Mohammed in the Charlie Hebdo issue because it offends Muslims, is like saying that essentially the terrorists were right about using force – only that the violence should have been enforced by the state, and in a much less fatal way.

There’s one part of Hasan’s post, however, that I do agree with:

Does it not bother you to see Barack Obama – who demanded that Yemen keep the anti-drone journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye behind bars, after he was convicted on ‘terrorism-related charges’ in a kangaroo court – jump on the free speech ban wagon? Weren’t you sickened to see Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of a country that was responsible for the killing of seven journalists in Gaza in 2014, attend the ‘unity rally’ in Paris? Bibi was joined by Angela Merkel, chancellor of a country where Holocaust denial is punishable by up to five years in prison, and David Cameron, who wants to ban non-violent ‘extremists’ committed to the ‘overthrow of democracy’ from appearing on television.

Indeed, it does bother me. It was a parade of the hypocrites: All those world leaders that in their own countries do exactly the opposite of protecting the freedom of speech who came to sympathize with Charlie Hebdo.

However, I can’t help but wonder about some of the examples that were chosen to show their hypocrisy.

First, about Obama: I don’t know very much about Abdulelah Haider Shaye case, but seriously, even if that’s true, harsh as it sounds – it is not Obama’s job to protect the freedom of speech of Yemeni citizens – this is supposed to be the job of their own government. Yes, I also agree that American involvement in foreign wars is often morally corrupted, however, it is still a poor example of a violation of freedom of speech.

A better example of the American president’s hypocrisy towards Charlie Hebdo would probably be a prosecution of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden.

Secondly, about Germany: though I do think that legal prosecution of Holocaust deniers is pointless, anti-liberal and unpractical… But, considering Germany’s specific past I wouldn’t hold that against them.

And last but not least, about my own home country: the death of seven journalists in Gaza is tragic and unfortunate, and I personally hold our government in a large part to blame for the escalation of events that have led us yet to another pointless seasonal war last summer. However, I really find it difficult to see the parallel between mistakenly killing some journalists that were caught in a crossfire, with an intentional violation of the freedom of speech.

A better example would actually be that of the artist and left-wing activist Natali Cohen-Vaxberg that was arrested and banned from the internet for defecating the Israeli flag.

Cohen-Vaxberg, so it seems, was punished for offending another kind of precious religious feelings: the feelings of the worshipers of the state.

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About the Author
Born in Soviet Belarus, but grew up in Israel. Graduate of a bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Haifa, as part of which also studied International Relations at the University of Warsaw. Lived for about two and a half years in the EU (Poland, France, Greece), and was active in European Students for Liberty.
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