It is now over a month since the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo; since the ensuing siege, the solidarity marches and vigils, the seemingly endless outpourings of opinion and comment; and a month since the publication of the special issue of Charlie, financed by the French state to the tune of 3 million copies. The dust has settled somewhat, the news cycle has moved on, but the reverberations continue to thrum in the background.

Typically, the cover image of this special issue was controversial. It portrays the Prophet Muhammad holding a ‘Je suis Charlie’ placard and shedding a tear. The caption above him reads ‘All is forgiven’. If the wording is ambiguous – who is forgiven? Who is doing the forgiving? – the image is ambivalent. It simultaneously distances the Prophet and, by extension, ‘ordinary’ Muslims from the terrorists that committed this atrocity in his name, and at the same it mocks those same ‘ordinary’ Muslims by offending their belief that the Prophet should not be visually represented. This doubleness – some might call it duplicity – warrants further investigation because it raises some very important and awkward moral questions that have not yet been posed.

Not all Muslims find representations of the Prophet hurtful or offensive; in the past, even Sunni traditions have tolerated, sometimes actively endorsed, visual depictions of the Prophet. So, it is true that the taboo against depicting the Prophet is not universal amongst Muslims, nor has it always been as widespread as it is now. It is, in sum, not incontestable. But the question is, should this make any difference? The custom may not be universal and it may be of relatively recent provenance, but it is still a custom observed by a great many people nevertheless. Does a custom need to be universally and eternally observed, without exception or qualification, in order to be respected? How many customs would thereby qualify for any measure of respect? Would modern-day commemorations of the fallen in war deserve to be respected by such criteria? They are neither universally observed nor ancient, and yet many (most?) of the commentators who argue it is acceptable to break other peoples’ taboos would be outraged if they were disrupted in the name of ‘free speech’ – as would some 80-odd per cent of Britons according to recent opinion polls.

Why is there a taboo against representing the Prophet? There are a number of justifications, but the main reason is one that Islam shares with Judaism – a proscription of ‘graven’ images for fear of compromising the purity of the idea of monotheism by succumbing to the temptations of idolatry. It is not just emotive veneration of the Prophet, but also an important theological rationale that underlies it, which is why it is considered so important by so many Muslims. Is this a reason worth respecting? Maybe we should start by turning the question around – why is it not worth respecting? This, of course, requires us to consider why one should ‘engage’ with Muslims in this particular manner, that is, by not respecting an idea that so many find important. This is where the questions really begin to proliferate – hard, critical questions that urgently need asking, but which very few have taken the trouble to even think of during this latest controversy.

For non-Muslims, the following questions come to mind: what purpose is being served by breaking that taboo when it is not even ‘our’ taboo to break? What do ‘we’ – and Muslims – gain by it? Can ‘we’ find a reason other than ‘because we have freedom of speech, we can’ or ‘because we simply want to offend them’? But why would we want to do that? To put them in their place? To educate them – as a stern parent would a recalcitrant child – in ‘our’ values, and what freedom of speech truly means?

As it happens, this last reason lay behind the Danish cartoons, which led Charlie Hebdo into the Muhammad cartoon business in the first place. The Jyllands-Posten editor, Flemming Rose, argued that Danish Muslims had to learn that living in a democracy meant they had to put up with ‘insults, mockery and abuse’. This is patently true, and in a free society we have to put up with lots of things we don’t like or which are not particularly worthwhile. But the argument went further: Rose argued that mockery, abuse and ridicule is precisely what gives democracy its vigour, and that the value of free speech rests on the way it enhances democracy through such means.

In the language of moral philosophy, this is a consequentialist argument: free speech enables ‘insults, mockery and abuse’ which in turn produces a good consequence, namely that democracy is enhanced. This stronger argument, however, is more questionable. If democracy is a consequence of freedom of expression, it remains to be explained how abusing, insulting and demeaning sections of the citizenry contributes to an overall strengthening of the democratic culture as a whole; it is just as, if not far more, likely that those who are targeted in this manner will become increasingly marginalized, excluded and resentful, thereby weakening democracy, which ideally requires the active participation of all citizens striving towards a common good.

The point is that it is only this stronger argument which justifies the deliberate violation of other people’s sacred beliefs as somehow productive – and, as I say, that argument is shaky to say the least.

Moreover, by challenging behaviour they find offensive, are Muslims really rejecting freedom of speech, or are they merely contesting what they feel to be an abuse of that right? Surely, that challenge – as long as it is done peacefully and within the law – is itself an exercize in free speech? And who exactly are ‘they’ anyway? Is it being supposed that all Muslims don’t respect freedom of speech and therefore need to be instructed in what it involves? Or are ‘we’ breaking the taboo in order to offend just those Muslims – like the Charlie Hebdo murderers – who clearly don’t respect freedom of speech, in which case, why offend all the others? What have they done to deserve it? Is such ‘collateral damage’ justified? And if it is not – and it surely cannot be, because otherwise all arguments against stereotyping and racist/sexist/anti-semitic etc. representation would collapse – then could not the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have found another way to get the message across that the Prophet would not have approved of murder in his name? This, after all, is the challenge facing Muslims who must find a language to confront the terrorists from within Islamic concepts and precepts without the luxury of being able to violate the customs and practices they themselves hold dear. Does Charlie Hebdo help or hinder them in meeting that challenge? I think the answer to that is pretty clear.

Of course, as non-Muslims ‘we’ don’t have to respect Muslim taboos and customs. But it doesn’t follow that disrespecting them is therefore justified and warranted. The Taliban did not have to respect the Buddhist custom of creating giant statues of the Buddha, but it therefore does not follow that they were justified in blowing such priceless monuments up. Even if the outrage expressed in the West emphasized the loss to our common human cultural heritage and rather overlooked the more direct loss to Buddhism itself, the sentiments were entirely justified because the Taliban did not care to respect either Buddhism or art. If we cannot follow the same logic when it applies to ourselves, then on what grounds can we criticize those who likewise do not respect our beliefs and values, or those of others?

It has been said that Charlie Hebdo really had no other choice, that there was no alternative. Had they not published a cartoon in precisely this manner then somehow, it is claimed, the terrorists would have ‘won’. How? Freedom of speech still exists in France and elsewhere, it is still a right, and people will, in future, continue to use it and abuse it. We will continue to have arguments about it – and long may that continue too. But all of this would be the case had Charlie Hebdo chosen a different image. There is always an alternative, and any argument that suggests otherwise is meretricious.

How has it come to this, that showing some sensitivity towards others has become a sign of weakness or capitulation? Why must demonstrating that murderous fanatics cannot undermine freedom of speech require repetition of the same offensive behaviour that provoked the murderous fanaticism in the first place? How come our freedom of expression somehow does not feel truly free unless we operate at the extreme edge, where we offend because we can, and because we can, we must?

It is the logic of absolutism on both sides that implacably pushes these events towards the extremes, towards confrontation and conflict rather than dialogue and a modus vivendi – and this suits the absolutists on both sides just fine. What is worrying is that ‘mainstream’ figures of authority and politicians, who would ordinarily seek to moderate and emollify the situation, lost their bearings and were drawn onto the barricades. British Muslim leaders rightfully urged restraint, but it is not clear why the onus of restraint should lie only with Muslims. Restraint on all sides is the only thing that would break the cycle of tit-for-tat and it surely behoves every person of good will not to let this spiral out of control.

The Charlie Hebdo ‘survivor’s edition’ cover is not an act of courage as some have claimed (e.g Boris Johnson; David Cameron), but a failure of imagination – an inability to conceive a means by which to get the same message across in a different way – and an abdication of the moral responsibility to do the right thing.

It is one thing to express solidarity and sympathy for journalists, artists and others who are victims of murderous violence because of what they say, but it is quite another to align that solidarity with a particular vision of free speech that is morally dubious. The distinction is subtle but important and it is blurred by the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’. This is why ‘I am not Charlie’. Charlie Hebdo stands for a vision of free speech that I do not share, a vision that I believe diminishes the moral value of the very freedom they apparently cherish.

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