08 April 2021, The Tablet

Freedom of expression and its limits

Freedom of expression and its limits

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015 prompted global demonstrations supporting free speech
Photo: Alamy/Zefrog


The dispute over an RE teacher’s decision to show students a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad recalls the Charlie Hebdo murders, when moral duties collided with the right to free speech, with tragic results

On a perfectly innocent mid-week morning six years ago, two armed men burst into the Paris headquarters of the French ­satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. They called for the editor-in-chief, Stéphane Charbonnier, to identify himself. When he did so, they shot him. Then they proceeded to spend a leisurely 10 minutes emptying their guns into other members of staff. By the time they’d finished, 12 were dead and 11 others wounded. The mass murderers were French citizens of Algerian parentage. They claimed to be ­members of the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda.

Why did they do it? Charlie Hebdo is ­militantly anti-religious in the French ­tradition of secularism. In 2006, it republished the inflammatory Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad, one of which inserted a bomb under his turban. Six years later it published more cartoons of the Prophet, some depicting him nude.

While the Quran itself doesn’t prohibit images of Muhammad, certain prominent and historic strands of Islam do regard all human images as idolatrous. So some contemporary Muslims, especially members of alienated militant groups, view any depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous and deserving the death penalty. Two days after the mass shooting in Paris, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility, justifying it as “revenge for the honour” of Muhammad.

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