Wed | May 24, 2017

I Am Not Charlie, But I Am For Freedom Of Speech

Published:Monday | January 12, 2015 | 1:00 AM

Michael Abrahams, Gleaner Columnist

Last week, gunmen killed twelve people during an attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, France. Two police officers were killed, in addition to ten workers at the magazine, including cartoonists. Eleven others were wounded in the rampage, four seriously.

The gunmen allegedly yelled "Allahu Akbar", ("God is great" in Arabic) and "we have avenged the Prophet" as they stormed the office. The magazine has been unpopular with Muslims for depicting their prophet Muhammad mockingly and for ridiculing them and their religion.

Unlike Christianity where images of Jesus Christ abound, depictions of Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, as it is thought that they may encourage idol worship. So depicting him in a vulgar fashion is like a double whammy and is a sure-fire way to offend and rile up Muslims.

When I learnt about the attack I was disgusted. I am not a fan of organized religion, and the murderous rampage only served to intensify my dislike for religiosity. Religion often empowers people with a mindset that their religion is the only true one, and this attitude often accompanies intolerance of opposing views or beliefs, sometimes with deadly consequences. We have seen this in Christianity with the Crusades and the Inquisition and are witnessing it now with the Islamic fundamentalists who believe that it is their god-given right to kill those who disrespect Islam, especially their prophet Muhammad.

While reading about the attack, I began to learn more about Charlie Hebdo and began to feel a bit conflicted, as I realized that I am definitely not likely to become a fan of the publication either. It describes itself as a weekly satirical news magazine, but some of the cartoons that I came across appeared to me to be deliberate attempts to offend. One cartoon showed a depiction of Muhammad, naked, bent over on his hands and knees with his genitalia exposed, and asking if we "like his ass". Another showed the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in a threesome sodomizing one another. Yet another depicts girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, pregnant and holding their gravid abdomens and protesting "Don't touch our benefits". Another depicts the Pope in Paris with the caption "The pope in Paris. French people as dumb as the blacks", and I also saw one where a black female elected official was illustrated as a monkey.

I must admit, I found none of those to be funny. As a matter of fact, I found them to be crass, crude, insensitive and offensive. But this is what art is meant to do. It is intended to evoke a response, be it happiness, sadness, anger or myriad of other emotions. Being one who has been a fan of satire since childhood (I used to collect Mad and Cracked magazines) and a practitioner of it in my adult life, this issue has stimulated me to re-evaluate my views on artistic expression and freedom of speech.

The Oxford Dictionary defines satire as "The use of humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues."

Satire often makes fun of issues that people take very seriously and may be sacred to them, such as religion and politics and, as such, will offend some, but will also cause others with more insight to look beyond the humour into the deeper issues being portrayed. The word 'funny' is rather subjective. There is material that I find to be hilarious that offends others and vice versa, and in my opinion it is rather arrogant to dictate to artists what they should or should not express.

I strongly support freedom of speech and detest censorship. If there is material that you encounter that you find to be offensive or objectionable you can protest verbally or in writing or by marching or gathering. You can also choose to not watch certain programmes or buy or subscribe to publications that you object to.

In addition, with the advent of the Internet, you can 'unfriend', 'unfollow', 'block' or 'dislike' to your heart's content. And if you find yourself in a situation where you believe you are being defamed or are a victim of slander or libel, you have a right to report the activity or take legal action.

Satire can be a risky territory to venture into, and practitioners must be prepared to 'take their licks' and face backlash from those who disapprove of their work. Violence, however, should never be utilized and must be condemned. Freedom of speech and artistic expression must be upheld.


Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.