The attacks on Charlie Hebdo rocked the globe as another example of religious extremism. But it also left many questioning intercultural relations in France and in our global world. What could spark such an attack? If the attack was a symptom of a larger problem, then what was the cause? Offensive depictions of the prophet Mohammed published by Charlie Hebdo are the obvious cause and are no doubt the primary spark. This fact has lead to extensive debate on the freedom of speech. How far is too far with freedom of speech? Does such a limit exist? These are some of the questions surrounding the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. Following is my take on the situation.
France has had a huge increase in its Muslim population due to immigration. This dramatic rise has created tension between natural born and naturalized citizens. The cartoons of the prophet Mohamed published by Charlie Hebdo are both a reflection of this tension and a contributor to it. If France and its citizens truly hope to ‘assimilate’ their newly arrived and / or Muslim residents, cartoons like Charlie’s are a serious problem. Assimilation does not occur through insult and shame. Assimilation does not require one to absolutely abandon their culture. Assimilation is possible only as appreciation and fondness for the new culture develops. When the new culture is unwelcoming and insulting, isolation and eventually extremism like the attacks on Charlie Hebdo can occur.
In our global world of advanced communication and heterogeneous societies it is important to be respectful of others’ backgrounds. This idea is encompassed by political correctness and tolerance, which I do feel are taken too far and are becoming counterproductive with respect to remedying social issues. (Check my other articles for more on these topics). However, the sanctity of free speech in Western societies seems to be used as the exception to tolerance and political correctness. Freedom of speech is a wonderful right, one that should be preserved. However, I think individuals need to exercise more forethought. When it comes to free speech: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. In the interest of positive intercultural relations and assimilation, I think such hurtful communications should be curbed at the individual level. Freedom of speech is a powerful ideal, but I see no reason as to why it should be exercised over respect and empathy. Perhaps the cause is not depictions of the prophet Mohammed, but the fact that people feel more strongly about freedom of speech than respecting their fellow citizens.