The attacks in January 2015 in France on the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, a police officer, and a kosher supermarket, have sparked significant discussion. That discussion touches on issues of antisemitism, freedom of speech and expression, a free press, freedom from persecution, human dignity, bigotry, religion, blasphemy, self-censorship, and government censorship. Social media is enabling the masses to come together, to mourn, and to debate the placement of the often fine line between freedom of expression and respect for human dignity.
This report highlights the antisemitic aspects of the attacks in France and the need for a greater response, by both governments and society, to a problem which serves as a significant predictor of a breakdown of civil rights in society. Such breakdowns make incidents like those in France far more likely. Rising antisemitism in Europe, particularly within the Muslim community, has not been sufficiently tackled in recent years and this puts society as a whole at risk.
The report also explores the placement of the line between freedom of speech and protection of human dignity with respect to religion in the French tradition, and the quite different approach which is appropriate in a country, such as Australia, which celebrates diversity. The boundary when it comes to the criticism of Islam which, like criticism of any other belief or philosophy must be permitted in a free society, and the promotion of hate against people who are Muslim, which is a form of hate speech violating basic human rights, is considered. This is done both in general and in the context of cartoons of Mohammed.
The report also discusses the nature of the Charlie Hebdo publication, which took pride in being "dumb and nasty”. Solidarity against terrorism should not extend to beautifying the messages expressed in the publication’s pages. Its evangelical secularism and attacks on religion follow a particular French tradition and are out of context in other cultures. We contrast the media’s response in France with that outside of France. In France the media celebrated both Charlie Hebdo and the message it promoted. By contrast, outside of France, much of the media promoted the concept of free speech, but not the content of Charlie Hebdo itself.
In social media a variety of hashtags went viral from “Je Suis Charlie”, the French Muslim’s response “Je Suis Ahmed”, solidarity with the Jewish community through “Je suis Juif”, and the inclusive German response of “Je Suis Humain”. While all mourn the deaths of those killed, different values led to different messages gaining traction on social media in different communities. There is also a warning sign in the rise of the “Je Suis Kouachi” hashtag.
The report considers where the line should be drawn, in the Australian context, when it comes to the choice between freedom of expression and the prevention of attacks on human dignity. Our ultimate view is that the situation here is very different to that in France. We believe in multiculturalism, and that expressions of religion can legitimately be part of one’s self-identity, and should not need to be suppressed in public. We believe that speech attacking a person or group’s identity in a manner that is not trivial but is rather profound, should be unlawful. We believe speech which impacts on the public good of a socially cohesive society should be unlawful. We also believe that comments on a matter of public interest should be exempt from censorship provided they are made reasonably and in good faith.