“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
In the United States and throughout the enlightened world, that famous quote from Voltaire, the 18th Century French philosopher, is a cliché. Free speech, the bedrock of all other human rights, is a given, all but taken for granted.
But in too much of the world, among too many extremists, what you say can still get you killed.
There is only one civilized response to Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Paris, allegedly by Muslim extremists, that left 12 people dead at the offices of a satirical newspaper — condemn the attacks, stand resolute in defense of free speech and resist the impulse, in a moment of blind anger, to join in a hateful backlash.
To that end, allow us to quote Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of a mosque in a suburb of Paris:
“We are not in favor of the cartoons,” he told the Christian Science Monitor, referring to the mocking depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that regularly ran in the paper that was attacked, Charlie Hebdo. “But we can respond word against word, not with hate.”
And allow us to quote, as well, Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the Union of French mosques. It was a “hateful act,” and Muslims and Christians must “make a united front against extremism.”
The best response to offensive speech is yet more speech, but the response to hate cannot be more hate.
Charlie Hebdo pushed buttons deliberately. It was relentless in its derision of established religions, with a particular enthusiasm for taking on Muslim fundamentalism, the source of so much violence today. It published cartoons and stories lampooning jihadists and Islam, including caricatures of Muhammad.
This was especially risky in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. Some 1,000 French have traveled to Syria to fight on the side of ISIS and other Muslim extremists.
The paper was firebombed in 2011, and had been under police protection ever since. And yet the paper’s editor and chief cartoonist, Stephane Charbonnier, made a point of pushing those buttons.
“I have no kids, no wife, no car, no mortgage,” he told Le Monde in 2012, saying he did not fear retaliation. “It may come off as a bit arrogant, but I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
The terrorists killed Charbonnier Wednesday. But as Sun-Times cartoonist Jack Higgins says in an eloquent cartoon today, he was silenced, not converted.
“The values that we share with the French people, a universal belief in freedom of expression is something that won’t be silenced because of senseless violence,” President Barack Obama said.
What happened Wednesday is how terrorists lose.