In 2012 Stéphane Charbonnier – aka "Charb" – told Le Monde newspaper: "I'd rather die standing up than live on my knees." The statement, which Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, prefaced with, "What I'm about to say is maybe a little pompous," was borrowed from Emiliano Zapata, a leader of the Mexican revolution. Charlie Hebdo's editor-in-chief Gérard Biard, who was in London at the time his workplace was attacked, put things slightly more bluntly in the same interview: "If we say to religion, 'you are untouchable', we're f****ed."
I would imagine the staff of Charlie Hebdo believed, as many smart tricksters do, that sacred cows are there to be slaughtered. There is a delight in knocking things off pedestals, because they tend to get there by bullying. Truly egalitarian societies should be immune to special statuses born from piousness, pomposity or privilege, while protecting those who are oppressed by the same.
With that in mind, we should examine the grandiose status afforded religion in our own Republic. Article 40.6.1.i of our Constitution marks blasphemy out as a criminal offence: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” A referendum amending the Constitution’s statement on blasphemy is long overdue.
Freedom of expression is a more useful term than “free speech”, which people can sometimes take to mean: I have the right to say whatever I want, and screw the consequences. In the aftermath of incidents such as the horrific
attack, “free speech” is thrown around a lot, especially online. It’s surprising how often people need to be reminded, while they’re ranting away on Facebook or acting like their own individual news service on Twitter, that we do not live in the United States of America and do not have an equivalent to their first amendment in our Constitution. “Free speech!” is a redundant catch-all term in most contexts, the type of barstool oversimplification that’s emitted mid-debate, such as: “Possession is nine-tenths of the law!”
It's difficult to truly understand how the perimeters of freedom of expression contract and expand from country to country, because it's almost impossible to place oneself in the cultural context of a nation that is not one's own. When La Marseillaise was booed at a football match between France and Algeria in 2001, the former took grave offence. Yet Sinéad O'Connor performed a new version of Amhrán na bhFiann at a recent concert in Ireland without the prospect of facing a fine. The Sex Pistols were perfectly entitled to sing "God save the Queen, the fascist regime", but move that context to Thailand (and change "Queen" to "King"), and the law of lèse-majesté, even in their most recent (2007) constitution, could see such a lyric punished with imprisonment.
Jesus is a frequent subject of cartoons, yet there is a clearly a difference between how comfortable Christians are with his image being lampooned and how comfortable Muslims are with Muhammad being lampooned. Christians can’t understand that, because they don’t practise Islam.
The desire to remove blasphemy from our Constitution is for a lot of people probably not just an urge born from the principles of freedom of expression, but a resentment of the domination of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Such a resentment is well-placed, but we should check our own emotional biases in this matter, and do what is right for the Republic.
Regarding other expressions, the desire to call people out for homophobia, sexism and racism, for example, is not about infringing freedom of expression, but about protecting others from hate speech.
The desire to republish cartoons lampooning Muhammad in the aftermath of what happened in Paris was not just about freedom of expression, it was also about an emotional defiance in the face of extremism.
The Proclamation of our own Republic declared: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally,” a statement that is probably better to adhere to than some of the content of our Constitution and legislation, which at times curtails equal rights and opportunities.
’s lampooning of Islam (along with its cartoons at the expense of other religions and equally pious political figures) is not about religious intolerance or any kind of sectarianism but about pushing boundaries. Religion, given its stranglehold on societies for generations, should be poked and prodded. But for some keen to criticise Islam, their enthusiasm is born from their own intolerance of that religion, not an enthusiasm for the values of satire itself.
In the aftermath of the killings in Paris, Salman Rushdie said: "Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms . . . I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity." He should know.