After the first wave of condemnation of the attackers and sympathy for the cartoonists following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, criticism of the magazine’s content slowly crept into left-leaning commentary. Many media outlets, including the McGill Tribune, argued that the cartoons were offensive, and called into question the limitations of free speech. More frightening still, was how some articles seemed to suggest that the cartoonists were partly to blame for the attack. Sharon Xie’s opinion article in the January 20, 2015 issue of the McGill Tribune entitled “Who is Charlie?” urged readers not to equate freedom of expression with freedom from consequence. This is victim blaming, plain and simple. Free speech does not end where opinions become offensive or unpopular. The media must accommodate the sacred and the profane. Xie argued that the cartoons were neither clever nor high-minded; their only purpose was to offend. While the quality of the cartoons is debatable, their right to exist is not. Free speech means protecting even bad satire.
The Charlie Hebdo incident is just the latest battle in a war of ideas over whether sacred beliefs can be criticized. Nowhere is this harder fought than in the Muslim world; in January, Saudi Arabia drew international attention when it sentenced an atheist blogger to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for blasphemy. While many imams have done a good job of condemning the actions of the Islamic State and jihadists, they have failed to address the root of the problem—the immoral passages in holy scripture that extremists draw from. It is rare to see Islamic leaders or scholars denounce passages like Quran 4:89, which tells believers to slay infidels, or Hadith 4447, which prescribes death as the appropriate punishment for homosexuality. Clearly, there is no twisting of words here; these passages are unambiguously immoral. Indeed, similar passages can be found in other religious texts, such as the Old Testament. Fear of retribution and fear of being labelled ‘Islamophobic’ have made some people within the media hesitant to criticize Islam in the same way that it criticizes Christianity.
The Islamic State and the Charlie Hebdo terrorists uphold a literal interpretation of the Islamic texts; an interpretation that is not shared among most Muslims. Where, then, are the tweets calling out these passages with tags like #NotInMyFaith? There needs to be a new movement, not just in Islam, but in all religions, that is not afraid to openly reject the most pernicious beliefs.