Ever since the Charlie Hebdo shooting earlier this month, the western world has been in shock evidenced through the millions of people marching in the streets in solidarity with France. The shooting was a violent attack on free speech in response to cartoons published of the prophet Mohammed. While I am infuriated by the violent and undeserved murder of twelve innocent lives, some of the art published in the satirical magazine was unnecessarily offensive and demeaning towards the Islamic religion as a whole, not simply the fundamentalist sects.
With freedom of speech comes the responsibility to portray the truth, particularly when commenting on issues that are already controversial in the eyes of many.
Someone I know recently mentioned that he had a panic attack in a department store because there were too many Muslims around him. Although his story saddened me, I could not blame him for his reaction; terrorism and Islam are inextricably linked in the West.
Much of this growing Islamophobia has been supported, but not corrected by the media.
Although I believe that freedom of speech is essential, the media must have integrity in their free speech. They have a responsibility to be active in portraying the truth about Islam, rather than perpetuating stereotypes of violent, dark-skinned extremists or women wearing burkas and hijab. While there are some conservative Muslims and women who must, or choose to, cover their hair, these stereotypes do not even begin to represent Islam as a whole.
Freedom of speech must be held to a higher standard for publications or industries in positions of power than for individuals.
Individuals should have freedom to state their opinions with exception to hate-speech. However, those with power – news stations, film industries, magazines, artists, and politicians – can easily propagate false information and stereotypes in an attempt to gain profit, viewers, or simply to shock. For this free speech, there is immense responsibility. Many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were irresponsible, lacking in truth, resorting to blatant taunting of Islam, and helping to maintain degrading and offensive representations of the religion.
The prophet Mohammed is the central religious figure for all Muslims, not only fundamentalists, so the use of his image insults all Muslims. Some images, which anyone would find offensive, presented him as violent or in obscene and sometimes pornographic positions.
In a religion where some believe it is a sin to even depict images of Mohammed, such cartoons are not only disrespectful, but also inflammatory. However, disrespect is not a reason to censor an image. More importantly, such images present Islam under false pretenses and teach readers of the magazine that Islam is violent, or at least that it is funny to mock a religion that is so often misunderstood.
There is a difference between a political cartoon that makes an educated statement on an issue and one that ridicules the religious beliefs of more than a billion people.
The issues surrounding the Charlie Hebdo attack have hauntingly similar themes to those surrounding the recent release of “The Interview,” a comedic movie about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. After a hacking attack on Sony, the controversial film was given a limited release in late December.
In both cases, freedom of speech was attacked through violence or threat. The film was released and defended, and the world rallied for the right to free speech following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
While I support the release of the film, the film itself disturbs me. It mocks the leader of a country where people are suffering, are forced to watch the execution of their loved ones, and believe that Kim Jong-un can hear their thoughts. There is little to no comment on the atrocities occurring in North Korea, but instead a caricature is made of a cruel dictator.
Just as with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Sony did not use their free speech responsibly by producing “The Interview.” Viewers finish the film with no greater insight into North Korea than they began with, except now they view the country as comical.
Viewers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons also gain no further insight into Islamic traditions and religion, but negative stereotypes are perpetuated. The responsibility falls partly with the viewer or reader. People can choose not to watch films like “The Interview,” and choose not to read material that presents a one-sided view of religious groups.
However, it can be difficult to know what is the truth. Therefore, it is primarily the duty of those with influence to practice responsible free speech and distribute images that educate, rather than spread hate.