© Benoît Prieur (Agamitsudo) via Creative Commons

The Things We Fought for: What and Who are we Losing Sight of in the Charlie Hebdo Debate?

If we are to exist on this sometimes barren and at times blood splattered earth, an integral aspect to our survival is respect. At the end of the day, if you cannot afford an education, if you have been oppressed by a system that does not vouch for you, you can still have tolerance … empathy. Or, you may be the most educated and successful person, whom people pay money to hear speak and soak up your wisdom like gospel. Maybe you have more answers to the questions we all ask compared to the average person, still you must have understanding and tolerance for those who are less blessed and less gifted.

Usher in the most contended publication right now, Charlie Hebdo, which has people arguing over what the magazine really means to people and culture; if it helps or hinders the world’s cries for tolerance.  What started as a companion to the magazine Hara-Kiri in 1970, ceased in 1981 only to be reborn again in 1991 under the name it is now known for, Charlie Hebdo. The original creators of Hara-Kiri were George Bernier and Francois Cavanna. Bernier, born in 1929, was an orphan and worked his way up the ranks at the French newspaper Zero. Cavanna, came from humble beginnings as well, born in 1923 and raised in the Parisian suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne, he worked odd jobs as a teenager until he gained employment at the Libération in 1945. The original seed that Charlie Hebdo was born from was conceived by Bernier and Cavanna who wanted to expose politics and religion for all of its hypocrisies and inconsistencies. The satirical publication gave them the license to reveal how they saw the world to the world. Since Charlie Hebdo was established in the 90’s, its writers and editors have consciously decided that their opinions matter and are worth spreading. That is what freedom of speech is. If you are born in one of the countries who offers its citizens this right, you are lucky. If you were born in a country that does not offers freedom of speech, well you are a lot like many people who actually, physically fight every day to speak their minds. Most of the people from places like Mexico, Turkey, or Mali when they get the opportunity to finally say what is on their mind, it is usually not a cartoon of the god that their neighbor worships tossing bombs around like a game of hopscotch.

Charlie Hebdo has every right to print their own views on religion and politics, but just because it is your right does it make it right? True, we need whistle blowers, we need people to point out the criminality that exists within politics and the brainwashing that is the backbone of most media outlets. But the fight for and against what Charlie Hebdo stands for and if its efforts should be memorialized is not the most important discussion that we could be engaged in. I’m not saying that it is a wasted effort to debate the impact that this magazine had on advancing free speech, but I am offering that there are other people who are making sacrifices for this cause that are just as deserving if not more deserving of the attention that Charlie Hebdo is receiving. Pen America honored the magazine this year with the Freedom of Expression Courage AwardIan McEwan, at his commencement speech at Dickinson College this spring informed students that the writers who boycotted the Penn America Gala where the award was given were gravely mistaken in their protests and that satire and criticism towards our beliefs is “the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society”. Charlie Hebdo is one of a kind in many ways; there are not so many publications that have been able to get away with the degree in which they have criticized religion and politics. But one has to wonder, what and who has Charlie Hebdo helped? I know that they do not have a philanthropist objective, but why then are they receiving such awards and praise such as the Pen America award?

Lesser-Known Freedom of Speech Advocates in 2014


There are plenty of people around the world who are desperate for words and who put their lives on the line for the freedom to express themselves. In 2013, Meltem Arikan of Turkey, was forced to flee her country after the debut of her play “Mi Minor”. The play tells the story of a pianist who uses social media and various forms of modern technology to speak out against the current regime. Though Arikan situates the story in the fictitious city of Pimina, she still faced online threats and charges that she was going against Turkey’s AK Party and the current Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Forced to flee, she now resides in the UK.

Fadiamata Walet Oumar is a musician from Mali and leads the Tartit musical group. The group is world renowned for performing traditional Tuareg music. Even in the face of the Islamist extremist group, Ansar Dine, who have imposed strict sharia law in Mali and banned the use of music. Still, Oumar’s group continued to perform. Oumar was finally forced to to flee to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso where she must hide her identity so as to not make her family back in Mali a target. She continues to be a proponent for free speech and works with an organization to uphold women’s rights issues.

Anabel Hernandez is a journalist from Mexico and reports on the connections between the infamous drug cartels and government politicians and police. She came under serious threat following the release of her book Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers. Shortly thereafter, members of Zetas disguised as police, stormed the town where she lives looking for Hernandez. Hernandez was not home but one of her bodyguards was seriously injured in Zetas member’s attempts to find her.

Why bring these individuals into the conversation regarding Charlie Hebdo? There are people who risk their lives for access to free speech, and thus the way they use language becomes more paramount in how they portray their ideas. The women described above are a part of a fight for free speech and their efforts should be recognized as such. There seems to be a confusion around the type of publication that Charlie Hebdo is and always has been: it is a form of expression and a source of critique, but we should not misinterpret the way it functions in our society. When a person or thing ceases to exist, we often feel the need to look back at its legacy with nostalgia and perhaps regard it with more purpose than it actually served or serves in our lives. Charlie Hebdo is no way gone, but a number of its contributors have passed on: Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, Ahmed Merabet, Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac, Bernard Maris, Philippe Honore, Elsa Cayat, Mustapha Ourrad, and Michel Renaud were all a part of the culture that fostered the type of rhetoric Charlie Hebdo is about. But this was a no-nonsense, shameless magazine. Charlie Hebdo said its peace, dusted its hands off, and moved on to characterizing the next institution it found fault in. The magazine has never begged anyone’s pardon and it certainly doesn’t ask that you like it. So why then are we forcing Charlie Hebdo down each other’s throats? The magazine exists to be brash and piss people off – if they were seeking awards or praise for being a beacon of hope for those unable to express themselves, Charlie Hebdo would have been a far different magazine.