11 January 2015

We Are Charlie 我們都是查理

2014 wasn’t a good year for journalists and political satirists. Two American reporters were among a handful of Western hostages beheaded by the militant group ISIS in August and September. After that came a series of cyber attacks on Sony Pictures for ridiculing North Korea’s paramount leader Kim Jong-un in the comedy The Interview. Here in Hong Kong, we learned in horror the brutal knife attack on Kevin Lau (劉進圖), former chief editor of  the Ming Pao Daily, outside his apartment building on that fateful February morning. It remains unclear whom Lau had ticked off for him to be stabbed six times in the back and legs.

"We are all Charlie"

Those who had hoped that 2015 would be a better year for free speech had their bubbles burst only days after they put down the champagne flutes and party hats. On 7 January, heavily-armed Islamic extremists stormed the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in central Paris and murdered the magazine’s lead cartoonists. Firsthand accounts of the midday massacre were chilling: masked gunmen threatened to shoot a staffer’s young daughter if she didn’t give them the building’s entry code, and once they were inside the newspaper office, called out their targets by name. The shooting left twelve people dead, all because a group of people who couldn’t take a joke were upset by some silly cartoons published years ago.

That one of the dozen victims was a Muslim police officer was remarkable on two levels. First, knowingly or not, the officer had died protecting the very people who had mocked his faith. Second, it highlights the hypocrisy of the attackers and their cause, as neither the Quran nor any Islamic teaching sanctions the use of non-defensive violence, much less against one of their own. It bolsters the argument that the terrorist act was no more than a mob hit by a few unhinged radicals, and that it has nothing whatsoever to do with either Islam or the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. Believing otherwise is as irrational as blaming all Christians for the sexual abuses by a handful of Catholic priests, or demanding an apology from Mainland Chinese tourists for the sale of gutter oil and tainted baby formula in China. We should be smart enough not to lump a few bad apples in with a basket of millions.

Who has mocked Islam? Cartoonists or terrorists?

The day after 7 January, now a dividing line in modern French history, I phoned up my friend Alexia, a Paris-based lawyer who used to work in Hong Kong. By the time we spoke, she had already attended a half dozen vigils near her office. She said she would light a white candle and place it on her window sill at home, as had many of her fellow Parisians to pay respect to those who had died doing what they did best. Clearly shaken, Alexia told me that Charlie Hebdo, together with Le Canard Enchaîné, were the two most critical voices in France’s printed media (“Think the Apple Daily*,” Alexia said). She also told me that the slain cartoonists, in particular Stéphane Charbonnier, Cabu and Tignous, were prominent provocateurs in France (“Think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert,” she said). Their deaths meant more than a tremendous loss of talent, she believed, but a declaration of war on the freedom of speech. And free speech is a right more cherished and jealously guarded in France than probably anywhere else in the world outside the United States.

On the subject of First Amendment rights, the Charlie Hebdo shooting has sparked heated debate on the Internet over the age old question of whether free speech should have limits. The answer is emphatically “yes,” and that’s why its against the law in most countries to falsely shout “Fire!” in a movie theater or joke about seeing a bomb when on board a passenger airplane. Many countries have also banned “fighting words” – hate speech that would cause immediate violence, such as uttering incendiary words to provoke an angry crowd. Other than those limited circumstances, it is very difficult to make a case to encroach on the right to express an opinion, however offensive it is to some. Racist or inflammatory speech may be in bad taste, and the proper response should be outrage, condemnation and boycott, all of which happened to Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, after he made an off-color remark about women. But to assassinate Mr. Wilson for upsetting the other gender? You would have to be deranged to sign on to that. Free speech aside, how about a right not to be murdered for speaking ones mind?

Charbonnier, a martyr for free speech

With the help of donations and a trust fund, Charlie Hebdo is expected to print five million copies of their first post-shooting issue next Wednesday, a significant increase over its standard 60,000-copy print run. In the days since 7 January, the offending caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad – the very cause of the terrorist attack – have gone viral on social media and are viewed and shared by more people than ever. In the meantime, publications around the world have put out new cartoons supporting the French magazine and mocking the terrorists. Far from having a chilling effect on political satirists, the Paris shooting seems to have inspired more artists and journalists to exercise their freedom of expression. It is precisely what has happened to the Hong Kong government after it tried to snuff out dissent by removing those giant yellow banners hung by activists demanding universal suffrage: yellow signs in every way, shape and form have cropped up all over the city. Attempts to suppress free speech almost always backfire.

Following the Paris attack, comedian and television host Jon Stewart lamented, “Very few people go into comedy as an act of courage… and it shouldn’t be that way.” His somber remark has made me think about my father, who was a newspaper cartoonist in Hong Kong before he retired in Canada. Even though his drawings tended to be social commentary rather than political satires, it is unfathomable to him that execution by firing squad is now an occupational hazard for people in his trade, or for anyone else who is in the business of using humor to make a point. Stewart is right: it shouldn’t be that way.

*Hours after this article was posted, in the early hours of 12 January, masked attackers threw firebombs at the home and offices of Next Media founder Jimmy Lai (黎智英). Next Media owns, among other things, the Apple Daily, one of the few remaining local newspapers that are critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government. Police investigations of the coordinated attacks are underway.

My cartoonist father


This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "We are Charlie: reflections on the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the free speech debate."

As posted on SCMP.com


  1. Read over your article and shared with my G+ friends as always. While I absolutely agree with your points, I'd like to say Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire was arguably racist and deliberately provocative. What we are defending when we defend its journalists is not their right to publish without limits, but their right not to get killed for doing it.


  2. Wonderful article!


  3. Awesome recap of what happened in the past year and the most recent tregedy in Paris...thanks. I like how you explained one should not take the hatreated to the extreme and also there should be a guide line or limit to freedom of speech...like Mr. Wilson's incident.


  4. As always a very eloquently written article.

    Your summation of the tragedy echos that of most mainstream media.

    You mentioned at one point, "... Second, it highlights the hypocrisy of the attackers and their cause, as neither the Quran nor any Islamic teaching sanctions violence against one of their own." First, in the mindset of groups like ISIL a Muslim obeying secular law (a police man) would be considered an infidel just the same, regardless of his faith being Islam. ISIL also considers Shiite Muslims as infidels and this is another factor. But this observation you had among many other factors got me asking the age old question, "Que bono?" (Who benefits?)

    The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda or ISIL is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but many if not most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world or at least among the top.

    Al-Qaeda and ISIL want to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly towards ethnic Muslims on the simple grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination and racism.

    The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They apparently spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened.

    I am not so sure this horrific murder was just a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It seems very probable to me that it was an attempt to provoke the European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda and ISIL recruitment would suddenly exhibit greater successes from European-based Muslims.

    Just a thought...

  5. Interesting to note that a lawyer in Paris who used to work in Hong Kong compared Charlie Hebdo to the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, since Apple Daily was just firebombed hours ago. Obviously your article was written before the firebombing.

  6. Thanks, I saw the news reports this morning. I've added a new footnote.

  7. Without detracting from the horror of the Charlie attack, where is the outpouring of horror, grief and sympathy for the thousands of innocent people (mostly Muslim) slaughtered by the United States in drone and other attacks?

  8. Excellent article Jason. As you said 'If you dont like what they say, you can condemn or boycott them' but using this as an excuse to take away others lives is just not on.

  9. A reporter went to a school to observe a nation wide organized minute of silence in memory of Charlie Hebdo. 80% of the students refused to take part.

    In Strasbourg, a 30-year-old put on his Facebook a picture of AK 47 with some bullets and wrote "Don't just stand behind your keyboards, raise to protect your sisters, wives, mothers. Become your own army." He was arrested last Thursday and appeared in court yesterday and was denied bail until end of January trial. Reason by the judge for denying him bail? Because he could be tempted to flee to Syria.

    French freedom of speech Charlie Hebdo style.