It was early evening when I entered the hookah lounge and asked, “Where is Muhammad?” A man approached to shake my hand and responded with a smile, “I am Muhammad.” It is a running joke now. If you are a Muslim man, your name might be....” Returning the smile, I stated, “Not you! The other Muhammad.” A second man approached, “You are the media lady, are you not?” Yes, I am the media lady. My feet take me to hookah lounges and beyond when following a story.
Last week I was seated with Muslim friends eating from a tray with dates, nuts and sweets. Purchased from Saudi Arabia, the tray of goodies was meant to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
This week my attention was riveted to the tragic unfurling of events in France. Cartoonists and journalists of international stature were gunned down in Paris. These cartoonists — slayers of sacred cows and preconceived notions — had shared decades of their lives practicing edgy freedom of expression. They died together too, cut down by humourless men who do not understand that a cartoon is just a cartoon, men who do not understand that lampooning politicians and religious leaders is a pleasant national pastime for us. Men who refuse to acknowledge that freedom of expression is a stand-alone concept that is isolated and elevated above all who would attack it. Irreverent humour, satire, and lampooning others are but a small droplet within a mighty tumult and flow of unrestricted thought. It is a multi-faceted and sacred liberty.
Saif and Cherif Kouachi are now dead. There is no real comfort with this news. There are others roaming about cut from the same cloth: duty-bound madmen clinging to an obscure mandate. But before we discuss the carnage at the Charlie Hebdo offices, it is necessary to tie in an earlier event.
In 2005, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard took up the challenge to champion the west’s understanding of freedom of expression. Joining a cadre of fellow cartoonists, he depicted Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in an unflattering manner. His caricature ticked off Muslims across the globe. Westergaard required police protection because of death threats and the discovery of an active murder plot. In 2009, a Danish press freedom group began to sell a limited edition of 1,000 print reproductions of the cartoon for 1,400 kroner ($ 250) each. Lars Hedegaard, the chairman of the Danish Free Press Society stated, “All we are doing is starting a debate. We are using our freedom of expression.”
Kill me also if you wish but, in my mind, I am capable of creating wickedly funny cartoons. With the Charlie Hebdo incident, my mind has created several new etches. Luckily, I am barely able to draw stick figures. However, freedom of expression is the one human liberty worthy of unflinching defence. As a journalist, I defend Charlie Hebdo’s journalists and cartoonists. I defend their right to freely express their thoughts with humour, grace and a jaundiced eye. Freedom of expression means just that. Charlie Hebdo staff are free to write what they think, draw what they imagine, photo-shop, distort and ridicule any and all politicians and religions, down to the common man.
Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are free to do the same against my cherished beliefs. Their job is to defend freedom of expression. Providing any religion safe harbour from rigorous criticism is an extremely dangerous course of action; it is treason against societal health. Charlie Hebdo released a cover titled, “La Veritable Histoire du Petit Jesus”. My faith is not threatened by Charlie Hebdo but my liberty is threatened if they are legally blocked from going to print. To quote deceased editor Stephane Chabonnier seems fitting: “Maybe it is a little pompous to say, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” Agreed. Going down standing far surpasses a joyless existence of submission to a misplaced creed. My dance is with the pen and my fight against those who oppose it. You can oppose Jesus. Do not oppose my expressive liberty.
Die for your own belief. Let it be a noble gesture but please do not shed innocent blood. Do not kill me if I wake up tomorrow and decide to wear a T-shirt that offends you. You have other choices: Approach me and use your freedom of expression to let me know of your dissatisfaction. Avoid me. Curse me under your breath. But you cannot legally kill based on what is your own extreme notion. It is absolutely forbidden in western society. Our rights are hard earned and we will not give up our cartoonists to humourless men. Seek not the destruction of our liberty with acts of intimidation and carnage. Sporadic revenge sprees will not intimidate us. Our resolve is firm. Our stewardship of freedom of expression is nuclear.
Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) followers are carrying a kalashnikov. The kalashnikov is being used to take innocent lives. At the butt end of the kalashnikov stand men ready to kill all who oppose their own personal belief system. Sweeping across Syria, Iraq, within the borders of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and beyond are multiple millions of men willing to kill the defenders of secular liberty. For some, the opportunity does not exist. For others, an opportunity will emerge in the near future. World War M. The war of your making is beckoning you even now. But before it happens, you will unleash civil war on our streets. We have lived free of fear and in peace for many years. By welcoming you, we have beckoned the destruction of our treasured national values.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org