By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 13, 2015
Surrounded by the immensity of people who occupied every inch of space around Place de la République in Paris, France, on Sunday last (January 11) one could not imagine the amount of people who had turned out in solidarity with the 17 victims who were slain in Paris last week. Billed the French Unity March, people came from all over the country to proclaim the democratic values of France, their freedom of speech and, as one newspaper put it, the core values of Western civilization. Over 3 million people gathered in their towns and villages of France to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. The murders, it seems, touched something in their innermost being.
On Sunday noon when I arrived at Gare du Nord, one of the largest terminals in Paris, I could not imagine the tremendous mass of humanity that would descend upon that city later that day. The weather was mild, the sun shone gloriously (even though some drizzles fell later),and an unusual calm pervaded the city. Parisians were in a leisurely mood having barely awoken from their Saturday night activities.
A quick cab ride took me to the Comfort Hotel Latin where I was staying and later to Rue Marineaux where I met some friends. From that point we joined the crowds that increased gradually as we proceeded along boulevards Poissonniere, Saint Denis, and St. Martin onto Place de la République.
By the time we approached Place de la République the marchers (they called it a demonstration) came to a standstill. Residents waved French flags from their windows as the marchers began to clap methodically. Then, they chanted “liberté.” Intermittently, they sang parts of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, which begins: “Arise children of the fatherland/ The day of glory has arrived/ Against us tyranny’s/ Bloody standard is raised.” The chorus reads: “To arms citizens,/ Form your battalions/ March, March/ Let impure blood /Water our furrows.”
And arise they did to protect the fatherland. Fifty world leaders marched hand in hand along Boulevard Voltaire to Place de la Nation, each affirming the right of free speech even if, in France, it is against the law to deny that the Holocaust occurred. It would be remembered that in 1766 Voltaire uttered the famous words: “I do not agree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The philosopher made these remarks after France executed a baron for blasphemy.
This concern for free speech was the dominant sentiment of the march. It was inundated with signs that read, “Je Suis Charlie,” in honor of that principle. Marchers also carried pens to commemorate the cartoonists’ tools. Later that evening we learned that this was one of the largest gatherings in French history, the French people insisting on their right to insult whoever they pleased, whenever they pleased although the Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, was relentlessly provocative and consistently showed its bad taste. In 2006 Jacques Chirac, the French president, had cautioned that “overt provocations” to other religions ought to be avoided.
On Monday, the Independent, an English newspaper, editorialized: “Let Mr. Hollande, Mr. Cameron and the rest enjoy their day of shouting about love and freedom before scurrying back to their security briefings. If our lives are more imperiled than ever before by murderous fanatics, the policies our leaders have consistently pursued since 9/11 must bear a major part of the blame. Some mass catharsis may be permitted after last week’s abominable events, but our leaders cannot be allowed to forget we know this. They and their lousy decisions and dirty secrets are a far more appropriate target of satire than the fatuous taboos of Islam” (January 12).
Some commentators have suggested that because Islamic societies did not experience the European enlightenment of the 17th century they still live in a savage illiberal state even though they (the Arabs) secured the philosophical writing of the ancients from 500 AD to 1500 AD, at the height of their civilization, and passed them on to the West. Few persons choose to remember the burning of witches in Salem, Massachusetts, and the witch trials in England and Scotland during the 18th century.
Enlightened citizens should condemn the tragedy that took place at Charlie Hebdo’s office last week. Yet I am not inclined to declare unequivocally, “Je suis Charlie.” No freedom is absolute; absolute freedom is tantamount to license and therein lies part of our problem. No one has the right to attack and provoke another’s religion just because he or she privileges those freedoms in their culture.
Some of us believe that Western values are not the only values that need to be protected and that the lives and religions of other people are also important. Those, too, need to be respected. Unrelenting provocation of another’s religion and culture should never be proclaimed as the supreme virtue.
Under the circumstances, I prefer to assert, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.”