Charlie Hebdo – sommes nous vraiment Charlie?

The following is the text, and accompanying slides, from a school assembly led by a close colleague yesterday at Ballard. I wanted to share it with a wider audience, as I feel it navigates well the difficult territory in which we find ourselves when discussing the issues of the day with our young people.

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“On 7 January 2015, at about 11:30 two masked gunmen forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

They killed 17 people, including 8 journalists and 2 Police officers, and wounded 11 others.

Being a satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo is not to every one’s taste and has at times been very controversial.

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This attack is raising a vast number of issues.

I will not attempt to unravel them all, but I took some time to reflect on the event and yet again, I was struck by the complexity of the world  we live in.

Information is everywhere – social media gives you instant access to other people’s opinion, feelings, religious and political views.

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But the world is not black and white. For every item of news that reaches us through our screens big or small, there is a bigger picture and many shades of grey.

Where do you stand? What do you think? What do you feel?

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The attack we saw was an act of extremism – it was about black and white.

In the Hollywood blockbuster Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando Bloom and Eva Green which tells about the fall of Jerusalem in the time of the crusades – I was shocked at the scene when crusaders attack a peaceful caravan of travellers, to the war cry of  “God wills it!”

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Je suis Charlie.

This phrase is being used all around the world to show solidarity with the victims, to express our empathy, outrage, horror and sorrow.

I have looked into the origin of the phrase. I believe it is taken from a movie called “Spartacus” made in 1960 by Stanley Kubrick and has been used many times since then. John Kennedy used it in 1963 while visiting Berlin Ich bin Berliner“ (I am a Berliner), French journalists used it on 11th September 2001 : ce soir, nous sommes tous Américains (Tonight, we are all Americans).

About one hour after the attack, an image of the slogan was posted to Twitter by Joachim Roncin, a French artist and music journalist.

The slogan has been used all over the world in the last few days to show that regardless of the threat of hatred or violence, journalists and non-journalists alike refuse to be silenced.

The hashtag has gone viral: it seems to me that instead of being successful at silencing anyone, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has brought more awareness and support for our freedom of speech.

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We live in a society where the law protects your right to speak your mind openly and without fear.  If you decide to offend others then you have the right to do so and the law will protect you.

The law however prevents others from encouraging violence and inciting racism and religious hatred.

Being upset, offended and angry by what you see and hear is one thing, but taking the step to translate your upset into a terrible act of aggression is another thing entirely.

Where do you draw the line?

Do you refrain from speaking your mind because you are afraid of the consequences?

Do you refrain from speaking your mind because you do not want to offend others?

Where does censorship or self-imposed censorship starts?

Charlie Hebdo went ahead with their publication yesterday (Tuesday 13th of January) and did indeed print a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad. Outside France, the Washington Post in the US, Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany, Corriere della Sera in Italy and the Guardian and the Independent in the UK are among publications to have shown the cartoon.

Newspapers around the world thought long and hard before deciding to publish or not. Whatever decision they made, I wonder what the reasons were: Fear of revenge? Respect for Islam? Respect for the victims of the attack? Censorship or self-censorship? Defiance? Solidarity?

I do not have the answer. What would you have done? What do you think is right?

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Some people attach a little pencil to their poppies in November as symbol of what our grand-parents and great-grand parents were fighting for: our way of life, our values and our freedom of speech.

The pen has once again been used as the symbol of free speech and many people around the world included them in their signs and placards.

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We say that “The pen is mightier than the sword”. I came across this cartoon in an article and felt I had to share the thoughts of the author because as I said at the beginning, we do not live in a black and white world.

The cartoon depicts two men – masked and armed terrorists with a hail of bomb-like objects raining down on their heads. Only the bombs aren’t bombs. They are pens, pencils and quills. The message is that the West (that is us) responds to acts of terrorism by reaffirming its commitment to the freedom of expression and ideas.

The author goes on to talk about the suffering of the civilian population in Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan and Syria. He talks about the history of the West’s relationship with the Muslim world, about colonialism, imperialism,  occupation and war. He raises the question of hypocrisy.

Again, this made me think about various shades of grey and looking at the big picture.

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I chose to finish my assembly with this picture.

To me, it symbolises courage, resilience and creative thinking.

What does the picture mean to you?

Thank you for listening.”

And thank you for reading. All comments are, as usual, most welcome.

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