Salman Rushdie: The World Has “Learned the Wrong Lessons” from Charlie Hebdo

In the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, some people continue to ask if free speech went too far. Award-winning author, Salman Rushdie, on the other hand says that the world has “learned the wrong lessons,” and out of fear we continue to stifle free speech.

Last week the editor-in-chief at the Charlie Hebdo, Laurent Sourisseau, announced that the magazine would no longer be focusing on publishing cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. “We have drawn Muhammad to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want… We’ve done our job. We have defended the right to caricature.” Although some parties have taken this declaration out of context and misinterpreted it as another French “surrender,” the fact is that the staff at Charlie Hebdo felt that they had covered the issue and stood up for free speech, so instead of “obsessing” on cartoons of Mohammed, they would move on to cover other topical issues.

In response to the frenzy brought about by the interpretation that the infamous French satire magazine had given up, Salman Rushdie came forward in an interview of his own with French newspaper L’Express to say that such a mentality demonstrates that what we have learned from the attacks is not to exercise our right to free speech but instead caution and a fear that we might offend. “What no one talks about is the fear,” Rushdie said. “If people weren’t being killed right now, if bombs and Kalashnikovs weren’t speaking today, the debate would be very different. Fear is being disguised as respect.”

Rushdie’s heated comments are not coming from a place as a sheltered author. Since the publication of his book The Satanic Verses in 1998, Rushdie has faced death threats and exile himself, while those who supported him were firebombed or killed. Based on his own experiences, Rushdie observes that events at Charlie Hebdo have left “deep divides” in the real and literary world. He comments that “we are living in the darkest time [he has] ever known,” and he fears for the state of free speech when artists and writers are afraid to make non-violent comment on real social issues based on the chance that someone could be offended.

Other passionate writers have commented on the events and situate themselves on a variety of sides of the argument. Earlier this year Garry Trudeau made a poignant claim that “because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.” And at the PEN America Awards, dozens of authors protested the staff at Charlie Hebdo being awarded the Freedom of Expression Courage Award — an act that had comics creators Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, and Alison Bechdal stepping up to defend the decision.

As Rushdie points out the controversy surrounding the aftermath of the attacks has left the world divided, but as he also notes in a final statement to L’Express, “Why can’t we debate Islam? It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being sceptical about their ideas, even criticising them ferociously.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!