Charlie Hebdo REACT presentation

REACT presentation at Westlake Girls High School. Subject: Charlie Hebdo

On the 12th of February, the REACT programme had a very lively and relevant discussion at West Lake Girls High School with the students of the Senior Social Studies Excellence Club. There was an excellent turnout with well over fifty students attending.

The discussion focused on the recent attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, ­­where - in reaction to the magazine publishing offensive cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad - two gunmen entered the building and killed eleven staff members. The central focus of the discussion was in two parts; the tension between free speech and offense, and what people can do in response to events like the Charlie Hebdo attack.

The presentation and discussion concentrated on the Charlie Hebdo attack as a way of exploring the value of free speech and the disagreement about what is allowable under the umbrella of protected forms of expression. The disagreement was cashed out like this:

Western Democracies place great value on free speech and expression because of the way that it serves other liberal ideals, such as privacy, security and democratic equality. This means that they are very reluctant to place any further limitations on what are - and are not - allowable forms of expression. However many people in the Muslim world (and others) argue that cartoons like the ones published by Charlie Hebdo should be banned. The argument for banning these cartoons rests mainly on the fact that they are offensive to the religious beliefs of Muslim people, in part because the Qur’an forbids depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. This disagreement about the cartoons extends into a broader discussion about the limits of free speech, and if it is possible to justifiably prohibit some forms of expression because they are offensive.

Although the comments and questions of the day travelled over a broad range of subjects and issues, a majority of the discussion was around how seriously communities and governments should take claims of offence when they consider putting a limit of a certain acts of expression. There was also discussion about the legitimacy of Muslim people’s objections to cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

There was a strong and interesting defence of the idea that people should be very cautious about minimising the effects of cartoons like the ones published by Charlie Hebdo. This is not because of the fact that they tend to provoke violent reaction from extremists (which were uniformly condemned by the group) but because of the way that certain images perpetuate the alienation of minority groups from the rest of their community. It was also indicated by some of the students that the cartoons may perpetuate discrimination against Muslim communities in France. This discussion generated some robust and passionate responses from students on both sides of the issue!

The discussion about the ways that people can react to these types of events was brief, but it led to discussion regarding what individuals could do as concerned citizens of the world. Some of the things suggested were that people should stay informed of world events, be aware of the possibility of bias in the media, and for the need for empathy and understanding when considering the perspectives of other members of our communities. Additionally there were some concerns raised by the students about the tendency of the western media to paint people in the Muslim community with a broad brush.
Overall this was a very vibrant event that was well received by the students who participated. The presenters received quite positive feedback from the students and quite a few of them stayed back to discuss the issue further.

Some reactions from the students:

"They put the situation in another perspective that was very encouraging and open."
"I learned the factors that had contributed to this issue and that it was different from what was first perceived."
"Great ideas were brought up, and I really enjoyed it! Thank you Peace Foundation for bringing up great ideas."

For some relevant resources for further study, please contact Chris Siver at: chris@peacefoundation.org.nz