To: Gérard Biard
Editor, Charlie Hebdo
Dear Editor Biard:
There are those around the world, including the pope, the Chinese government, the editors of the Financial Times and others who have urged you to quit your incessant cartooning of the Prophet Muhammad. Just the week before your office was attacked by religious extremists (or as you later said, people who lacked a sense of humor), the North Korean government engaged in its own form of enforced content control, threatening an “act of war” if the movie The Interview was released. The world is awash in those who cannot distinguish between the message and the messenger. It has been ever thus.
In 1939, a young internationally renowned pianist, Victor Borge, was invited to give a concert in Berlin. At the end of the concert, as he frequently recounted, he asked to make a few remarks. He told the Berlin audience that there were people in Denmark who called the Nazis dogs. “They are wrong,” he said. “The dog raises his leg.” That night, upon leaving the concert hall, he was attacked by Nazis and his hands were broken. Victor Borge went on to become a noted comedian. There is something about cartoonists and comedians that is deeply disturbing to those who believe they possess unassailable truth.
In January, Paris saw the largest demonstration, estimated at more than 1.5 million, since the liberation of the city in 1945. The demonstration was led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali, President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, former prime minister of Poland Donald Tusk, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and leaders of all major religions. The president of France said that a state of war exists with radical Islam.
Business and scholarship, basic research and artistic expression flourish in cultures that embrace freedom of expression. It is no coincidence that the United States, with its dedication to the Bill of Rights as a founding principle of our republic, leads the world in the creation of intellectual property. It is difficult to travel to many other spots on Earth and not see evidence of American culture— T-shirt slogans, branded footwear, the ubiquitous iPhone and pop culture. Freedom of expression also breeds toleration for diverse viewpoints and faiths—the very basis of a stable society. There are those who suggest that we should all be careful how we exercise our freedom of speech and be particularly careful of offending Muslims. They are wrong. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once said that the best response to those who would restrict speech is a horse laugh. The principle to be observed is that of supporting all forms of expression, regardless of our agreement with the content of that expression. Any other approach leads to mob veto of expression. If free speech is the goal, the First Amendment is its messenger. When you think of the First Amendment, you naturally think of the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the Supreme Court building was being built, its architect, Cass Gilbert (yes, that Cass Gilbert) hired a famous artist, Adolph A. Weinman, to design a frieze. That frieze on the chambers’ north wall honors a number of history’s greatest lawmakers, including Moses, Jesus and a bearded Muhammad. The depiction of Muhammad shows him clutching a scimitar in one hand and the Koran in his other (left) hand.
All who appear in the United States Supreme Court chamber can gaze upon those figures. In fact, they have been able to do so since the Supreme Court chamber opened in 1935. According to news reports at the time, several Muslim organizations objected to this frieze in 1997, demanding that the artwork depicting Muhammad be either veiled or sandblasted. Several of the complaining organizations, including the spokesman for the Islamic Information Center of America, demanded that the depiction of Muhammad, Jesus and Moses—all prophets in the Islamic tradition—should be obliterated. These requests were denied by Chief Justice Rehnquist.
So in truly free people—those who are free to embrace whatever concept of deity they wish, or no deity at all—comedians are free to make jokes and cartoonists are free to draw cartoons. Nazis can march in Skokie, Illinois. Free people can make movies if they wish, skewering clownish dictators. And a free people is equally free to not attend movies they don’t like, not subscribe to magazines whose cartoons they don’t approve and not march in groups with whom they do not wish to be associated.
In some countries that are economic and artistic backwaters, this column expressing mild criticism of religious leadership would subject me to interrogation, if not imprisonment. Not in this country, not yet. And that is all the more reason that we should be seen watching The Interview and reading Charlie Hebdo. We can all subscribe to Charlie Hebdo (charliehebdo.fr) if we wish.
Vance K. Opperman
For Freedom of Expression
Vance K. Opperman (email@example.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.