Free Speech vs Religious Fundamentalism: A Discussion of Charlie Hebdo


News Junkie Post Editor-in-Chief Gilbert Mercier spoke about Charlie Hebdo with Bill Bowring, Barrister and Professor of Law at Birkbeck, University of London, in a Sputnik International show Agree or Disagree interview hosted by Marina Dzhashi.

Impact of the tragedy

Gilbert Mercier: To me, it’s very personal because Charlie Hebdo was really a French institution, and a very important part of my adolescence, if you wish. Charlie Hebdo really represented the spirit of May 1968. They were irreverent. They poked fun at everyone….

The so-called Marche de la Republique has become quickly laughable.

Free speech vs freedom to be offended

GM: Because of the First Amendment, there is a notion in the US that freedom of speech is absolute, but that couldn’t be any further from the case. In other words, the media practice self-censorship. That’s what they do for commercial and political reasons. That is something that a publication like Charlie Hebdo in France never did in its lifespan of 44 years of publication (since 1971).

To me, it’s very dangerous to introduce the notion that free speech, or freedom of the press, is something that has to be defined, because then who’s going to come up with the criteria to define it? What is off limit? Can we not draw a picture? I’m not a cartoonist. I write, I’m an analyst. What is off limit?… Some of the stuff Charlie Hebdo has been doing… was in rather poor taste. I would agree to that, but is it a reason to kill a journalist?…


I publish various journalists and other people. There’s a bunch of stuff I would never publish. In the social-media world, a lot of people are borderline conspiracy theorists…. They were talking about a term that irritates me to the extreme, which is “false flag,” and some of them have in their avatar “je suis false flag,” which… suggested that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was actually coming from Mossad. Some of them were even suggesting that it was organized by Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, which is of course absurd. Now, would I publish anything like that? Hell no! I would never do it….

Fox News is full of what I’ve been calling for years, Christian Taliban…. The issue here is why do we have all those people, who are usually disenfranchised youths, looking into fundamentalism of any kind? Be it Islam, Judaism, Christianity, it’s mainly of course monotheistic religions that are at the top of this.

We do have the strongest secular tradition that there is [in France], and the people at Charlie Hebdo were, I would say, radical secular… more in the vein of anarchists, some of them even Trotskyists. One of them I knew personally, and he was a Trotskyist, at least back in 1968.


Lessons learned

Bill Bowring: I’m not a religious person, but the fact of the matter is that Christianity, Judaism and Islam all come from the same part of the world. They share the same God, by the way, the same prophets. And I think it is a great tragedy that one has these kinds of conflicts. And in Britain we’ve had an appalling conflict with tens of thousands of people killed in the Northern Ireland [fight] between Christians: between Protestants and Catholics. And it is not at all completely resolved….

GM: There immediately was a reaction coming from France, from a friend of mine, that this is our 9/11. Well, I certainly hope that France, or Europe at large, doesn’t take the direction that the US did, which is basically to turn a society into a police state. To enact laws like the Patriot Act, where you basically can do anything to anyone at any time….

I personally have an issue even using terms like “terrorist” or “terror.” What does it exactly mean? The mujahedin freedom fighters of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s are now called terrorists. So, a terrorist for some can become a freedom fighter for another….

These people are connected to the nonsensical policy of the West in the Middle East that’s been going on… since the war in Iraq, involving mainly the US and the UK. The West has turned the region into a bunch of failed states…. This is why ISIS has become what it is, and they have done so with financing from Saudi Arabia.


If fear and paranoia win from this, then all of us lose: all of us worldwide. We cannot let that happen….

The main question that I think we all need to think about is why do so many people look into religious fundamentalism for their solution, as some sort of panacea for the problems that they have?

BB: In Britain we have a specific situation, which was that in the 1970s and 1980s the Irish became a suspect community because of the armed conflict in Northern Ireland. Every single Irish person was suspected of terrorism and a lot of innocent people were arrested, detained and even sent to prison for long periods. Tragically, what we are seeing now is the situation in which Muslims have become a suspect community. Every Muslim is potentially seen as being somebody who is committing a crime or is thinking of committing a crime. That is extremely dangerous and it is on a par with anti-Semitism of the kind which we saw in Europe before the WW II, and which, unfortunately, is returning now.

Britain and France share a huge responsibility for what is now going on in the Middle East. Syria and Lebanon were under the French mandate after WW I under the Sykes–Picot Agreement. Palestine and Iraq were British. And basically all of the problems that we have ever since, they can be dated back to that time.

Preventing escalations

BB: I would say that we have to forget about interventions. And here I would praise Russia strongly for being one of the reasons why there has not been [a direct] intervention in Syria. So, number one: the situations are to be worked out and sorted out by the people on the ground. What we don’t need is military interventions, what we do need is maximum support by the very rich countries of the West for the populations in those areas recovering from these terrible conflicts.

For the full broadcast, go here.

 Editor’s Notes: Photograph one by Ben Ledbetter; two from the archive of Yellowrider, drawing by David Pope; photograph three by Kelly Kline, and photograph four from Sozialfotografie archive.




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