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Trudy Rubin: Defend free speech

An injured person is carried into an ambulance after a shooting at the office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
An injured person is carried into an ambulance after a shooting at the office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. AP

Wednesday’s shocking terror attack on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo should finally awaken Western publics to the threat posed by radical Islamists to free speech worldwide.

That threat may seem obvious when journalists from a newspaper that published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad are murdered by masked men with Kalashnikovs shouting “Allahu akbar.”

Yet these assassinations follow a rising number of death threats and violent protests by Islamic fundamentalists against Western books, films or newspapers they deem offensive. Many Western observers have blamed the authors – for disrespecting Islam – rather than those who organize the violence.

Let’s hope the Charlie Hebdo murders debunk that fuzzy thinking. Religious zealots can’t be permitted to define the limits of our free speech.

That was the attitude of Charlie Hebdo, whose comic gibes spared no one. In 2011 the magazine’s office was firebombed as it was about to publish a cartoon cover depicting the prophet Muhammad saying, “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter.”

When Islamic fundamentalists repeatedly threatened violence for Western media portrayals of the prophet Muhammad, many commentators blamed the victims. These threats began when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie because his novel “The Satanic Verses” supposedly “insulted” Islam. Many Western critics labeled Rushdie a provocateur.

When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Muhammad in 2005, leading to deadly riots in several Muslim countries and death threats against the cartoonists, many observers blamed the newspaper.

The editor at Jyllands-Posten who had assigned the cartoons, Flemming Rose, explained the rationale for running them: “The idea wasn’t to provoke gratuitously – and we certainly didn’t intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world,” he wrote in the Washington Post in early 2006. “Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.”

Rose was referring to a series of decisions at the time by European book editors and museums to avoid photos or exhibits that might offend Islamic fundamentalists, along with the request of a group of Danish imams that the Danish government censor press coverage of Islam.

I spoke by phone to Rose in Copenhagen on Wednesday. (He recently published a prescient book in the United States titled “The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech.”) He said, sadly: “Today cannot be a surprise to anyone who has followed events over the past 10 years.”

He continued: “Charlie Hebdo was maybe the only paper in Europe that didn’t cave in after what we went through or after the fatwa against Rushdie.” Most other media in Europe accepted self-censorship due to intimidation or fear of violence, but “Charlie Hebdo kept making fun of all kinds of religions, including Islam, despite the death threats. Today they paid the price for not being willing to shut up.”

The question now, said Rose, is how Europeans and Americans will react to these murders. “Are we going to accept this new order – in which we have to be very careful of what we say? Or are we going to ask ourselves what are the minimum limits in order to live in peace with each other?”

It’s long past time to stand up against the assault on free speech in Europe and elsewhere. As Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier (killed Wednesday), told Le Monde in 2012, “I am not killing anyone with my pen. I am not the violent person here.”

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.