Special Reports

To be or not to be Charlie? That is the question

Helena Jędrzejczak · 20 January 2015
Murder is never justified and an attack on a satyrical ma- gazine is a violation of basic freedoms. It does not, however, make said magazine an embodiment of such freedoms.

No one was playing Hamlet at the beginning. We were all Charlie. Then we heard self-proclaimed catholic fundamentalists voice their opinions, and it turned out that not everyone was Charlie. It was argued that the members of the Parisian editorial office received a deserved, earthly punishment for their sins and for insulting religion. Later on there emerged a debate of ideas, re- lated to defining the values appropriate to the European culture, to the potential superiority of some above others and to whether identifying oneself with such values does or does not imply that one should show solidarity with the murdered editors through the statement ‘Je suis Charlie’. Here a strong opinion was voiced by Tomáš Halík, a Czech priest and theologian, who pointed out that ‘if we do defend this free culture from violence and hate, we should avoid the other extreme – the glorification of decadence and cynicism as a symbol of our culture and our freedom’.


The main argument used by those who feel Charlie, with President François Hollande leading the way, is that freedom of speech is to be the foundation of European culture. And therefore, the editors of a lousy satirical magazine with declining circulation became martyrs for these values. I cannot agree with the view that free speech is a pillar of our civilisation, nor with the view that death by a terrorist’s hand automatically makes anyone a martyr for any given values. In the texts and statements written in the heat of the moment, the phrase ‘European values’ was very often used in relation to the freedom of speech and the press. These are assumed to be an embodiment of the freedom of expression, which is, after all, one of the basic human rights. These rights are indisputable in our culture and crucial for liberal democracy.

It is worth reflecting over what hides in the ambiguous term of ‘European values’. Their foundation can be assumed to be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first sentence of the Preamble of the Declaration, adopted by the UN General

Assembly in 1948, says: ‘(…) recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the hu- man family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’ However, the first article of the Declaration states that:

‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’

The quoted sentences clearly indicate that the inherent dignity of every human being is a fundamental value. Justice can be based on it and fraternity should stem from it. From the belief in the inherent dignity must stem the respect for another human being – his identity, beliefs and sensitivity. In the light of the Declaration of Human Rights it is human dignity that is a fundamental value. All freedoms (including freedom of expres- sion) come from it, but since it is a fundamental value – they cannot rescind it.

The ultimately not accepted, but widely debated Constitution for Europe, stipulates the foundation of European values more clearly. Its Preamble begins with the sentence: ‘Drawing inspi- ration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law (…).’ These words indicate not only the content, but also the source of values. A source that demands that we see other people as fellow human beings, to whom we owe help and understanding, and above all – re- spect stemming from their dignity. This respect, based on the foundation of Christianity and humanism, cannot be found in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which resemble disgusting, anti Semitic graphics from the ’30s, rather than works inspired by the values described above.

The sadly common opinions claiming that the editors of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ suffered a just punishment for their satirical disturbances are, to my mind, completely idiotic. They were brutally murdered by fanatical terrorists in the name of law that is not accepted as law in Europe and I hope it never will be. Their

death is a violation of basic rights and it finds no justification. I do not think, however, that they can be identified as martyrs for any values, as seems to be desired by some of the media and politicians. One can become a martyr for given values if one deliberately and consciously chooses such a path. It can happen if the values are internalised and, because of strong beliefs and despite the risks, one decides to express them. Yes, the editors of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ used to receive threatening letters. Nevertheless, having seen several issues of the magazine, it is difficult for me to come to the conclusion that European values, as expressed in the Declaration of Human Rights or the Constitution of the EU Treaty, formed the basis of its operation. Freedom of speech was in this case treated rather instrumentally, as a tool for making business.


Solidarity with the victims is, in my opinion, an act resulting from the adherence to the values described in the Declaration, that is the recognition of human dignity as a fundamental value. One million people marched through Paris expressing their solidarity with the victims of the attack, with 24 heads of states at the fore- front. The motto of the march, just as that of the Internet cam- paign, was Je suis Charlie Hebdo. That is: ‘I am Charlie Hebdo’.

Expressions of solidarity are important. In the times of the martial law, they supported the opposition. During the Prague Spring foreign words of support allowed the Czechs keep up the fading spark of hope. Those suffering should always be sup- ported, even with gestures or words. However, the campaign of solidarity with the killed members of the French weekly satirical magazine meets my disapproval because of words. I cannot BE something that fills me with disgust – and this is the case when it comes to the content published in ‘Charlie Hebdo’. Regardless of what happened to the authors – my assessment of their acti- vities does not change because of their death. If it did, I would be forced to identify myself with anyone who is killed for the views expressed in the press, regardless of how much disappro- val their content finds in me, or how much they contradict the values constituting the foundation of our European civilization.

I may be with ‘Charlie Hebdo’. I may express my opposition to their death, try to support their families and friends with a gesture. Murder is never justified and an attack on a tabloid magazine is a violation of basic freedoms. It does not, however, make said magazine an embodiment of such freedoms. Human dignity and unquestionable respect for the human being is, in my opinion, the greatest achievement of post-war Europe. Therefore, I will be ‘with Charlie’. But at the same time I will be protesting against what they do.