WASHINGTON D.C. — In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons critical of Islam — most of which depicted the Muslim prophet, Muhammad. By February 2006, protests were erupting around the world over those dozen cartoons. Between February and May of that year, nearly 200 people died because of the outrage stoked over those cartoons.
The uprising brought to the forefront real questions about speech and the nature of free expression. Questions like whether free societies should draw boundaries around free speech and if yes, where? Why should Muslims be the only sect immune from offense? Can other protected classes be shielded from speech they do not like?
At the time of the original controversy, as the editor of the University of South Alabama student newspaper The Vanguard, my staff and I decided we would reprint one of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons as our editorial to make a statement.
We intended to promote the fact that, as Americans, our constitutional right to freedom of the press was and is sacrosanct by publishing the Jyllands-Posten cartoon depicting Muhammad wearing a bomb as a hat. Days earlier, the Mobile Press-Register made a similar declaration by reprinting one of the cartoons as well. Their effort went relatively unnoticed. But that wouldn’t be the case at the University of South Alabama.
At the time all this was going on, USA was looking to boost its enrollment numbers by recruiting international students, including a considerable number of Muslims. Those Muslim students were quick in expressing disapproval and demanded an apology from The Vanguard.
We did not meet their demands and there was a great deal of consternation about the insensitivity of our decision. The administration at South handled it as well as you might expect, trying to delicately play both sides and declared it a learning opportunity for all students.
“If any place should be a place to discuss philosophy and religion and press, it should be a university,” then-Dean of Students Tim Beard told the Press-Register.
The lesson I learned was that college campuses are liberal institutions that thrive on political correctness. That was the case even at USA, which is a college deep in the Bible Belt in a solidly Republican county of a solidly Republican state.
Nine years later, we have a similar international controversy underway with the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
Last week, two gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and killed 12, including the magazine’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier, in the name of Islam over similar political cartoons deemed offensive by some Muslims.
In a show of solidarity, leaders all over the world participated in a rally in Paris that was reportedly the biggest in the city’s history. The rally was the centerpiece of the movement with the adopted mantra “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.”
But are we really Charlie? Are our media and our institutions willing to test limits of political correctness in the absurd and offensive manner Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff did?
Based on my experience, the answer is no.
We Americans pride ourselves on being a free and open society and it is often said that we set an example for the rest of the world, including the practitioners radical Islam.
If a magazine like Charlie Hebdo tried to operate on any college campus in the United States, it would be shut down a heartbeat. Or at least in the case of the University of South Alabama, it would protested without the backing of school’s administration for fear it would offend a number of students and hurt the institution’s long-term growth goals.
“Je Suis Charlie” makes for a good bumper sticker or Twitter hashtag, but it’s just not true in a lot of cases. Most of the major mainstream media outlets have resisted showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which seems like it would be integral of any news story dealing with the terrorist attack last week.
To echo something New York Times columnist David Brooks said last week, if we in the United States have the hope that someday the current elements of radical Islam in the world will learn to tolerate offensive speech, then our media and college campuses should do a much better job of embracing offensive speech. What can one expect of radical Islamists when the media and college campuses kowtow to the rules of political correctness?
There are a few scattered exceptions to this rule, but for the most part it has been just lip service paid to the “Je Suis Charlie” outcry.
Nine years later, I can say I told you so and I suspect nine years from now, we’ll still be grappling with the issue somewhere in the world.
We can contort ourselves in any number of ways to show we respect other cultures, religions, etc. At some point, however, our values on our soil have to trump those of immigrants and visitors. That will never fully be realized until we’re willing make bolder gestures in the name of press freedom and freedom of expression.