In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo: What is Free Expression and What is Not?

Mankind has been able to learn, to progress and to advance not only in terms of technology and science, but also in terms of moral standards, principles and virtues. Surprisingly, what turned out to be more challenging is neither the complexity of science nor the sophistication of technology. What people are now struggling with most is living with different principles, beliefs and ideas, and this need that we call coexistence, is somehow related to the beliefs themselves that many people are eager to show and defend.

There has also been a significant improvement in protecting and promoting human rights. Nowadays, almost all the conflicts that the world is witnessing are related to human rights, and these conflicts are increasingly serious because many of us believe they need more rights to protect. Fundamentally, the reason why many people care so much about their beliefs and their ideologies is because they believe their lives would be more complicated and less valuable without them. Many people also think that their principles, their ideas and their beliefs are sources of hope, strength and optimism.

In many countries, young people have been included in the process of peace-building, human rights protection and democratization. Freedom of expression has always been a very delicate issue because it has to do with the beliefs and principles of many people in many ways. The most recent example is the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. This event proved that personal beliefs, theories, doctrines and ideologies can be very powerful and very significant in shaping people’s personalities and behaviors. Moreover, these people can also use their ideologies to explain their actions and prove their right to do and say whatever they feel is right. The paradox here is when people explain their acts by honoring and respecting their belonging to a certain religious group or by believing in something sacred, which in this case contradicts with what they call freedom of expression, just because they choose what they believe in and they then choose to act on the name of what they believe in, creating clashes with those who have different ideas .

Because no beliefs, no principles and no ideas should grant malign and destructive sensations and actions, it is essential to keep working on the advancement of human rights by defending people’s rights to express their ideas, practice their beliefs and disagree with others, just like we give ourselves the right to express our ideas and criticize others’. The Charlie Hebdo attack in France, the flogging of the Saudi journalist Raif Badawi, the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria and many other tragedic events we have witnessed in the last few months are obvious proofs of the strong effect that beliefs have on people’s actions. These people think that what they believe in is the most interesting doctrine that there is, and everybody should give them their attention, and that is why they tend to harm others and sometimes even take people’s lives in the name of the beliefs that they shape, modify and sometimes even invent.

One might wonder what the solution for this confusion can be. People who defend their rights to free expression should also let others defend their rights and express their ideas and beliefs freely and peacefully. The solution does sound simple and clear, however, what rises here is the problem of selfishness, as many people tend to reject different opinions just because they cannot live in a heterogeneous society where individuals can embrace difference and use it to enrich their communities. This is again paradoxical because these people themselves ask for their rights to respect and to free speech, which means they are also asking for difference, for tolerance and for coexistence.

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