‘Je Suis’ And The Potency Of Words And Images

Since January 7, “Je suis” has become an oft-repeated phrase, one meant to show solidarity and support for the freedom of speech which Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists died for. “Je suis” has become a maxim for freedom of journalistic expression, a liberty the Democratic Audit UK notes necessary to “guarantee the smooth functioning of plural societies.” Yet, does everyone who claims “Je suis” clearly understand what they are supporting?

To this end, a panel to discuss the “Je Suis Charlie” movement was held at the University of Georgia last Wednesday, February 11, at the institution’s Tate Student Center. The UGA Progressive Student Coalition led the discourse, which was sponsored by the UGA LGBT Resource Center and the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. The panel’s discussion of the phrase “Je suis” came just 24 hours after the self-proclaimed “CyberCaliphate” hacked the Newsweek Twitter account and threatened President Barack Obama and his family. As Reuters reported on February 10, the date of the attack, the group — whose avatar showed a head wrapped in black and white next to a banner with their name — tweeted a direct threat to the First Lady.

“#CyberCaliphate Bloody Valentine’s Day #MichelleObama! We’re watching you, your girls and your husband!”

The hackers signed off “Je suIS IS,” a reference to the “Je suis Charlie” movement born in response to the January attack on the Parisian satirical magazine and the role of the Islamic State, which seized control of territory in Iraq and Syria and declared itself a caliphate. The “CyberCaliphate” had previously targeted the Pentagon last month.

At the UGA panel on “Je suis,” as reported in the student newspaper The Red & Black, what was highlighted was just how radical Charlie Hebdo’s satire actually is. Although “Je suis” served to increase sales of the magazine from around 50,000 copies to eight million copies the week following the attack, an assistant professor within the Department of English, Christopher Pizzino urged people to take pause to consider Charlie Hebdo’s actions.

“We have to engage in the political equivalent of suspension of disbelief […] We have to learn that same flexibility when it comes to moral and political judgment. Until we learn about the love of images, the fear of images, the hatred of the desire to express and the desire to regulate, we won’t understand everything we need to figure out exactly what kind of work Charlie Hebdo has been doing.”

Such an encouragement came, notably, at a time when Ms. Shirin Dalvi, Mumbai-based editor of the daily Urdu newspaper, Avadhnama, had gone into hiding and closed her newspaper due to death threats that arose from reprinting a 2006 Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad weeping. The publication was taken as a “Je suis” demonstration in response to the Paris attack, but, as the New York Times reports, Ms. Dalvi claimed her stance was objective, factual reporting and was repentant that it had been construed otherwise.

“Journalists should have the strength to bring forward the truth and speak freely, within the limits of the law. I don’t believe that freedom of speech means that you have the right to hurt someone else’s sentiments.”

This caveat paralleled Professor Pizzino’s thoughts and was alluded to, also, by Cass Mudde, an associate professor in the Department of International Affairs at UGA. Professor Mudde claimed he supported America’s decision not to reprint the offending cartoons, given Islamophobic fear following 9/11, and added that Europe’s aggressive “Je suis” response was historically unusual for such a politically correct spread of countries. Indeed, the Inquisitr recently looked at the current state of freedom of speech in France in relation to the plurality of its society.

Tragically, the situation the “Je suis” movement is born from shows no sign of abating, given Saturday’s shooting in Copenhagen where, as AFP reported, gunmen targeted a debate at a cultural center that was discussing Islam and the freedom of speech. Patrick Pelloux, a Charlie Hebdo columnist who narrowly escaped the fate of his colleagues when he ran but three minutes late for work on January 7, responded to the recent shooting with the words, “We are all Danish tonight.”

The solidarity of “Je suis,” a rebellious sentiment of support for expressive liberty carried in two little words, survives.

[Image courtesy of Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]