What led to the tragic loss of life at the hands of madmen claiming to be avenging a case of dishonour, were caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed PBUH.
This loss led to a sea of people from across France and those crossing national, ethnic, religious and other ideological boundaries, converging on the centre of Paris as a show of defiance against the extremists, to support free speech, which within itself is a license to offend. However, upon closer inspection news coverage and internet postings of the numerous placards, banners and other innovative artwork showing solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and all those who believe in liberty and freedom expression, one artefact was surprisingly absent, or perhaps not widely on display; the caricatures of the Prophet!
At the unity march, participated by hundreds of thousands of people, all fired up to uphold free speech, yet without the cartoons that apparently caused two brothers so much offence that they went on a murderous rampage?
It then suddenly dawned on me and some others I happened to discuss this peculiarity with that with absolute freedom of expression, does come some caveats. All rights burden the beneficiary with some responsibilities. Often they aren't mandatory at all, yet individuals belonging to sensible civilised societies exercise caution and show consideration towards others. And this is what happened at the rally in Paris, leading to an absence of those caricatures.
A sea of reproduced caricatures on banners, placards and hung from balconies paving the unity march route wouldn't have been unexpected, quite the opposite would appeared most appropriate in fact, given the events leading up to the event. The absence of these images lends a fresh perspective to the notion of free speech and its application and usage.
Across the Muslim world, from the fundamentalist max to the cultural Muslim, and all those other denominations in between, the majority of the 1 billion or so, do hold the Prophet Mohammed in high esteem. The differences that exist across the Muslim spectrum based on their interpretation of Islamic teachings and theology are and have been a dominant feature for the past 1400 years. However, the one thing that most of them tend to agree on, is their immense respect for the Messenger who brought them their Holy Book. Their reaction to occasions when that respect is not perceived to have been upheld by anyone, in particular people belonging to other faiths, or none for that matter, also varies. The majority do find such incidents distasteful, yet other than a private grumble or a discussion about their inappropriateness, their reactions are limited to within the parameters of civic norms and cause no harm. However, in certain parts of the world, including as we now know, within the western democratic secular societies, the manifestation of their emotions ranges from Salman Rushdie's book being banned and burnt, and him being banished into hiding out of fear for his life, to imprisonment of Christians in Pakistan and murder of those brave enough to stand by them.
French Muslims might not have approved of the caricatures published by Charlie Hebdo, but they did come out to support their right to publish such images in the spirit of liberty and free speech, without fear or intimidation. And what the rest of the Parisians showed the rest of the world as defiant supporters of free speech is the level of consideration they had for their Muslim co-participants. The outpouring of solidarity and mutual respect for each other as a result thereof must have been overwhelmingly palpable beyond standard measure.
The decision to omit having those caricatures from their banners and placards, was most certainly not taken out of fear of extremists just as political sloganeering was left behind at a time of national consensus such as this. No doubt this gesture has been well received by not just the French Muslims but all those around the word following the turn of events in France for the last few days. The respect held for the bastion of liberty and absolute freedom of expression must have grown immensely across the globe.
Charlie Hebdo have printed the caricatures in their first edition since the attacks, and why shouldn't they? Its good to see them bounce back. At the same time the goodwill gesture by the participants of the rally to refrain from using the images will remain etched in the memories of all those who were there, physically and in spirit.
We can hope that out of this horrific chapter in French history, the nation will turn a corner and continue down this path of harmony and sensitivity towards each other, and so will be a lesson for the rest of Europe and other nations suffering at the hands of bigoted extremists whose actions cause nothing but offence to the human race.