Charlie Hebdo Europe’s Freedom Manifesto

In the wake of the deadly attack on French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” Europe needs a Manifesto of Freedom, writes Handelsblatt’s editor in chief.
We are all Charlie Hebdo.

The shots in Paris were shots against the free world. A world that has begun to turn away from the values of the Enlightenment. After the attack on the satire magazine “Charlie Hebdo” there is a need for new reflection and orientation.

Debates about freedom over the past few years have been abstract. Divorced from reality. They were about freedom instead of capitalism, freedom from the power of the banks, from the burden of taxes. But most freedoms that this Germany, this Europe, this West offer each day hardly need to be debated at all: the freedom to travel, freedom to work, freedom of capital, freedom of consumption, freedom of the press – all exist as essential elements of a civil society.

The terror in Paris made it clear that nothing about freedom should be taken for granted. The shots in the Rue Nicolas-Appert were shots against the free world, the attacks on the editorial offices of a satirical publication were attacks on our culture. Even more than the previous crimes of Islamist extremists – in Madrid, London or Brussels – the case of “Charlie Hebdo” makes it clear that at issue in Europe is now a “Manifesto of Freedom,” for self-determination in times of danger.

The fact that the central values of European culture were attacked in France’s metropolis, of all places, shows how urgently this self-determination is needed. Paris is the city, for example, where the colossal 2.60-by-3.25-meters painting “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix hangs in the Louvre, where the flag-bearing leader Marianne, surrounded by gunsmoke, serves as the symbol of the successful revolution of 1830. She represents something that freedoms are always about: the escape from immaturity or, more specifically, a life without constraints, but with the insight into the necessities of life. That July revolution took down a reactionary king and a power-conscious nobility, and in doing so secured what the forefathers in 1789 brought about with the storming of the Bastille: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – freedom, equality and fraternity. The divine right of kings was abolished.


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And Paris is the city of Voltaire, who brought the Prussians under Friedrich II the spirit of the Enlightenment and decided: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The murdered staff members at “Charlie Hebdo” cannot express themselves anymore, and neither can the doyens, Georges Wolinski, 80, and Jean Cabut, 76, who were there for so long. Persistent in their journalistic recalcitrance, both came out of the 1968 protest movement, a time that was addicted to freedom, and satirized Islam as much as the Catholic Church, which opposed them legally and steadily failed in court. Yes, freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently, German economist and socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote a century ago. A society that gives way when it comes to this key value has broken down. Sometimes caving in means surrendering.

Islamists, but not just them, are attacking the content of the Enlightenment. They want to blow up the foundation of this society, which admittedly over the past several years has, in a form of values dystonia, sometimes apparently not known the right path from the wrong one anymore.

Of all things, this is evident in the man whose caricature adorns the current issue of “Charlie Hebdo,” and is something of a literary scandal magnet in France: Michel Houellebecq. In his new novel, “Submission,” he details how in 2022 a Muslim president governs France. The president is supported by conservatives and social democrats, who in doing so want to impede the right-wing extremist Marine le Pen.

Considering that Muslims make up around 5 percent of the French population, Mr. Houellebecq also sees the unlikelihood that his satire could be realistic, but he wants to write something that will get people talking.


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The author buries the entire culture of discovery, knowledge and understanding of the past two-and-a-half centuries in single sentences in interviews, when he says: “One can put a cross behind the philosophy of the Enlightenment: deceased.” He sees it as “destruction” that philosophy makes sense to no one, or for only a very few.  As a striking example of this destruction, he cites the party candidate list of leftist extremist politician Olivier Besancenot, which features a veiled woman candidate.

The two brothers who went on a rampage in the editorial offices with their Kalashnikovs also did not have the philosophy of the Enlightenment in mind. They saw themselves as the avengers of the Prophet Mohammed, as the murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh saw himself more than a decade ago. Perpetrators such as these censor art and opinion in their own way, in an act of barbaric vigilante justice, whereas the concept of freedom is universal and indivisible. There is also a strange alliance of those like Houellebecq and fanatics doing something in the name of Allah.

We are not permitting this clash of civilizations to be imposed on us by others, we are accomplishing it ourselves, because many no longer want to believe in what made us great. Those who bury the Enlightenment, encourage everything that explains a complicated world with conspiracy theories and superstition. There is also the worrying revival of obscurantism – of purposely hiding the truth.

Freedom is judgment, not preconception.

Freedom is reason, not obsession.

Freedom is what one wants.

In the history of philosophy, the concept of freedom has been a central issue since antiquity, though at that time it was a privilege of the upper classes and the educated. The slaves and the conquered peoples had no part in it. It is the promise of modern societies that freedom applies to everyone – and that what is meant is not just a formal freedom, but rather a substantive freedom, which makes it possible in principle for anyone to advance in society and attain prosperity.

No one should be able to make daily life more difficult or thwart it for citizens living in freedom, and at the same time there should be the opportunity for self-realization. For Ralf Dahrendorf, it was “social freedom” that counted, including a minimum amount of social actions.

But what opportunities do Muslims have in France, a country that took in an above-average number of immigrants, primarily from its former colonies in Africa, Asia and America? The illusion from 1998, when the World Cup championship team with its many children of immigrants such as Zinédine Zidane and Thierry Henry served as a symbol for successful integration, died long ago.

Civil liberties end quickly where the banlieue slums begin, with their bad schools, high unemployment, and widespread criminal activity. The former French President Nicolas Sarkozy once wanted to clean out these places lacking freedom, these no-go areas of capitalism, with Kärcher high-pressure water cleaners. The German-made sprayers were meant to solve what weak social and integration policies did not achieve.

It is the promise of modern societies that freedom applies to everyone

Freedom without a fair chance for advancement, without the normal distribution of educational opportunities, has all the appeal of a hollow shell. There are other values that freedom must be paired with, such as safety. One can only be free if one does not have to fear for one’s life or well-being, which is guaranteed by public order, namely the state.

A crucial factor in the coming weeks will be how the governments of Europe on the one hand can offer citizens safety from attacks, while on the other hand preserve civil rights. They should not choose the wrong path pursued by the Americans after September 11, 2001, when the “Patriot Act” made it possible to quickly arrest Arabs or to search homes without any major judicial precautions.

Do we want even greater coverage of our inner cities with security cameras? Do we want hardly any limitations on accessing data, which is archived by the digital services in the modern computer era? “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” warned the American publisher, writer and statesman Benjamin Franklin. A balance of values belongs to a Manifesto of Freedom. They should not be threatened by the shocking events such as those at Charlie Hebdo.

And naturally an indicator of the quality of a society is that religious freedom remains preserved – the right to another faith. It would be a nightmare if, after the pursuit of atheists or agnostics by misguided Muslims, from now on other Muslims would be oppressed. That is the potential collateral damage: The danger of inflicting self-harm is possibly greater than the danger from the next possible attack.

In a free society, which is also marked by free markets, by discovery and invention, by action and change, the insights of the liberal British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill are once again applicable. In his book “On Liberty,” he explained that there should only be one reason why power can be exercised against the will of a member of a civilized society, and that is “to prevent harm to others.” That must be the measure.

And the thought left behind by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and the absurdist Albert Camus also applies: Everyone is damned to be free.

We must make what we can of that, especially if people died in the center of Paris in broad daylight only because they wanted to be free.

Hans Jürgen Jakobs is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt. He has studied economics and has previously worked for German magazine Der Spiegel and newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He is the author of several books. To contact him: [email protected]