Paris–And Then?

EDITORIAL, 12 Jan 2015

#358 | Johan Galtung, 12 Jan 2015 - TRANSCEND Media Service

What happened–known all over the world–is totally unacceptable and inexcusable. As inexcusable as 9/11, the coming Western attack and the Islamist retaliation, wherever. As inexcusable as the Western coups and mega-violence on Muslim lands since Iran 1953, massacring people as endowed with personality and identity as French cartoonists. But to the West they are not even statistics; “military secrets”.

However, the unacceptable is not unexplainable.

In this tragic saga of West-Islam violence, spiraling downwards, the way out is to identify the conflict, what is this violence about, and search for solutions. I wonder how many now pontificating on Paris–a city so deep in our hearts–have taken the trouble to sit down with someone identified with Al Qaeda, simply asking, “what does the world look like where you would like to live?” I always get the same answer: “a world where Islam is not trampled upon but respected.”

“Trampled upon” sounds physically violent. But there are two types of direct violence intended to harm, hurt: physical violence with arm-arms-army; and verbal violence, with words, symbols. For instance with cartoons, with a touch of art giving them some impunity; for some. A human being–body, mind, spirit–can be hit somatically, mentally, spiritually. Maybe symbolic violence even hits more deeply?

The naiveté in blaming the secret police for not having uncovered the brothers on time is crying to the heavens. What happened to Charlie Hebdo was as predictable as the reaction to the cartoon in Jyllandsposten, whose cultural editor thought he should save Danish media from the self-censorship he had found in Soviet journalists. But one thing is political criticism of and in the former USSR, quite another is existential stabbing right in the heart of the basis of existence. The French wisely invented the expression raison d’être, the reason for existing, deeply embedded in French culture like satire: listen.

Undermine the spiritual existence of others–like Charlie Hebdo did all over the spiritual world–but there may be reactions to that verbal violence. Some of the others deeply hurt by Charlie Hebdo and its cultural autism, sitting in some office sending poisoned arrows anywhere, may celebrate the atrocity; inside themselves, not publicly.

The West has one presumably killing argument in favor of verbal violence for spiritual killing: freedom of expression. A wonderful freedom, deeply appreciated by those who have something to express. And very easily undermined, not by censorship by self or some Other, but by freedom of non-impression, the freedom not to be impressed: let expression happen, let them talk and write but do not listen and read, make them non-persons. Nevertheless, a major achievement of, by and for the West more than elsewhere.

How simple life would be if that freedom were the only norm governing expression! Say or write anything about others as if they were stones, inanimate objects, unimpressed by oral and written expression. But human beings are not. Of course the targets of verbal violence can opt for the freedom of non-impression, shutting themselves off from the perpetrators, neither read, nor listen. Do we really want that, a society now polarized by cartoons–in those who laugh and enjoy, and those who are hurt, suffering deeply?

We do not, and that is why there is another value, norm, in the land of expression: consideration. Decency. Respect for life. We have libel laws asking not only “is it true?” but “is it relevant?” to cut down nastiness in for instance political “debate”. We rule out hate speech, propaganda for torture, genocide, war, child pornography. Some people enjoy public sex talk, others do not, that is why we have limitations. Some people unable to argue about issues insult persons instead; that is why they are often–perhaps not often enough–called to order: stick to the issue, where is the beef, the question!

Many, unable to understand or argue with converts to Islam in France, overstep norms of decency instead. The easy way out. Should I add “for the feeble-minded”? No, but I do say for the inconsiderate.

Islam retaliated, and in Paris overstepped its own rule about doing so mercifully. No Muslim can retaliate with spiritual killing of Judaism-Christianity since they believe in both as the “incomplete message”. They killed bodies in return for spiritual killing instead.

Incidentally, there is somebody else doing the same: the USA, very attentive to critical words as indicative not only of somebody being anti-American, but even a threat to America, to be eliminated. Could the “freedom of expression” also be a tool to lure, smoke them out in the open, making them available for killing by snipers?

How should the Islamic side have handled the issue? The way they tried, and to some extent managed, in Denmark: through dialogue. They should have invited the Charlies to private and public dialogues, explaining their side of the cartoon issue, appealing to a common core of humanity in us all. There is no argument against humor and satire as such, but there is against verbal violence hitting, hurting, harming others.

The Islamic side should also control better its own recourse to self-defense by violence: only legitimate if declared by appropriate Muslim authority. That the West fails to do so–just look at the enormities of violence unleashed upon Islam since 1953–is no excuse for Islam to sink down to Western governmental levels; using democracy as a blanket check for war.

The two sides have millions, maybe billions of common people who can easily agree that the key problem is violence by extremist governments and others. The task is to let such voices come forward with concrete ideas. Like the next Charlie on line hiring a Muslim consultant to draw a border between freedom and inconsideration? It could have saved many lives, in Paris and where the West retaliates.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He is author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Jan 2015.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Paris–And Then?, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

8 Responses to “Paris–And Then?”

  1. […] This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 January 2015:  TRANSCEND Media Service – TMS: Paris–And Then? […]

  2. Johan Galtung justifies the atrocity against Charlie Hebdo as answer of its “agression” against muslimer faith and of course this is simply wrong. This is in fact the liberty of expression which is in question. This is a good answer to Galtung discourse: (in French) You may not agree with me and with my way of speech and your answer has to be in the same class of “agretion” if you believe there is any and for this there is one thing called “justice”. Tarcisio

  3. rosemerry says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I am staggered by the hypocritical behaviour of the warmongers here in Europe, and the pretence of “freedom” as an excuse for their treatment of Muslims in so may other countries as well as here in France..

  4. anna says:

    I am so glad to read your comment. I was shocked, sad,horrified, angry as anyone about the massacre in Paris. But in all the comments, news, informations I was missing the reflection if ethically we can allow , tolerate that persons are offended, umiliated, injured, made ridicolous in their very deep feelings, as religious feelings. Liberty of expression yes, but if we can have a little bit more of peace in this world we should consider that moderation in this matter should be a first step in stopping confrontation with tasteless, vulgar caricatures.These my simple worda in my not so good english.I thank you for your thoughts.

  5. satoshi says:

    How to deal with the relation between freedom of expression/speech and cultural, religious and/or political reverence is a difficult and subtle problem.

    One of the examples:
    Independent Catholic News ( and other mass media on 9 January 2015 reports,
    Quote (from

    “Pope Francis concluded his homily by stressing that only the Holy Spirit can teach us how to love and free us from our hardened hearts.
    “You can follow a thousand catechism courses, a thousand spirituality courses, a thousand yoga or zen courses and all these things. But none of this will be able to give you the freedom as a child (of God).”


    Is Pope’s statement as such considered as an exercise of freedom of expression/speech or considered as an offensive to yoga culture/Hinduism and Zen Buddhism? Should the Vatican hire a Hinduism consultant and a Zen Buddhism consultant (as Prof. Galtung refers to “Like the next Charlie on line hiring a Muslim consultant”) to draw a border between freedom and inconsideration?

    Think the other way around:
    What if an authoritative figure of Hinduism or Zen Buddhism said, “You can follow a thousand catechism courses, a thousand Bible study courses, a thousand Catholic theology or Holy Spirit retreat courses and all these things. But none of this will be able to give you the enlightenment”?

    If that could be the case, would it be considered as an exercise of freedom of expression or considered as an offensive to Catholic (what Prof. Galtung might call “inconsideration”)?

    Another example:
    It is about the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo’s cover-page. Mohammed holds a sign of “Je suis Charlie”. Is this cover-page an exercise of freedom of expression or an offensive to Islam (of what Prof. Galtung might call “inconsideration”)?

    Think the other way around:
    What if an Islamic magazine sarcastically points out money scandals, sex scandals and the decades of covering-up of these scandals of Catholic Church and shows Jesus Christ (or Pope Francis) holds a sign of “Je suis Charlie” on its cover-page? If that could be the case, would it be considered as an exercise of freedom of expression or considered as an offensive to Catholic Church/Jesus Christ/Pope Francis (of what Prof. Galtung might call “inconsideration”)?

    This debate must go on. The Charlie Hebdo attack, though how it is a tragic incident, has presented an imperative opportunity for those who wish to live in the society of liberty/human rights, to think (or rethink) about freedom of expression/speech. This problem contains lots of contentions, including “Whose liberty?”, “Whose human rights?” and more.

  6. satoshi says:

    The highest standard of freedom of expression requires the highest standard of ethics of expression. The norms of human rights include both legal aspects and ethical aspects. The society of liberty/human rights, therefore, requires the people to respect both of these aspects. This requirement is not a restriction; it is a fundamental condition for enabling the people to exercise the right of freedom of expression at the maximum level without infringing other people’s human rights.

  7. Richard Kane says:

    I don’t think that Charlie Hebdo’s insults not being banned was the flash point for extremists but the way so many in the West cheered him.

    We are unnecessarily putting ourselves in a corner, if we think the only choices is to choose between cheering and banning. I think we might understand more if we dwell on insults in general, about those who delight in taking risks for the purpose of upsetting sensitive humans or even dangerous creatures instead of only religious freedom.

    Fred Philps who founded Westboro Baptist Church believed God’s wrath over the lack of tradition morality is the reason war heroes have died and was the reason he picketed funerals to get his point of view out,
    The ACLU and others, including myself, believe we live in a slightly better country because he was allowed the freedom of speech to irritate relatives of the deceased. However, on the commotion his church caused we were spared the graphic displays of his hateful signs all over the media or comments claiming his church members were brave, even heroic. We can affirm our Western interpretation of freedom of speech without making those who take risks only for the purpose of upsetting others to be heroes. If we stop claiming our views are superior there would be far less mileage.

    Steve Irwin liked to handle dangerous animals in front of spectators. He hit the international news when he fed crocodiles while holding his infant son in his arms. Later he died of a poisoned string ray. Somehow that makes him a hero by dying in pursuit of his life’s work. His now ten-year-old son in the following link is feeding crocodiles while his trainer holds him back a little,
    It is a shame that his son and others have to see Steve Irwin as a hero. On a broader sense it is a shame that we let terrorists and assassins choose who are heroes are.

    We can affirm our Western interpretation of freedom of speech without making those who take risks only for the purpose of upsetting others to be heroes. If we stop claiming our views are superior there would be far less mileage

    Malala Yousafzai upset extremists in pursuit of education. I want to join those who call her a hero. Her goal wasn’t to educate people away from religious belief, despite the Taliban’s misunderstanding. However, “Satanic Verses” besides the title of Salman Rushdie’s most noted book are contentious Muslim-oriented documents similar to “the Lost Books of the Bible”. I am glad Salman and Malala are still alive, but only Malala do I consider a hero.

    We are giving into terrorists if we allow them to be an excuse to give away our liberties, and we are giving in if we allow them to choose, even if not intentional, the wrong heroes for us to emulate, and teach our children with.

    More at,