I first heard of Charlie Hebdo only this week, when the attack on their offices was breaking news. I don’t understand French, nor am I a scholar of Islam, so I cannot truly judge either how distasteful or funny the cartoons are. However, I do know that tasteful or not no one deserves to die for expressing an idea. Also, religious zealots of any religion should not have a veto over what ideas can and cannot be discussed. If zealots of one stripe can dictate terms of acceptable discourse you tacitly extend the courtesy to zealots of all persuasions. This is not a hypothetical slippery slope but something that has actually happened in India.
In the late 80’s the Congress led government under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in their infinite wisdom decided to ban the import of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses because they deemed that the book might hurt the feeling of some in India’s Muslim community. Since Penguin’s Indian imprint had already decided not to publish The Verses in India due to its content, the book was de facto banned in India. In fact India became the first country to ban the Verses.
Since 1988, many other books have either been outright banned or pulled from the shelves in India. Fiction, non-fiction, anything is fair game. Anything that anyone, especially the emboldened Hindu right wing parties find remotely uncomfortable gets banned in India these days. This list includes pulp fiction like The Da Vinci code or a non-fiction doorstop about the alternative history of Hinduism by Wendy Doniger and books on Shivaji and Gandhi. This ridiculousness does not stop with books on religion and historical figures, among the banned books are books about an airline and another one about a the rags to riches story about the textile baron, Dhirubhai Ambani. Here is Wikipedia’s list of the books that are not freely available in India.