Remembering Charlie Hebdo (and Defending Offensive Jokes)

    By Malhar Mali | 7 January 2017
    Areo Magazine

    The front cover of the Charlie Hebdo edition marking a year since it was attacked by Islamic terrorists was criticised by the Vatican – because it offends all faiths.

    Two years ago, two gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine known for unashamedly lampooning religions, politicians, and famous figures, and demanded, “Where is Charb? Where is Charb?” referring to Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor-in-chief. After spotting the bespectacled man, they opened fire — killing the 12 cartoonists, writers, and editors in the meeting and leaving an additional policeman dead outside. The cause for the attack? Charlie Hebdo had a history of publishing cartoons of the Islamic Prophet, Mohammad, even incurring a firebombing in 2011 for their depictions of the Muslim holy figure. Grainy video footage later emerged of one of the attackers shouting: “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have killed Charlie Hebdo.”

    In the following days, condemnation for the massacre and support for Charlie Hebdo poured out from all parts of the Western world, including a 3.7 million person march in support of free speech which featured the likes of David Cameron, Benjamin Netanyahu, Angela Merkel, and Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. #JeSuisCharlie trended on Twitter.

    But then came the opposition: mainly stating that this wasn’t a free-speech issue — and while the murders were horrific, we should not celebrate such a racist magazine.

    Mehdi Hassan complained in an article for The New Statesman that free speech fundamentalists showed hypocrisy and that “None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech,” and then went onto ask, “Has your publication, for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No? How about caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the twin towers? I didn’t think so (and I am glad it hasn’t).” I can’t be sure if Hassan understands what a false equivalency is, but is he comparing the caricaturing of Mohammed with satirizing the slaughter of 5–6 million people? Or an orchestrated terrorist attack? Cartoons, which, in my opinion would have been fine to draw (I’ll address the point about offense later).

    Glenn Greenwald apparently did not see this distinction either and lectured his audience at The Intercept about how free speech should not be used as a guise to share “racist cartoons.” Greenwald continuously conflated criticism of Islam with bigotry towards Muslims. He deflected the conversation to Jews and Judaism and republished cartoons criticizing Jews, writing:

    “Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. If forced, they can point to rare and isolated cases where they uttered some criticism of Judaism or Jews, but the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews.”

    I know Greenwald’s piece is two years old, but it’s astounding that he could not see that the majority of the terrorist attacks in the world come from the adherents of a particular religion and that criticism should be appropriately rationed in response. If Greenwald wants to publish cartoons mocking Jews and Israel — fine with me. It’s his right.

    But the reality is that publishing cartoons of the holocaust and Jews might have caused disharmony, criticism, and a loss of job prospects for the cartoonists involved (as Greenwald mentioned), but the publishers of such cartoons would certainly not be fearing for their lives as they would if they’d drawn the prophet Mohammed.

    Christopher Hitchens hammered out this point when he was invited onto CNN to comment on the unrest caused by Jyllands Posten, after the Danish newspaper under the guidance of Flemming Rose, published cartoons of Mohammed in 2006:

    “Now I know, as well as you do, that you have not done that [pixelate the images of Mohammed] in order to avoid sparing the hurt feelings of my fellow guest [his debate partner was Muslim]. You’ve done it because you’re afraid of retaliation and intimidation.”

    The reporter later confirmed Hitchens’ framing by saying:

    “CNN’s decision to pixelate these [Mohammed cartoons] — you’re right. [Was] partly based on fear of reprisal against our staff, but also partly based on fear of offending.” 

    Apply this same methodology to the New York Time’s Editor-in-chief Dean Baquet’s claim that the Times did not reprint the 2015 cartoons because it did not want to “offend religious sensibilities,” and you only get a murkier view of the waters — and the NYT’s position.

    To Hassan and Greenwald, I say the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was a free speech issue specifically because of why they were killed. They were gunned down because they refused to cower in the face of criticism, litigations, and personal threats to their lives — and continued to draw Mohammed, just as they had drawn many other religious figures.

    They were not exterminated because they were Jewish and thought to be ethnically inferior, they were not killed because they happened to be inside the Twin Towers when men guided airliners full of people into them (as Hassan might conveniently lump together).

    They were assassinated because of what they stood for, and how they refused to stop writing, drawing, and making jokes in the face of real intimidation.

    Greenwald and Hassan are so quick to shirk away from blaming ideology that anything — anything — else counts as the reason for attacks. For Hassan it was that the murderous brothers were “disaffected young men” who had been radicalized by the Iraq War. Never mind that there is video footage of them shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have killed Charlie Hebdo.” I wonder if Hassan or Greenwald ever considered that Islam’s strong tradition of aniconism had anything to do with the attacks?

    To the point of republishing the cartoons: I don’t think it’s right to compel any publication to republish them. I agree, in part, with Greenwald and the stance that the editors of The Guardian took: affirming the right to free speech does not mean you have to share what is said. But I contest that this case was different. Many people felt the decision of numerous papers to not republish was cowardly — specifically because of what the attack represented: one on free speech, free expression, and free press.

    Their objection also was that Charlie Hebdo was racist — and that it focused unfairly on Muslims. They are wrong on both charges. Jean-François Mignot and Céline Goffette conducted an analysis on Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons from 2005–2015 in La Monde and found that only 20% of it’s cartoons focused on Islam with more than half of it’s focus on the Catholic Church. If Charlie Hebdo was obsessed with anything  it was with drawing Nicolas Sarkozy and, to a lesser extent, Le Pen and Francois Hollande. It’s troubling to think that commentators who claim to be liberals and on the Left hand side of the aisle are so obtuse when writing off a magazine which has focused most of it’s scope on ridiculing the far-Right, religious authority, and aggressive politicians.

    For writers so intent on understanding the “context” of things, it seems the context of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons slipped through Hassan and Greenwald’s hands. Take the depiction of the prophet Mohammed. To think that drawing a religious prophet in a crude way — one that is not meant to be depicted — is to condemn all of his followers is surely even beyond Greenwald’s line of thinking. Yet, that is a line he blurred continuously. Adam Gopnik covered this distinction in The New Yorker, noting:

    “When the Charlie cartoonists made Muhammad look foolish, they were not saying that Muslims were evil — they were questioning the entire business of turning a person into a prophet. Not to get this is not to get why they were cartoonists.”

    But, months later the ordeal continued at the PEN Gala when writers objected to Charlie Hebdo receiving the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The novelist Teju Cole said that in recent years Charlie Hebdo had “gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.” 145 writers signed a letter protesting the award.

    A woman reads Charlie Hebdo in Saint Germain en Laye, France. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

    As an erudite commenter, Joyce Arthur, noted on Greenwald’s piece, what these critics are unable to do is differentiate blasphemy from racism — and distinguish how Charlie Hebdo engaged in the former. Blasphemy is a criticism of doctrines, religious figures, and practices, while racism is hate and intolerance directed towards an identifiable group based on immutable characteristics of identity. The first is an essential freedom that is granted across most of the Western world while the latter is usually considered hate speech.

    Take another example: the shock when Hebdo recreated the moment Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on shore with the commentary: “What would little Aylan have grown up to be? An ass groper in Germany.” There was hysteria, chiding, derision in response to the cover. What the perpetually outraged failed to understand is that Hebdo was targeting  the far-Right’s view that all migrants are potential sexual predators waiting to attack — even children. Was it tasteless? Perhaps. Did it serve a purpose? Apparently not. The meaning was lost amongst the outrage.

    Though the #JeSuisCharlie movement galvanized support for free expression in 2015, it seems to have spluttered out in the past two years. The media enforcement of a de-facto blasphemy law on Louis Smith for mocking Islam, the reaction to Milo Yiannopoulos’ controversial book deal (which has only played into his hands), and comedians coming under fire for controversial work (Mike Ward was fined $42,000 by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal for making fun of disabled boy, a German comedian was nearly prosecuted because he lambasted Erdogan, and comics, in general, avoiding college campuses) are only a few examples of the effects of a culture of indignation which still persists.

    The latest kerfuffle for this honor brigade? BBC’s show, Revolting, featuring a mini-skit called The Real Housewives of Isis which satirizes the experiences of women who leave the West to join ISIS through the framework of The Real Housewives series (which includes cheesy music and catty, trivial spats). Funny, right? Make fun of a murderous death cult and willingly idiotic brides by using the lens of a vapid, vain TV show; ridicule and shame the idea of leaving behind a cushy life for the reincarnation of the 7th century hell-hole that is Islamic State occupied land.

    You wouldn’t think so based on some reactions. Though there was a mix of condemnation and support, navigating through the comments on the skit, I found the usual pearl clutchers who claimed this was horrible, Islamophobic, and an affront to all Muslims (wait, I thought ISIS had nothing to do with Islam?).

    Stéphane Charbonnier actually addressed the position and the mindset of the likes of Greenwald, Hassan, Cole, outrage addicts, and the writers who signed the letter against Charlie Hebdo’s award in his short book, Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expressionwriting:

    “… when the TV says it’s a provocation, there’s always some group of morons out there ready to consider themselves provoked. If the press calls it a scandal, someone out there will be scandalized. Who are these Islamophobes? They’re the ones who claim that Muslims are stupid enough to get bent out of shape over some ridiculous drawing. Islamophobia is a market… for the press that promotes it.”

    This is why Flemming Rose decided to re-publish the Mohammed cartoons in 2006 — because he sensed a growing shroud of self-censorship (probably by those so intent to bear the burden of outrage for others). While commentators and authors in this field obsess — in sometimes self-flagellating thought processes — over how we’re to blame for the terrorist events and occurrences due to the way our societies marginalize minorities socially, economically, legally, etc., they fail to account the impact special accommodations would actually have on sentiments towards said communities.

    Depicting Mohammed in the West is essentially an argument for group rights over individual ones. If community X and Y’s religion and holy figure is fair game, why is community Z’s off limits? It should be as Salman Rushdie said in response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings, “Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.” And none should be exempt.

    What Charlie Hebdo engaged in was just that: lambasting stupid, religious ideas. But for this they were considered racists, disturbers of the peace, and bigots.

    But the publication today seems to be bowing to pressure — from both Islamic extremists and the outrage merchants. Zineb El Rhazoui, who worked under Charbonnier, claimed recently “Charlie Hebdo died on January 7,” noting that Hebdo now follows the editorial line demanded by extremists (Mohammed is no longer depicted). The magazine’s current editor, Riss, also said: “If we did a front cover showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed now, who would defend us?” adding, “we get the impression that people have become even more intolerant of Charlie.” It’s sad to see a publication that once carried “the torch of irreverence and absolute liberty” begin to falter.

    What Hebdo’s critics and those not willing to defend them (the writers, commentators, and authors) do not realize is that free speech does come with a cost. But it is a cost that we should be willing to pay and bear. Because free speech is the mechanism which allows us to maintain a functioning and civil society. It is our most cherished liberal value which, sadly, progressives and self defined “liberals” are more than happy to throw away at the thought of hurt feelings and “marginalization.” It is astounding to me that anyone in their right mind can even consider calling for a curtailment of free speech on the grounds of offense. What else is it for? Gopnik covers it again in the New Yorker, writing:

    “An assault on an ideology is not merely different from a threat made to a person; it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.”

    I don’t mean to boil down without care: but offense is not given it is taken. Who controls what is hate-speech? It’s cartoons one day and then books the next; an even messier proposition when the state gets involved.

    Don’t like what someone says? Don’t listen to it. Don’t like what someone is going to write? Don’t purchase the book. Don’t enjoy a crass and offensive movie? Don’t go to a theater and pay to view it.

    Don’t like what someone has drawn? Don’t go out and murder them for it.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Malhar Mali writes about secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. He is the Editor at Areo. You can connect with him on Twitter @MalharMali.

    Sam Harris On Charlie Hebdo

    Jacob Mchangama – The West’s Attack on Free Speech

    Flemming Rose – Free Speech in a Globalized World

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