This past week has seen more tragedy than most, even after a year of worsening Islamist violence. Public condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo murders has been universal, and most of the discussion surrounding the attack has centred on the conviction of the paper to publish their views in spite of credible and eventually fatal death threats from Islamists.
Most of this coverage has been admirable of the paper, or if disagreeing with the paper as either puerile or offensive, respectful of the courage all of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo require to speak their mind and scribble for the journal. Nevertheless, a minority have made it clear that whilst they also condemn the murders, their condemnation is qualified, usually in the form “They didn’t deserve to be killed, but…”. The ‘but’ refers to their disgust at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, and necessarily following from that, disgust that people are supporting or praising the paper following the murder of most of the editorial team. For this minority, the attack on freedom of speech by violent Islamists is a trivial concern – the priority is instead criticising Charlie Hebdo for their sense of humour. This is an attempt to shift the focus of the discussion away from the murdered journalists and police officers and towards the sensibilities of this minority and their taste in cartoons.
Some brief, tweeted examples:
“Deliberately producing something you know is racist and offensive still makes you an ass. There are no heroes here.” https://twitter.com/Babseth/status/553195840261459968
“I find it hard to get riled up about a guy who got killed for doing hate speech when Islamophobia kills Muslims regularly” https://twitter.com/AtlasSmugged/status/553080331176529920
“The real problem and cause of the violence is the eurocentric cultural supremacy that nurtured
#CharlieHebdo‘s #Islamophobia.” https://twitter.com/shawncarrie/status/553017257002283009
“Killing journalists for what they say is despicable. Spreading bigotry under guise of “satire” is also despicable. Both are wrong.” https://twitter.com/adamhudson5/status/553067268125368320
Longer, less crude pieces have also been written – these set out to move the immediate focus away from the murder and Islamist violence towards ‘The Real Problem’ of Western foreign policies in the Muslim world and anti-Muslim bigotry in the West (usually linked together, and always as opposed to an additional or related problem concerning the murders). The idea that this is somehow an attack on free speech is also dismissed:
“These images then, can be played down as just a ‘bit of fun’ as no doubt the least perceptive of you will try to argue, or it can be seen through the prism of the war on terror — just another front on the war against Islam that has claimed so many lives — and the demonology behind it.”
“When faced with a terrorist attack against a satirical newspaper, the appropriate response seems obvious. Don’t let the victims be silenced. Spread their work as far as it can possibly go. Laugh in the face of those savage murderers who don’t understand satire.
In this case, it is the wrong response.
Here’s what’s difficult to parse in the face of tragedy: yes, Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper. Its staff is white. Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.”
“I am not, in case I didn’t make it perfectly clear up top, saying the staff of Charlie Hebdo “asked for it” or “deserved” to get shot. The public discourse isn’t between people who think they “asked for it” and people who don’t—it’s entirely among people who agree that the violence was unacceptable, but some of whom feel that this obligates them to elevate Charlie Hebdo to heroes and to hold up “Je Suis Charlie” signs, and others who don’t.
Charlie Hebdo weren’t asking to be shot. They were asking for a reaction, though, and for half a century now they’ve been surviving pretty much on the notoriety of constantly trying to provoke a reaction. And let’s be real: pushing buttons, by itself, doesn’t make your work more virtuous. Pissing people off is just pissing people off.”
“No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But [!], we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.”
Several assumptions run through all of these attitudes. Most obvious is the idea that it is impossible to support Charlie Hebdo without being a crypto-bigot. This would be a surprise to the many Muslims, secular or pious, who have written in support of and turned out to the #JeSuisCharlie rallies in France and around the world, the Arab and Muslim cartoonists who drew comics in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and Charlie Hebdo’s sub-editor, Moustapha Ourad, who was killed in the attack. These examples are only the easiest way of demonstrating that there is no relationship between support for the paper and Islamophobia. Whilst there have already been racist reprisals against the Muslim community in Europe and the wider West, responsibility for these belongs only to those who are inciting and committing that violence. For one to say #JeSuisCharlie is not to side with the European far-right, just as much as standing up for Muslims is clearly not to side with the Islamist far-right.
Another assumption is that Charlie Hebdo was guilty in its satire of Islamists of “punching down”:
“satire doesn’t work when you’re punching down. that’s just punching someone you’ve got pinned and laughing at them while you’re doing it” https://twitter.com/m_kopas/status/553066998469787648
“It’s not JUST satire. It’s never JUST satire. It’s rooted in racist ideologies that perpetuate violent harm on innocent people.” https://twitter.com/loredsaviour/status/553054723180609536
“Satire is about punching up against oppressive powers, not punching down on marginalized groups in society. Stop defending it.” https://twitter.com/FunkyreFresh/status/552936563311906817
Almost the entirety of Charlie Hebdo’s output is dedicated to punching upwards, and they devote far more space to appropriately monstrous caricatures of the Le Pen family and each member of the French establishment than they do for Islamists. Whether their satire is tasteful or not bears no relevance on whether we should qualify our support for Charlie Hebdo in the aftermath of the murders. The attackers have stated that they did not attack the paper because of racist cartoons about a black slave on a leash or Boko Haram’s sex slaves demanding benefits, but specifically because of the paper’s willingness to mock Islamists.
Islamists are not a powerless or victimised minority. That they are repressed and jokes are told about them in both the West and the Muslim world is not prejudice but rejection. The paper was chosen because of both this rejection and as it was considered a soft target of liberalism, as the Jewish schools in Toulouse, the Belgian Holocaust Museum, and the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party all were.
However, what is truly central to the position that Charlie Hebdo should be opposed in the aftermath of the murders is a scepticism, even suspicion of free speech. It goes without saying that the cartoons are deserving of criticism in a society with free speech, and that position has been well-argued in France for years prior. But, free speech as a value is sneered at by these people as a matter of pride, as a way of demonstrating antagonism towards mainstream politics and liberalism:
“Dear the press, I get that your freeze peach is very important to you, but it does mostly seem to be other people’s religions you desecrate.” https://twitter.com/auntysarah/status/552978257361260544
“Gee, I can’t believe how often defenders of ‘free speech’ and bigots intersect. I mean…what are the odds?” https://twitter.com/daniecal/status/553052648589787137
“These murders are understandably being seen as an attack on free expression; if nothing else, this tragedy is considerably more serious than the last free speech martyr we collectively anointed, in the form of a dreadful Seth Rogen film.
But the ever lingering threat, already rapidly swelling up in commentary online around the world, is that of an equally violent [sic] reactionary backlash that — unlike Islamic extremists — cloaks itself in the lofty rhetoric of democracy and liberty…. All this screaming beneath a banner of “Free Speech.” ”
For a political position which claims to place such a strong emphasis on empathy, it has been sorely lacking on the far-Left in recent days. That all of the journalists were murdered over a difference of opinion is apparently irrelevant; instead, I have seen a far greater effort on the demonstration on far-Left credentials through the condemnation of Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech than on solidarity with democrats and anti-Islamists. More importantly, in criticising the cartoons in response to an outpouring of sympathy for Charlie Hebdo, it is implied that their deaths are less important than if those cartoons had never been drawn.
“Those criticising Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are implying that the victims are unworthy of sympathy whilst denying they’re doing such a thing.” https://twitter.com/JoeMiles94/status/553218280241242112
This is the heart of the opposition towards people celebrating free speech in defiance of Islamist violence – that ultimately, people who disagree with the far-Left are worth less as people, and the legitimacy of what they have to say is devalued as a result. This perspective is far more dangerous to freedom of speech than violent lunatics, as rather than arguing the problem with freedom of speech is a cartoon mocking Islamist demagoguery, freedom of speech is instead criticised as a flawed value. It is what prompts the usage of ‘Freeze Peaches’ or “Free Speech” in quotation marks. This, not gun-toting maniacs, is the real threat to freedom of speech over the coming weeks and months – that Charlie Hebdo’s insistence on satirising Islamism makes them too irreverent for their principles to be defended. They and their values must be.