It is a year today since Islamist gunmen burst into the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, including eight of the magazine’s staff. A few days after the attack I was interviewed by the BBC. ‘Don’t you think’, the interviewer asked, ‘ that the degree of solidarity expressed towards Charlie Hebdo represents a turning in attitudes to free speech?’ ‘I doubt it’, I replied. ‘There may be expressions of solidarity now. But fundamentally little will change. If anything, the killings will only reinforce the idea that one should not give offence.’
A year on, my pessimism, unfortunately, seems justified. Shock and outrage at the brutal character of the slaughter led many in the immediate aftermath of the killings to close ranks with the slain. ‘Je Suis Charlie’ became the phrase of the day, to be found in every newspaper, in every Twitter feed, on demonstrations in cities across Europe. But none of this changed underlying attitudes to free speech, nor challenged the climate of censorship in any meaningful sense.
Indeed, many found it difficult even to show solidarity. Hardly had news begun filtering out about the Charlie Hebdo shootings, than there were those suggesting that the magazine was a ‘racist institution’ and that the cartoonists, if not deserving what they got, had nevertheless brought it on themselves through their incessant attacks on Islam.
Perhaps the most disgraceful refusal of solidarity came with the boycott by a host of writers – including Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Geoff Dyer – of the annual gala of PEN America in protest against the free speech organization’s decision to award the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Kushner said she was withdrawing because of Charlie Hebdo‘s ‘cultural intolerance’. Carey criticised ‘PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population’. When even writers, for whom free expression is a basic tool of the trade, refuse to show solidarity with those murdered for being too free in their expression, you know that we have a problem with the way we understand free speech.
There are many things of which one can reasonably accuse Charlie Hebdo: that it is puerile, perhaps, or naïve or too obsessed by anti-clericalism, and often not very funny. Many feel that it has lost its way in recent years, that it is no longer as radical as it once was. But whatever such criticism one might make, what Charlie Hebdo isn’t is racist. Suffused with the spirit of May 1968, Charlie Hebdo bursts with vitriol for all forms of elites, whether economic, political or clerical. Many accuse Charlie Hebdo of being obsessed with Islam. In fact, a study last February by Le Monde of Charlie Hebdo covers in a ten-year period from January 2005 to January 2015 showed that of 523 covers, only seven (or 1.3 per cent) were linked specifically to Islam. By contrast, three times as many covers – 21 – targeted Catholicism.
What of the claim, made by the cartoonist Garry Trudeau among others, that in mocking Islam, Charlie Hebdo was ‘punching down’, rather than ‘punching up’, attacking the weakest sections of society, not the strongest? It is one thing to suggest that satire works best when mocking those that deserved to be mocked. It is quite another to define who it is that deserves to be mocked.
There is certainly discrimination against, and hostility towards, Muslims. But that does not make any criticism of Islam a case of ‘punching down’. Minority communities are not homogenous groups. There are power relations within Muslim communities as well between Muslim communities and wider society. There are reactionaries within Muslim communities as there are outside of them.
What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights, fighting for democratic freedoms. For such progressive voices, challenging religion is no more ‘punching down’ than is challenging racism. It is such progressives whom we betray with the demand to censor offence.
France’s population of North African origin is often referred to by politicians and journalists as ‘Muslim’. It is, in fact, predominantly secular. Only 40 per cent call themselves ‘observant Muslims’, and barely one in four attends mosque. Many politicians, especially those on the right and the far right, use the label ‘Muslim’ for all French citizens of North African origin to justify discrimination, to cast them as the ‘Other’ and to suggest that they do not properly belong to France.
Such racism needs challenging; not by decrying criticisms of Islam, but by defending the rights of all those of North African origin, whether believers or non-believers, while also defending the rights, indeed recognizing the importance, of those who criticize or ridicule Islam.
Charlie Hebdo is fiercely hostile towards Islam. It is also fiercely hostile towards policies that discriminate against migrants and minorities. Over the past year it has lambasted the EU’s callous response to the migrant crisis. One cartoon, ridiculing Europe’s pretensions to be a Christian continent, showed a Jesus-like figure walking on the water ignoring a drowning child. ‘Christians walk on water’, the text read, ‘Muslim children sink’. The carton is captioned ‘Proof that Europe is Christian’. Another cartoon, suggesting that Europe was too obsessed by consumerism to worry about human lives, played on the harrowing photo of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. The cartoon showed a toddler face-down on the shoreline beside a MacDonald’s style advertising billboard offering two children’s meal menus for the price of one. ‘So close to making it…’ read the caption. An editorial denounced Europe’s ‘hypocritical response’ to the migrant crisis and compared today’s indifference to the plight of the migrants to attitudes toward Jews fleeing Nazis.
Charlie Hebdo’s campaign against the EU’s heartlessness is the latest in a long history of defence of minorities and migrants, from opposition to the DNA testing of migrants to campaigning against the demonization of the Roma. It is a record that I would wager stands up well against that of many of the critics who denounce the magazine as ‘racist’.
A magazine as anarchic as Charlie Hebdo, and one with no set editorial line, is inevitably a mixture of good and bad politics. There are many aspects of the magazine’s approach with which I disagree. Like many on the left in France, Charlie Hebdo has often expressed strong support for the policy of laïcité. ‘Laïcité’ is usually translated as ‘secularism’. It is as a secularist, however, that I oppose it. Secularism demands a separation of state and faith. Laïcité, on the other hand, refers to a form of state-enforced hostility to religion. It requires the state to intervene in matters of faith.
Support for laïcité is not, however, an expression of racism, anymore than opposition to laïcité is a mark of anti-racism. People can in good faith argue about the merits of laïcité. What one cannot argue in good faith is that Charlie Hebdo is a ‘racist institution’. Yet, good faith appears to be in short supply in the debate about Charlie Hebdo. When it published its cartoons about Europe’s response to the migrant crisis, thousands took to social medial to denounce the magazine – for ‘mocking migrants’. The mainstream media joined in. ‘Aylan Kurdi’s death mocked by Charlie Hebdo’, read the headline in the Toronto Sun. According to Britain’s Daily Mirror, ‘Charlie Hebdo publishes cartoons mocking dead Aylan Kurdi with caption ‘Muslim children sink’’. Britain’s Society for Black Lawyers even threatened to take Charlie Hebdo to the International Criminal Court for ‘incitement to hate crime and persecution’, its chair, Peter Herbert, claiming that the magazine ‘is a purely racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication that represents the moral decay of the French nation’.
What all this suggests is that the actual cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are, paradoxically, irrelevant to the campaign against the magazine. It is what Charlie Hebdo symbolizes as an institution that infuriates its critics. Its real crime is not racism but its challenge to what has become an unbreakable commandment for many contemporary liberals: ‘Thou shalt not cause offence’. As Mary-Kay Kilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, wrote in response to a letter that expressed ’deep disappointment’ at the LRB’s lack of response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, ‘I believe in the right not to be killed for something I say, but I don’t believe I have a right to insult whomever I please’.
Over the past two decades there has developed what we might call a moral commitment to censorship; the belief that because we live in a plural society, so we must police public discourse, and constrain speech so as not to give offence to different cultures and faiths. In the words of the British sociologist Tariq Modood, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’
The irony is while that this demand for censorship is often made in the name of anti-racism, those who most suffer from such a culture of censorship are minority communities themselves. In a plural society it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. It is inevitable because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And they are better resolved openly than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’. It is important because any kind of social change or social progress requires offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged, whether they be politicians or religious leaders. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.
The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority.
That is why free speech is particularly important to minority communities, and to those without power. Once we give up the freedom to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
The charge of ‘hate speech’ or of ‘punching down’ or in Garry Trudeau’s words, of ‘attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority’, has constantly been used as a way of silencing artists whose work challenges what some regard as unviolable ideas or beliefs. Critics of Salman Rushdie branded The Satanic Verses as ‘hate speech’. So did Sikh critics of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti. As did many Jewish critics of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children. (Trudeau himself was accused of anti-Semitism and of ‘maligning Judaism’ by the Anti-Defamation League for one of his Doonesbury cartoons, which makes his condemnation of Charlie Hebdo both ironic and troubling).
What is really racist is the idea that only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or can handle satire and ridicule. Those who claim that it is ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ to mock Islam, appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. It is here that leftwing ‘anti-racism’ joins hands with rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.
‘We feel terribly alone’, Charlie Hebdo’s financial director Eric Portheault said earlier this week. ‘We hoped that others would do satire too. No one wants to join us in this fight because it’s dangerous. You can die doing it.’
That is not quite true. In countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, writers and cartoonists constantly risk their lives saying the unsayable and challenging the idea that one should not offend religion. The murders of last year of five Bangladeshi bloggers for their supposed ‘blasphemies’ is testament to both the threat and the courage.
In an article in the magazine Artsforum on the response of writers, artists and cartoonists in Muslim-majority countries to the Charlie Hebdo killings, Beirut-based critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie observed that while many were critical of the magazine, most understood the attack on it as part of a wider attempt to silence freedom of expression:
Among artists in Cairo, Beirut, and Istanbul, the condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo killings was universal and unequivocal, as was the defense of free speech. In a region where intellectuals, journalists, and cartoonists have long been targeted for their work, people slotted the attacks into well-known narratives. The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, known for his withering critique of Arab leaders and the creation of his much-loved character Handala, was assassinated in London in the summer of 1987, shot in the face outside the office of the Kuwaiti newspaper where he worked. In 2011, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, a harsh critic of the Assad regime, was kidnapped and severely beaten; both of his hands were broken. During the Charlie Hebdo vigil in Beirut, people added on to the ‘Je suis Charlie’ hashtag: ‘Je suis Samir Kassir, Je suis Gebran Tueni, Je suis Riad Taha, Je suis Kamel Mroue’.
In the West, however, Portheault is right. Too many would rather denounce the giving of offence than the curtailment of speech; and not just through cowardice but because there has developed a moral commitment to censorship in the name of ‘tolerance’. A year on from the Charlie Hebdo killings, that remains the great betrayal.