The world mourns the killings of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo and denounces this heinous crime, but in their own way the cartoonists were as extreme as the terrorists who gunned them down.
Whatever you wrote on Facebook in the last few days, one thing cannot be denied: it has been a horrible few days in France and a horrific start to the year. In a span of 53 hours France saw its worst terrorist violence in half a century after 20 people were killed, including the three gunmen whose murderous rampage in this unprecedented attack shocked France and the world.
What comes after is not so black and white. We cannot condone this ruthless savagery witnessed in France but we also cannot condone many of the works of Charlie Hebdo. The two situations are cousins, yet light years apart.
No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not have been raided by gun-wielding murderers. And no, the journalists should not have been executed. Full stop.
That is clear.
It is now difficult to begin the next sentence with “But”. There is, however, no other way.
“But” the way in which Charlie Hebo represents Islam is racist. The cartoons are offensive and bigoted. They go far beyond maligning the name of Islam. They contain what has been for years a stream of mockery and ridicule towards Muslims generally.
If the intent is to insult, then is it really such a shock that people could feel insulted? Of course, intent to provoke does not justify over-reaction of any kind, including violence.
“But” Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are obviously explicitly designed to provoke.
When the Danish cartoons of 2005 killed over 200 people in riots, what did Charlie Hebdo do at the time? It reprinted the cartoons. When over 50 people were killed because of the low-budget 2012 American production ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ which denigrated the Prophet Muhammad, what did Charlie do at the time? It published another lampoon of the prophet.
This is not just deliberate provocation but incitement to violence. That is a crime punishable by law.
There’s a crucial difference between solidarity with the journalists who were gunned down, refusing to concede to the idea that journalists are somehow legitimate targets, or are not free to publish what they want, and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.
Terror incidents like in Paris lead many Westerners to perceive Islam as inherently extremist, but that is simply not fair. Small numbers of terrorists make headlines, but they aren’t representative of this diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents. So let’s avoid religious profiling. Muslims are not to blame for 9/11, or because an anti-Muslim fanatic murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, and nor are they to be blamed for what happened in France this week. The vast majority of Muslims of course have nothing to do with the insanity of such attacks — except that they are disproportionately the victims of such terrorism. Fanatical Muslims damage the image of Islam far more than the most vituperative cartoonist.
For the majority of Muslims, Islam is an important part of their daily lives. Cartoons depicting Islam negatively, then, end up giving Muslims a preconceived sense that their core values are under attack
None of this is reason to stop mourning the horrific murders in Paris or to excuse it in any way. The horrifying assassinations at the magazine’s office and later of hostages in a supermarket resulted in justifiable outrage around the world.
“But” no mainstream Western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for purposes of satire, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career. Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim commentary and cartoons are a dime a dozen in Western media outlets; the taboo that is at least as strong, if not more so, are anti-Jewish images and words.
Like Bill Maher and other anti-Islam obsessionists, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely ever do. When cornered, they can point to very few 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.
The West has spent years bombing, invading and occupying Muslim countries and anti-Muslim hate speech has been a vital catalyst in sustaining support for those policies. So it cannot possibly be surprising to see the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons and large numbers of Westerners celebrating the works — not on the grounds of free speech, mind you, but due to approval of the content. Defending free speech is always easy when you like the content of the ideas being espoused, or aren’t part of, or actively dislike, the group being maligned.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. How many people do you know or have read about want to be a volunteer Voltaire: willing to die for the beliefs of perhaps a total stranger – and without even agreeing with what he’s saying? Very dramatic but, let’s face it, extremely rare.
Beyond this is the question of where Islam stands vis-a-vis the attacks in France. The answer is clear to at least all peaceful Muslims who make up the vast majority of Muslims: Islam condemns the violence committed in its name — even when the religion has been so smeared by the vitriol and ugliness which spews from the provocations of Charlie Hebdo. The several million Muslims in France and the hundreds of millions around the world are distancing themselves from those responsible for the attacks, for those who committed these acts, though Muslims, have nothing to do with the Muslim faith. We would hope that French President Francois Hollande’s assertion that the attackers “having nothing to do with the Muslim religion” and Prime Minister Manuel Vall’s insistence that France was “in a war against terrorism”, not “against a religion”, speak the truth.
Let’s also acknowledge that the most courageous, peace-loving people in the Middle East who are standing up to Muslim fanatics are themselves often devout Muslims.
Many Muslims and indeed non-Muslims have been outraged at Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamic outpourings. A far greater outrage is now being felt by Muslims at the depraved attempt to exact revenge.
The striking response to the Charlie Hebdo murders has featured pens as the counterpoint to guns. The former is creative and the latter destructive. Who in his right mind would eschew the artistic and who but with a twisted mind would go for the bullet?
So there is this enormous pressure to defend Charlie Hebdo as a forceful exponent of Western values, that this is an assault on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and the horrendous threat thereafter to Western civilisation. But do the killings celebrate the brave and noble defence of the rights of free speech? Did Charlie strike a potent blow for liberty and demonstrate solidarity with a free press by publishing blasphemous cartoons? Has the magazine done its part to uphold “Western values”?
Huge crowds with more than 40 world leaders are descending on Paris on Sunday in a rally to commemorate those who were killed. In the passion of the moment, they will understandably not look far beyond the blood that was spilt.
The march will be silent. However, on the Parisian streets there should also be a loud call not to line up with the inevitable backlash against Muslims, or be the first in line to defend racial secularism or be forced into solidarity with a blatantly racist institution.
Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.