By Jacob Canfield
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.
By Tim Wise
What I mean is this: I have a right, I suppose, to stand in the middle of Times Square and shout racial slurs or insult peoples’ religions. I could, for instance, stand on a soapbox outside the TKTS booth and say things about the Prophet Mohammed or Jesus or Mary. I could call them all kinds of vile things, and all of it would be protected by the Constitution. And I surely should be able to do that without fear of being murdered for it. This last point in particular is so obvious as to be beyond debate, I would hope. But if I do this, whether in Times Square or in print, it makes me an asshole, and one who deserves to be labeled as such. Not a hero, but an asshole. And I don’t become a hero just because some of the people I happened to insult (and was trying to insult) end up being even bigger assholes than me, and so dangerous and unstable that they decide to hurt me. In that case I am simply the unlucky victim of a bigger and more evil asshole who was unsatisfied with the pen or keyboard as a weapon and decided to use something more deadly. Nothing more and nothing less.
People seem to confuse the principle of free speech with the idea that one’s speech should be protected from pushback; and while violent pushback is always wrong—always—I am more than a little uncomfortable with the idea that we should make heroes out of those whose job appears to have been insulting people they deemed inferior (whether because of culture or because they were just “silly superstitious” believers who deserve ridicule because Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher say so). I’m especially uncomfortable with the political canonization we’re expected to endorse for these satirists, because historically, satire has always been about barbs aimed at those who are more powerful than oneself (the elite, royalty, the dominant social, economic, political or religious group), rather than being aimed down the ladder at those with less power. In the old days, when the King would bring in the jester or the royal fool to tell jokes and entertain the nobility, the court comic didn’t spend 20 minutes doing “can you believe how bad those peasants smell” jokes; rather, he told jokes at the expense of the nobility. The King and his royal prerogatives were the target of ridicule.
So whereas it would be legitimate satire for Muslims to satirize their own extremists in countries where Muslims hold power (and this is done by the way, more than most of us realize), in France, satire aimed at Muslims, who are the targets of organized attempts to restrict their rights and even their presence in the country, is not brave; it’s piling on. Likewise, for Jews to satirize Palestinians in Israel would be asshole behavior, while satirizing the nation’s Jewish religious leaders who have such outsized influence on state politics would be the very definition of legitimate satire. In the U.S., where Christians hold the bulk of political and economic power, satirizing the religious right is quite different from satirizing Muslims who are being targeted in regular hate crimes and who are facing communities trying to block them from having mosques in which to worship.
By Sean Elias
To state that what occurred is “an attack on free speech” is misguided and plainly ignorant. This is a destructive myth espoused by most Western media outlets in their discussion of this event. See, for example, John Avlon’s The Daily Beast article, “Why We Stand with Charlie Hebdo-And You Should Too,” which naively presents the free speech argument. What Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamist cartoons represent is hate images and speech, a defamation of a major world religion and culture, and an obvious attack on Muslims. To cloud this reality is intellectual dishonesty in the wake of reactionary politics.
Stoking the flames of racial hatred through dehumanizing others and their beliefs is nothing new; yet, today it is claimed that those who de-humanize certain groups are expressing their free speech or righteousness in their actions. One might ask why KKK pamphlets that demean black Americans, white nationalists’ periodicals that vilify Jews, and past campaigns of dehumanization by national groups, like the US’s racist cartoons of Japanese, are viewed as intolerable and unacceptable, yet the demonization of Muslims and Arabs is granted a pass.
Islam bashing, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab sentiments are on the rise in Europe, and particularly in France, in large part do to the de-humanizing tactics of people like those associated with Charlie Hebdo. The dehumanization and discriminatory practices of Charlie cartoons provide ammunition for the anti-Muslim intolerance endorsed by rising far right groups in Europe, like the British Freedom Party, National Front, English Defense League, Alternative for Germany, Freedom Party in Netherlands, and PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West), to name a few. Problematically, with the aid of people who incite discrimination against Muslims, like the cartoonists and editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo, Islamophobia is now moving from the fringes to the mainstream of European societies.
The acclaimed graphic artist and journalist Joe Sacco on the limits of satire–and what it means if Muslims don’t find it funny