Photo by Valentina Calà
Europe / Terrorism

Charlie Hebdo and the Redundant Defense of Civil Liberties

To begin plainly, there was a crime committed. The slaughter of journalists for the exercise of their civil liberties is abhorrent to both ideological and moral sentiments, and it is not at question whether or not the shooting on January 7th was a crime. However, it also clear that preceding that crime, there was an offense committed. Though very few would argue that the offense merited the crime, it has merited further dialogue as to the nature and the extent of the offense itself.

The satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has been printing cartoons mocking religious institutions for years, most infamously, Muhammad himself. In 2006, international attention was focused on cartoons of the Prophet that originated in Denmark, which Hebdo decided on principle to reprint. Then in 2011, the controversy was brought to Hebdo itself after an edition of the magazine claimed Muhammad as their editor-in-chief –the new ‘Charia Hebdo’. News coverage of the magazine, and particularly their editorial board, has produced a firestorm of op-eds, interviews, and even a documentary.

The presence of Charlie Hebdo is now considered of national importance, particularly in light of a perceived duty towards the exercise of free speech, but the fact remains that, as a communist and therefore atheist publication, the intent of the wit and writ of Charlie Hebdo is to skewer religion –often with what amounts to little more than a straw man, prepared for effigy. The publication’s cartoons depicting Muhammad, now a frequent gambit, have little political or critical import. Instead, they rely upon cheap laughs and tired tropes like the reactionary Islamist or the enigmatic, veiled Muslim woman.

Regardless, the work of the magazine has since been catapulted to the frontline of the imagined ‘war on free speech’. Following each incident, a growing crowd rallies to wave the flag of Hebdo. This January in particular saw an international outcry, proudly proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie in personal identification with the publication. Individuals across the world marched in defiance –but in defiance of what? There was no known impediment to the actual publishing of the magazine, and thousands read it safely. No police had shown up at the door of the editorial offices. The police instead defended the magazine, and at the risk of their own lives. Yet those in support of Hebdo cry out that their freedom was threatened.

Consequently, the January shooting has grown in ideological import, canonizing those who were previously dismissed as cheap provocateurs. The crime committed is now not only murder, but ‘a violent assault on the freedom of speech’. However, as most of Paris, and citizens the world over, amassed in staggering numbers, proudly walking down the street under the protection of both the police and their fellow civilians, it seems appropriate to wonder who exactly they are rallying against. What specter had appeared that had so threatened the great French laïcité? Who are they yelling at?

The extent of the offense attributed to these cartoons may still be under debate, but if one does not feel able to stand in judgment of the offense committed, an appraisal of its repercussions is then warranted. The last month has witnessed a sprawling witchhunt across the continent as news media outlets dutifully track the increasingly vague connections made to the original attack. The web through which the blame of the initial crime has been thrown upon others amounts to little except the reaffirmation that such reactionary extremism is always lurking below the surface of sunny, liberal Europe. As a mass of hate crimes against Muslim and Arab communities erupted across the continent, and the world over, suspicions are reaffirmed that such sentiment is not only held by the reactionaries, but all those espousing the beliefs of Islam itself. The specter of an illiberal Islam is not only looming, but is being actively produced.

While Hedbo has set its sights on many religious institutions over the years, Islam is uniquely positioned to be painted as the reactionary censor. In a state such as France, where the prevailing norm is the rejection of traditional institutions like religion for the sake of enlightened rationality, it is the adherence to a religious precept, like the aniconism of Islam, that represents the assumed ‘irrationality’. Many of the arguments in defense of Hebdo are made in this vein that to be offended by a simple, satirical cartoon is, at heart, irrational and therefore to be dismissed.

There is something at work much more perverse than the churlish statement that ‘Muslims just can’t take a joke’. Appealing to the greater god of Rationality effectively reorients the discussion from whether or not Hebdo has the right to offend to whether or not Muslims, and any other conscientious readers, have the right to be offended. All who are offended, to any degree, by the cartoons are then lumped into the pre-packaged category of reactionary Islamists, and therefore further separated from the rational citizens of the good French republic.

As we rally to the defense of cheap provocateurs, confident in our transcendent principles of free speech and freedom of expression, we acknowledge our need to maintain this capacity to define ourselves in contrast to the other. Our laws are not established in respect for other cultures, religions, or creeds, but tolerance. Tolerance itself is a principle that doesn’t require the straining of any ideological muscles to maintain a moral high ground. In declaring secular principles of coexistence, we have simultaneously established the extent of our freedoms on the backs of the minorities – ever present to act as the shadow of what we could become if we give up these principles, or let them slowly slide into a passive form of relativism. We speak of freedom of speech, always held in comparison to the necessary evil of protected hate speech –but what seems a contradiction is an intimately held truth of the principle itself. The right to speak freely is more often the right to maintain a discourse of what is accepted and what is cast as unacceptable. Muhammad with his trousers down is not only a cheap laugh, but an exercised capacity by Hebdo to ridicule simply because they can.

The free speech that Hebdo and its hashtag cohorts claim in their defiance is more accurately the right to speak as the dominant class. This is made readily evident by the fact that Hebdo supporters were marching in solidarity with statesmen like the UK’s PM Cameron, Israel’s PM Netanyahu, the UAE and Bahrain’s foreign ministers, Gabon’s President Ondimba, and, most egregiously, Turkey’s PM Davutoğlu. Statesmen who have singlehandedly imprisoned and injured more journalists, literary minds, and theorists than have ever been liberated by a principle of free speech alone.

Tolerance is a concept established in power dynamics, politely glossing over what remains as incontrovertible difference in capacity to shape the discourse, while maintaining the prerogative of the majority to speak as they choose. Tolerance is evoked as a means by which to create space for the consistent reaffirmation of the idealized norm at the expense of the other. In order to maintain the norm, respect for the other is cast by the wayside.

In a twist of irony, the narrative of Hebdo and its supporters over the last few years has circled around their own demand for respect. In a 2012 interview with Le Monde, Charbonnier, a Charlie Hebdo editor proclaimed that, “I prefer to die standing than live on my knees” – a statement made once again in supposed defiance of an abstract specter of censorship, but also a statement made in demand of respect, not merely tolerance.

Hebdo’s journalists did not stand on principle, but cowered behind it. The defense of such cartoons on the basis of free speech is little more than an injunction against being held accountable. Is the idea of free speech truly to say whatever springs to mind without any threat of being held accountable? Is it merely a mechanism to ensure that absolutely any form of speech can be held as a paragon of liberal virtue? Even lewd cartoons, mindlessly churned out to maintain a readership?

Charlie Hebdo is not an integrally racist, bigoted, or otherwise culpable publication, nor is its work wholly without merit, but the demonstrated tendency to opt for provocation over the kind of social critique that the French media is fully capable of is a far more serious fault. Hebdo’s cartoons are not the valorized duty to exercise one’s opinions, but simple provocations. Scrawling unflattering depictions of Muhammad half-naked does not work to strengthen the ideal of free speech, but simply cheapens it. The mere invocation of the right to free speech is a willfully ignorant, two-dimensional understanding of the ideal as a whole. We are legally able to exercise our rights, but while the right to free speech is legally enshrined, the right to exercise good judgment cannot be equally enforced.

This is, at heart, misrecognition of where the onus of tolerance lies. It is not the values and doctrines of another religion that we must tolerate. Religions, as do the individuals that identify with them, demand respect. It is instead the misguided demonstration of freedom – the valorization of their misanthropic duty – that needs to be tolerated. We are called upon by the values and principles of a globalized coexistence to respect ideas, but we must only tolerate half-baked cartoons.