The latest Charlie Hebdo cartoon, produced after last week’s horrific attacks on the Paris magazine’s offices, literally adds insult to injury. Admittedly a portrait in mixed messages, the cover reads “All is forgiven” above a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed, who is holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign. Who, exactly, is supposed to be doing the forgiving and who must be forgiven is not clear.
Zineb El Rhazoui, a writer with Charlie Hebdo, said the cover means the magazine’s journalists were forgiving the extremists for the killings. But the cover could also be interpreted as Mohammed saying he forgives the cartoonists in a way the terrorists, obviously, did not.
But the cartoons are somewhat irrelevant. As Middle East analyst Juan Cole has argued, they were just an excuse for Islamic zealots to further widen and exploit the perceived gulf between Islam and “the West.” Cole writes, “Al Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.” Enter the cartoons.
This is why it is baffling that political voices around the world, especially conservatives, have argued that we must show our support for Charlie Hebdo and free speech by reprinting the magazine’s offensive cartoons. Remember, this is a publication few outside France had heard of before it was targeted and even fewer had read — and arguably one that many would have taken offense at in a different context.
In fact, in a line of thinking best articulated by New York Times columnist and CNN contributor Ross Douthat, the violent reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s offensive cartoons not only justifies but also somehow demands that we not only continue but also ramp up that offense as a form of protest. “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said,” wrote Douthat. In other words, the violent reaction to something offensive not only retroactively justifies the offense in the first place but valorizes its rationale going forward?
Some have indeed argued that because some radical Islamists resort to violence it justifies not only broad offenses and smears of the entire religion but also thinking of such smears against Islam as different from those directed at Judaism or Christianity. This ignores, for example, mass murderer Anders Breivik, who left a 1,500 page manifesto proclaiming himself “100% a Christian” and advancing his vision of a “monocultural Christian Europe.”
In 2011, Breivik killed 77 people in Norway. Does that attack justify blasphemy against Christianity and make it incumbent on all of us to increase such blasphemy as a form of protest? The likely response — that violence inspired by Christianity or Judaism is somehow an exception while violence inspired by Islam is a rule –i s merely a way of justifying in hindsight and in perpetuity smears against a group one has already decided to hate.
As Adam Shatz at the London Review of Books has noted, right-wing fascists in France and Europe more broadly share an organizing principle with jihadists: “that there is an apocalyptic war between Europe and Islam.” Blanket incriminations of the whole of Islam based on the acts of zealots help feed the premise. So do cartoons that blaspheme the Prophet Mohammed.
Though it’s perverse to demand all Muslims apologize or account for the acts of radicals within their faith, since the Paris attacks such demands have been made and plenty of moderate Muslims have spoken out. And yet perhaps part of the reason we don’t hear enough from these voices is that they simply don’t fit the narrative fueled by the zealots in Islam and “the West” and happily covered by the apocalypse-loving media.
This would also explain why the media and “the West” are still fixated on the slaying of 17 people in France and paying infinitely less attention to as many as 2,000 people killed in Nigeria by Boko Haram. It falls outside the “us versus them” frame — and is further evidence that, as protesters in the United States have been asserting, black lives simply aren’t treated as though they matter.
I unequivocally and unconditionally support the right to free speech. Unfettered free speech is essential to any democratic and pluralistic society. So I support the right of Charlie Hebdo to print the most outlandish, offensive cartoons it can come up with. And, to give another example, I support the free speech rights of French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala — even though I personally find his anti-Semitic jokes even more offensive and sick than any of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons I’ve seen.
Still, I don’t think M’bala M’bala should be facing prosecution by the French government for his speech, as he has apparently 38 times. Curiously, I don’t see those rallying supposedly in support of free speech protesting M’bala M’bala’s repeated prosecution. At the same time, many of those supposedly proclaiming support for free speech are shaming and smearing media outlets that choose not to reprint the Charlie Hebdo drawings.
The fascist right-wing and fundamentalist Islamists want the same thing: to convince Muslims and “the West” that there is an inherent divide between the two. The question for the rest of us — the ones who have free speech — is whether we feed the apocalyptic narrative or fight it.
A few fanatical Islamists have horrifically and unimaginably offended the world.
That’s no excuse for anyone to go on offending all Muslims. To do so only helps advance the terrorists’ goal.