In Memoriam Charlie Hebdo, Emmeline Broussard/Flickr. Some rights reservedThe tragic terrorist attack at the French satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing ten journalists and two policemen, is frightening at many levels. Although the three terrorists are still at large, and the official motivation hasn’t been established yet, all indications point to Jihadists, probably French-born Muslims who returned from the war in Syria (note the similarities with the terrorist attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year).
The general response has been one that we have seen too often before, for example after the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 or the terrorist attacks in the US of 2001. Politicians use the attacks to boast about the perfect democratic and free society that they preside over and stress that this has nothing to do with Islam, but with some pathological individuals who use a religion as an excuse for extremist ideas. Citizens respond in the one medium in which they are still active, social media, and make grand statements of solidarity, before being distracted by a video of a waterskiing squirrel or a piano-playing kitten. Both will declare that we are all whomever the victim of the day is.
Today Facebook and Twitter are full of statements like “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) and “we are all Charlie”. Unfortunately, we are not. Or, more precisely, with very few exceptions, we are not Charlie, and that is a major problem for liberal democracies around the world. Let me give you three reasons why most of us are not Charlie and why this is problematic for our democracies.
First, many of the most vocal ‘defenders’ of Charlie Hebdo are very new and selective fans of the satirist magazine. For instance, it is amazing how many Islamophobic and far right people are declaring their love for a magazine that until recently they would criticize as a ‘communist rag’ (after Charlie’s biting satire mocked their own heroes, from Jesus Christ to Marine Le Pen). These are the heroic defenders of free speech, like Geert Wilders, who want to ban the Quran because it incites violence.
Many people are not Charlie exactly because Charlie Hebdo would criticize all religions and all politicians, irrespective of their ethnicity, gender, ideology, etcetera. Consequently, leaders of all religions and political parties have criticized them. That said, they have only been violently attacked by extremist Muslims. This is a fact that can and should not be denied! This is not to say that only Muslim extremists attack their critics – for example, recently two French members of the Jewish Defense League were convicted for placing a bomb under the car of an anti-Zionist journalist. Still, it is an uncomfortable but undeniable fact that most acts and threats of political violence in contemporary Europe come from extremist Muslims. This is not because of Islam, as 99.9 percent of Muslims are not violent, but this doesn’t mean that Islam plays no role at all.
Second, many people are not Charlie because they believe that democratic debates should be “civil” and not upset people. The problem is that ‘civility’ is a slippery concept, which means very different things to different people. Similarly, it is impossible to measure whether people are upset, let alone objectively compare how upset they are. People can get upset about everything, so why should religious sensitivity have special protection. Who is to say that Charlie’s critique of Islam(ism) upsets a very religious Muslim more than l’Equipe’s critique of Paris Saint German hurts a diehard PSG fan?
Throughout history ‘civility’ has been defined in line with the interests of the political establishment. This is still the case, which means that the civility argument is almost always used selectively and opportunistically. Certain groups are protected from ‘uncivil’ discourse and others are not (as is the case with anti-discrimination legislation). This shields these groups from criticism, irrespective of the accuracy of the critique, which in the long term hurts not just the critics but also the (not) criticized, who have no incentives to reflect and improve.
Third, and final, many people are not Charlie because they are afraid. Many people never openly criticize anything or anyone, or at least not relatively powerful people. But even among professional critics, such as comedians and intellectuals, self-censorship is increasingly becoming the norm. Many treat issues related to Jews and Israel much more sensitively than other groups and states, out of fear of professional sanctions (think about the recent Salaita case in the United States). Similarly troubling is the growing group of comedians and intellectuals self-censoring themselves on topics related to Islam and Muslims. Already several years ago I met Dutch public intellectuals who told me, in confidence, that they had stopped criticizing Islam(ism) in public because of violent threats to them and their family. Even the ‘fearless’ US comedian Stephen Colbert would not show the (in)famous Mohammed cartoons, or other images deemed offensive to Muslims, instead putting up a (funny) image of ‘technical disturbances’. While making fun of his fear of a violent response, he never seriously problematized it and, in the end, censored himself. Even the few brave souls that do dare to satirize Islam(ism), often get censored by the media or their employers – South Park’s notorious ‘Mohammed episode’ has been censored multiple times by Comedy Central!
To be sure, there are structural explanations for the high levels of anger and frustration of part of the (radical) Muslim population in Europe as well as for the fact that some among them resort to (the threat of) violence. None of these excuse violent actions within democracies, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot learn from them. It is comforting and politically expedient to claim that “we” are attacked because “they” cannot deal with “our” freedoms, particularly freedom of speech. Politicians will preach that “Muslims” have to come to terms with the fact that “they” (now) live in a society where everything can be criticized, pointing to critiques and satires about Christians and Christianity (often of the 1960s and 1970s though), but this is at best naive and at worst disingenuous. Many ‘acceptable’ critiques of Islam and Muslims would be deemed unacceptable, and illegal (!), if they targeted other groups – as a test, just replace “Muslims” for “Jews” or “blacks” and see whether you still think the critique is acceptable. Hence, certain Muslims will see the ‘freedom of speech’ argument as a cop-out.
Related to this is the perception of powerlessness among the Muslim populations of Europe. Some feel that Muslims are discriminated against because they don’t have a voice in the political system. They at times point the finger at the power of Jews, admittedly sometimes inspired by an anti-Semitic worldview, and their successful attempt to more effectively suppress anti-Semitism. They feel that Muslims have either to rely on the sympathy of non-Muslim elites, who turn out to be fairly selective in their support (even on the left), or resort to extra-political measures, such as (the threat of) violence.
Let me repeat that these are not acceptable excuses for violent actions or speech! But they are also not without a factual base. If “we” are going to expect of “them” to abide by freedom of speech, than this freedom of speech should either be totally free or protect all groups equally (which, I believe, is impossible). If “we” want “them” to abide by the (not “our”!) democratic rules of the game, “we” should also accept “them” as equal citizens. Too often Islam and Muslims are treated as foreign, either linked to immigration or to a foreign country/region. But the majority of Muslims in most European countries are citizens, born and raised in Europe. In other words, “they” are “us”! So, as much as “they” have to come to terms with living in “our” country, “we” have to come to terms with the fact that it is “their “ country too!
So, how do we move forward in a constructive manner, strengthening our liberal democracies rather than weakening them by authoritarian kneejerk reactions. Rather than narrowing freedom of speech further, by limiting it to ‘civil’ speech or by broadening anti-discrimination legislation even more, we should live up to our slogans and truly embrace freedom of speech for all, including anti-Semites and Islamophobes! Similarly, we should criticize and satirize all, from atheists to Christians, from Jews to Muslims, and from Greens to the far right. This requires not only that we all speak out against extremists, but also that we defend those who take them on... even before they get threatened or even killed.