Charlie Hebdo and the blasphemy of censorship

The massacre in Paris spreads fear and reinforces the retreat from free expression in Europe. It also sharpens an unavoidable choice over legal and political order.

Vicken Cheterian
14 January 2015

The dominant reaction in European media to the horrific massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was solidarity with the victims, defence of freedom of expression, and defiance against the terrorists. “Today, the entire Republic has been attacked,” declared France's president, François Hollande. "The Republic is the freedom of expression,” he added. Many commentators echoed this sentiment, insisting that freedom of expression was a basic tenet of the rule of law. The literal, and best, illustration of this view is that numerous cartoons were published in the aftermath of the attack showing the pen (or pencil) challenging the Kalashnikov.

“The murder of Charlie Hebdo staff is an assault on freedom of expression. All organs of the press must resist it,” said an editorial in Britain's Independent newspaper. From many sides there was a rush to defend the French satirical journal and its right to exercise its satire. Even Google, the internet giant and major competitor of print media, showed solidarity in the form of providing €250,000 aid to the stricken magazine.

Yet it is not certain that freedom of expression will survive this massacre unscathed. Even as newspapers around the world said they would challenge the terrorists and their attacks, their behaviour tells a very different story. Despite the editorialists' defiant posture, “no editor has gone as far as printing the images of the prophet Mohammad published by the French satirical magazine,” writes Chris Boffey. The huge demonstration in Paris, and the post-massacre special issue of the magazine with its expanded print-run, do not augur any real change in the matter.

Fear is already with us. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, cartoonists will work with the images of the attack in their minds, especially when they address controversial issues. This fear was best expressed in a cartoon by Patrick Chappatte in the New York Times entitled “After Charlie Hebdo”, showing a cartoonist at his desk with an "idea" surrounded with blood.

Indeed, fear has been with us for a decade now - but only the team at Charlie Hebdo had been challenging it. The Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, which had published twelve cartoons in September 2005 considered as shocking and provoked demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries, decided it will not publish Charlie Hebdo cartoons. “It shows that violence works.” It then added: "We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo's." Jyllands-Posten's editorial admitted. "We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.”

In substance, what emerges from this observation is that French (and more generally, European) laws are practically ceasing to apply in certain fields. It's possible in Europe to make blasphemous remarks about various religions, including those espoused by the majority of the population, but not remarks that are perceived as blasphemous against Islam. In other words, a double legal reference is being created: one follows the secular laws of France and other European countries, another one is judged by Islamic laws interpreted by the salafi-jihadi mindset: any act judged as blasphemous is punishable by death.

The cartoons managed to crystallise a deeper societal debate within two contexts, a European and a global. In Europe, the migrant communities originating from Muslim-majority countries have a host of socio-economic problems, and often inhabit social spaces where (in French terms) republican authorities, institutions, and values are absent. Now, with the shocking assault on Charlie Hebdo, the risk that the debate will be hijacked by various European nationalisms is very serious.

This exacerbated fear is turning into censorship, pushing aside controversial or just sensitive issues - and not just in their graphic representation. The politically-correct discourse has left a vast space for the development of another discourse with several strands: justifying the attacks (“they should not have drawn such cartoons”, “they had already been warned”, and the like), invoking an anti-imperialist / anti-colonialist discourse (citing the French war in Algeria to explain current events, a war that ended in 1962!), or even employing outright conspiracy theories (such as fantasising an “American and Zionist conspiracy” to divide France and weaken Europe).

Politics, terrorism, and law

While the atrocity in Paris was taking place, I was wondering what its political objective could possibly be? Why does an armed group thousands of kilometres away – al-Qaeda in Yemen – want to claim responsibility for an attack against an obscure journal with a circulation of (at most) 60,000 copies publishing cartoons in a foreign language? Al-Qaeda in Yemen is already at war with a number of its co-religionists and neighbours, why did it need to attack a foreign country? What was its motivation? What aims did it hope to achieve? What consequences would such an act have on French foreign policy and on the complex, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East?

When pondering these questions, I remembered an incident some years back when I was doing research on jihadi volunteers in Lebanon's Beka'a valley who had joined the Zarqawi network in Iraq. Afterwards, the contact who had facilitated my communication with these groups commented on their political immaturity, saying: “their problem is that they do not read newspapers.” Can it be true that jihadi networks are unable to read the political consequences of their violent crimes?

If the jihadis themselves are unable to provide clear political explanations or demands for their acts, analysts should at least read the consequences of their violence. The only interpretation I can give is that the various salafi-jihadi competing groups, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, need spectacular operations that can attract media attention to reinforce their own legitimacy within this very logic of inter-jihadi competition.

In their turn, the jihadist militants issuing from European migrant communities imagine that they are at war with “crusaders and Jews”, but they are not - they are fighting against the secular state and its laws. And the forces that will emerge if the jihadi attacks exacerbate public opinion even further will be not a direct equivalent, a kind of European religious radicalism, but extreme-right nationalism. In France, the National Front is already seen as the winner from the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. What an irony of history that the sacrifice of a group of journalists which embodies much of the political culture of the 1968 movement will profit extreme right-wing French nationalism!

If jihadists do not have the habit of reading newspapers, they tend to be even less interested in history. The European political and legal order is fragile, and emerged from two of the most horrific conflicts in human history. The centenary of the start of the first world war has just been commemorated, though Arab or Turkish media hardly noticed it. The jihadists, with their ignorance and indiscriminate violence, are waking up the most dangerous and criminal political forces that ever existed. And they are taking the migrant communities in Europe as hostage.

Today, salafi-jihadists are much more successful among some young people issuing from migrant communities, than, for example, at the time of the September 2001 attacks. Elements of these youth are open to jihadi arguments, and see actions such as the one in Paris as legitimate. In the Middle East too, salafi-jihadi political influences have spread: in 2001 they were confined to Afghanistan and Pakistani tribal regions, now they are in the heart of the Arabo-Islamic world, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

Communities of migrant background whose origins lie in Arab and Muslim countries face a number of problems in Europe: discrimination, isolation, and the full weight of the economic crisis. The answer to this is to develop the necessary means of struggle that the legal system and political culture offer. When Cabu, Charb, Wolinski, Honoré, Tignous and others published “Charia Hebdo” they argued that they followed French laws, and not Islamic law, which permitted them to exercise their satire. Arabo-Muslim community leaders living in Europe should make a conscious choice which legal system they want to follow: the republican laws in France, or that of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. This is not an easy task, but an absolutely necessary one today, if we, all of us, want to avoid becoming a hostage of jihadists, and of the rising nationalism in Europe. And our own growing fear and censorship will not help.

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