No, we’re not all Charlie Hebdo, nor should we be

I respect your right to show solidarity with the victims of this horrible crime by reposting those drawings, but only if you respect my right not to do so because I happen to find them bigoted and incendiary.

Ben Hayes
9 January 2015
Je Suis Charlie vigil in New York

Je Suis Charlie vigil in New York. Richard Levine/Demotix. All rights reserved.There is nothing new about people suspending their critical faculties in the aftermath of terrorist attacks; unconscionable atrocities are by their very nature easier to denounce than understand.

Such a retreat from reason is inevitably accompanied by attacks on those who seek it out. After 9/11, merely suggesting that the attacks might have had something to do with US foreign policy was akin to treason; today it is Charlie Hebdo that is beyond reproach. Now, as then, these constraints should disturb.

It is no more than a simple statement of fact that among the reasons a number of the magazine’s staff were selected for assassination by maniacs was its predilection for Muslim-baiting – this is not a justification, not an excuse, not a defence – but a relevant part of the historical record. Yet, just as in September 2001, you’d be most ill-advised to mention it, lest you wish to be branded a “victim-blamer”, a “weasel excuser of murder”, or much worse.

Much of my working life has been given over the defence of human rights in the face of unduly repressive responses to acts of terrorism. I remember the climate after 9/11 as if it were yesterday. Those of us who chose not to wrap our solidarity in George Bush’s stars and stripes can at least find some solace and vindication in the gradual acceptance that “war on terror” is counterproductive, and that terrorism is better countered with justice, despite the overwhelming “with us or against us” rhetoric of the time.

Today’s grand narrative is very similar and goes something like this. This wasn’t carefully calculated murder – akin to many other premeditated ‘hits’, and qualitatively different to other recent acts of terrorism – it was an attack on “Western values”, on “European freedom”, on “decent people everywhere”, etc. Now, just as then, you’re either with Charlie Hebdo, or you’re with the terrorists. Solidarity means nothing less than “being Charlie”. Failing to republish or repost offensive cartoons is an act of cowardice or self-censorship, not a personal or professional choice. And if anything about that makes you just a little bit uncomfortable, you clearly don’t understand one or more of the following: how to defend free speech, what Charlie Hebdo is about, satire, French secularism or the foundations of European civilisation. Ergo you should hold your tongue or go live somewhere else.

Defending free speech does indeed mean defending speech you don’t agree with; no need to misquote Voltaire here. But asserting the sanctity of the free press while demanding the entire fourth estate publish Charlie cartoons is rank hypocrisy. I respect your right to show solidarity with the victims of this horrible crime by reposting those drawings, but only if you respect my right not to do so because I happen to find them bigoted and incendiary.

To be honest, I’d respect your sudden interest in free expression a lot more if, for example, you’d have stood with those of us who defended Samina Malik, the hip-hop loving “lyrical terrorist”-come-WHSmith-cashier when she was jailed up for writing nursery rhymes about Jihad, or if you had offered such a resolute defence of the Nottingham Two when they were arrested and detained for downloading "terrorist material” – when what they were actually doing was researching militant Islam as part of their university course. And since you hold freedom of speech so dear I expect you to join me in condemning the Council of Europe Convention and the EU Framework Decision that outlaws "public provocation to terrorism". Not the crime of actually inciting terrorist offences, you understand, but speech which “creates a danger” that such offences may be committed. European law drafted solely with limits on Muslim freedom of expression in mind.

It is surely a myth that the freedom of expression of the majority is under threat when #KillAllMuslims is trending on Twitter and the far right in Europe marches from strength to strength. The much less convenient truth is that for many members of minority communities watching all of this unfold, nothing says white privilege more than the visceral amplification of Islamophobia in the name of European values. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that simutaneously telling Muslim communities "your sensitivities are stupid and irrelevant - now do your bit for counter-radicalisation" is going to keep us safe.

Now the part where you tell me that Charlie Hebdo isn’t racist or bigoted because in addition to going out of its way to insult Muslims, it is an equal opportunities offender. Full disclosure: I’ve never read the thing and am quite content that my limited grasp of French culture and language means I’ll never understand why so many people suddenly think it the height of subversive literature, no matter how many people tell me that as a Private Eye subscriber I should understand. I guess satirical greatness is in the eye of the beholder.

Nor will anyone convince me that taking the reification of Charlie to ever more stupefying heights – c.f. the New Yorker’s likening of its “pioneering free expression” to that of Gandhi and Martin Luther King – will do anything other than play into the hands of the racists and fascists whose fondness for free speech extends only as far as their desire to use it to destroy human rights. As with 9/11, we are walking into the trap the terrorists have set for us. Tragedy, farce, repeat.

Again, to be crystal clear, I get why you want to be Charlie and I respect that – especially if you’re French or a journalist. But I vehemently reject the imposition of a monoculture which tells me that standing up to terrorism and ridiculing Islam are two sides of the same coin. When the dust settles, I hope you will too. 

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