Earlier this week, gunmen attacked the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered several of its cartoonists. Some thoughts on the various issues that have arisen out of this event.
Let’s get the plainly obvious out of the way first: this was a horrific crime and nobody deserves to be murdered for drawing cartoons1. Those behind the attacks deserve only contempt and condemnation. This should hardly need stating.
However, this is not just a murder. The fact that the killers have been identified as Islamic extremists and that the ‘offense’ of the cartoonists was mocking the Prophet Muhammad means that this is more than just a horrible tragedy. There are a number of political talking points and ramifications that there wouldn’t be if the spectre of ‘Islamic terrorism’ hadn’t been invoked.
The right to freedom of speech is a central question in this attack.
I believe in the right to free speech. That is, the right to hold and express an opinion without facing censorship, jail or violence. And yes, by definition that means all opinions, rather than just those you agree with.
However, as clear cut as that may seem, the implications of the above are lost on many people. Most especially many of those who claim to advocate free speech.
Firstly, if the right to free speech is fundamental, then it includes those whose opinion is that your opinion is wrong, offensive, racist, stupid or just generally disagreeable. Too many people seem to think that free speech is their right to say what they want without being challenged, which isn’t actually a right but a demand born from an inflated sense of personal entitlement.
Secondly, the right to speak freely doesn’t give anybody else the obligation to listen.
Thirdly, related to the above, your right to say what you want doesn’t oblige anybody else to give you a platform or to let you say your piece in their space.
Both of the above points are wilfully overlooked by those for whom the right to speak is actually the right to shove your opinion down the throats of others whether they want it or not. Someone who doesn’t let you insult them in their own house isn’t denying you a fundamental right, because you can still do it elsewhere, just not where they have to hear about it.
It’s also worth noting that it is literally impossible to give every single viewpoint a platform in any given debate, meaning that somebody is being denied a platform no matter what. Is denying flat earth theorists a spokesperson on a geography programme censorship? Of course not.
Fourthly, perhaps most importantly, we don't have unrestricted freedom of speech. Indeed, we can't in a fundamentally unequal society where power structures and social constructs automatically give some a disproportionately loud voice and silence others.
All of this will be lost in the response to the Charlie Hebdo as people insist that stopping people from criticising the publication and wilfully being as offensive to Muslims as possible is a robust defence of free speech. It’s nothing of the sort.
Alongside the cries of free speech, the other major talking point is that criticism of religion is integral to a secular society which has thrown off the yoke of religious authoritarianism.
It is, absolutely. Scientists should be able to reach conclusions that fundamentally disagree with religious tenets, teachers should be allowed to educate on the basis of facts rather than what doctrine demands, calls for girls to be denied education or LGBTQ people to be denied basic rights should be resisted and rubbished. And so on. Religious hierarchy and authoritarianism is as much an evil as any hierarchy and authoritarianism, and anarchists of all people should recognise that.
But it’s not hard to see the difference between criticism of religion and just being a dick to people with religious beliefs for the sake of it.
Let’s take two of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to illustrate this point. You can see the satire in a picture of an Islamic militant with a sword to the Prophet Muhammad’s throat, and Muhammad responding with “I’m the prophet, you arsehole!” It’s along the same lines as the trope that if Jesus were alive today the Christian right would despise him. But what important satirical point is being made by another depiction of Muhammad lying naked with his arse in the air?
By the magazine’s own admission, the point was to offend and provoke to anger. Getting a rise out of Muslims is an end in itself. Which might be fine if you were talking about offending a powerful and oppressive institution. But, by and large, here you’re actually getting a reaction from a maligned and marginalised minority community, who already suffer violence and prejudice.
Again, this isn’t to say that they shouldn’t have the right to do this. There are any number of reasons not to give the state license to decide what is and isn't acceptable discourse. But equally it shouldn’t be stuck on a pedestal as some enlightened satire rather when in reality it's a dick move which feeds into and enables violence and prejudice.
This is to say nothing of the magazine's fondness for drawing racist caricatures. Hook nosed Arabs, thick lipped black people, and so on.
Speaking of which, it isn’t difficult to see the backlash coming against ordinary Muslims in the wake of this attack. Indeed, it has already begun in earnest with a grenade attack on a mosque.
In the wake of the attack, a number of prominent Muslims rushed to condemn the attack. Nothing wrong with that, because the attack was a vicious act by fanatics.
But the demand that Muslims, specifically, condemn the attack is rooted in racism. i.e. the view that any act by extremists represents all Muslims unless proven otherwise, whereas similar attacks by white people are automatically pronounced the work of mentally ill lone wolves. And because the demand suits an agenda, when it’s actually met this will be largely ignored or overlooked by those demanding it.
The media will largely fuel this agenda, whilst large marches promote nationalist and anti-Muslim ideologies. There will be attacks and more hate, which is at best reported as nothing to do with the mainstream who promote the same highly racialised narrative of Muslims as the other and the enemy and at worst actively ignored.
As an aside, far more could be written on how such a racist context existed long before the attacks and how deliberate antagonism of Muslims in a climate where they are already othered, insulted, feared and attacked only fed into and fuelled the situation. This doesn’t justify the attacks for even a second, obviously, but oddly enough satire doesn’t exist in a social or political vacuum either.
In the aftermath of the attacks, there will only be an increase in hate and violence. That presents an organisational challenge for anti-fascists and anti-racists in terms of resistance, but it will also be a test of whether those crying ‘free speech’ now are really committed to it. Will they speak truth to violent bigotry when it’s committed by people the same colour as them, on their streets, under the banner of their national flag?
There are two basic principles here – that nobody should be murdered for drawing a cartoon, and that nobody should suffer retribution or have to justify themselves for simply being of the same race or faith as a murderer. The latter is the one most at risk of being lost.
- 1. Or, for that matter, caught in the crossfire of such like the cleaners and other workers who were also killed.