On the Charlie Hebdo Attack

Reading commentaries on the massacre in Charlie Hebdo‘s office I have learned that there is a correct way to respond to the tragedy. One is supposed to immediately condemn the attack, defend the right to blaspheme (some, like Jonathan Chait, would ask us to defend blasphemy itself), and angrily denounce any conversations about the cartoons regularly published by Charlie Hebdo. There are additional comments the inspired and politically astute among us can make: assert the universality of our freedoms, claim that they are under attack by fundamentalists, and applaud the distinctively French tradition of irreverence and “anticlerical spirit that goes far back in French history.”

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements following the attack are fine, eloquent examples of this required response. According to Kerry, “No country knows better than France that freedom has a price, because France gave birth to democracy itself.” The terrorists, continues the Secretary of State, “may wield weapons, but we in France and in the United States share a commitment to those who wield something that is far more powerful. Not just a pen, but a pen that represents an instrument of freedom, not fear.”

These sentiments were echoed by President Obama: “France is America’s oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world. Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended. France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers.”

As Fredrik deBoer has written, asking if we have the right to publish cartoons or if people should be killed for doing so are “dead moral questions.” Those who contest the right to publish cartoons or justify the murder of those doing so belong to “the looniest fringes of our political order.” In any case for those of you who require the obvious response I am happy to oblige: murder is bad, free speech is good.

This obvious and perfunctory reaction however does not–or at least should not–exhaust the discussion of the murders, especially in light of the entirely foreseeable Islamophobic violence it has resulted in. The far-Right, Richard Seymour writes, “has been absolutely unapologetic in the instantaneous way in which it has deployed these murders, before the blood was dry and the bodies cold, to score reactionary points about ‘Western values’ and immigration.” Mainstream politicians are “more subtle and strategic” but ultimately promote a deeply exclusionary nationalism where Muslims are similarly marginalized.

The call for solidarity with a magazine–encapsulated in #JeSuisCharlie–invites a look at the magazine and whether it, as an institution, deserves that solidarity. This scrutiny is not the same as condoning the murders, which need to be condemned independent of the question of solidarity.

The cartoons in question were crass and juvenile, based on historical stereotypes: hook-nosed, bearded, violent, sexualized, irrational, fanatical Muslims. As far as stereotypes go these perform the usual role of dehumanization and cheapening of Muslim life. That this was done at a time of state militarism and violence against and systematic oppression of Muslims makes it complicit in those practices. That the same stereotypical treatment of Jews was expressly censored by the magazine, and it seems by the French state, only underscores the folly of seeing Charlie Hebdo in abstract terms, divorced from its socio-political context where racist depictions of one group are applauded as a courageous exercise of our freedoms but condemned toward another as racial and religious hatred.

Scott Long writes that “satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. … What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression.” This is obviously true but it does not mean that satire must only be directed against the powerful. Will Self, for example, thinks that satirists should observe H.L. Menken’s definition of good journalism: “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” This definition has the benefit of neatly dividing the world into two opposite camps but the world is rarely that simple.

The afflicted, to continue with Menken’s imprecise aphorism, are fair targets for satire just as they are fair targets for any general critique. The question to be asked is how to satirize such a community without sustaining or contributing to its systematic oppression. That some cannot find ways to do so only indicates a terrible failure of imagination.

Finally there is the question of values. The endless invocation of liberal values is symptomatic of how liberalism has become “an identity politics,” to quote Arun Kundnani from his excellent book The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, “a call to recharge the batteries of belonging, to take a stand defending a way of life – militarily, intellectually, and culturally – while still claiming the mantle of a universal civilisation.” Liberalism is being deployed to demarcate boundaries between the civilized and the terrorists, the distinction used to pursue policies where Muslims, without distinction, are almost always the target.

Given the recurring talk of liberal values and the platitudinous statements of various European and North American politicians extolling freedom of speech, it is only fair to point out who is deprived of such freedoms.

These liberal freedoms were not available to Tarek Mehanna who was convicted of providing “material support” to al-Qaeda “in large part based on evidence that he translated publicly available al Qaeda propaganda from Arabic to English and tried to persuade others to embrace his extreme views,” according to the ACLU. These freedoms were not available to Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye as he sat in a prison cell “solely because of pressure from the administration of President Barack Obama.” Nor were they available to Pakistani journalist Hayatullah Khan when he was kidnapped and murdered for investigating a US drone strike. The examples can fill volumes.

In short the contents of Charlie Hebdo matter if we are asked to extend solidarity to it. It matters that those invoking liberal values seem to have no interest in them when they are used subversively. It surely is relevant that the Islamophobia Charlie Hebdo enthusiastically participates is an integral part of the systematic oppression of and state violence against Muslims. All of this is a slight inconvenience if we want to take the attack as an opportunity to reaffirm and celebrate our own liberal values. It is far easier to accuse anyone raising these issues of justifying a massacre.

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