This article was also published in The Water Tower.
When twelve people—eight writers, editors, and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, France’s crudest and most galvanizing satire newsmag, as well as several cops and passersby—were shot dead by three French-speaking Islamic fanatics on January 7th…I didn’t know what to say. And soon after, I didn’t know what not to say.
My first worry—other than my dad, who was in Paris at the time, and other than the victims—was a violent backlash against the millions of French Muslims. This time, though, I rode on a glimmer of hope from the Australian reaction to December’s hostage crisis by a delusional Islamic ex-con in Sydney: an outpouring of interfaith solidarity, the #IllRideWithYou movement, and the absence of any violent anti-Islamic retort. In fact, the incident in Sydney seems to have pacified a pattern of Australian anti-Muslim violence that peaked this autumn as backlash against the rise of ISIS.
But there’s bad blood in Paris, a city divided from itself by being so attached to the rest of the world. France has 4.7 million Muslims to America’s 2.5 million (7.5% and 0.8% of national population, respectively), and its Islamophobia predates the War on Terror by quite some time. Colonial immigrants and refugees to France (usually fleeing poverty or unrest caused by France, as millions of French Algerians did) only exposed themselves to this racist, demeaning Francocentrism at closer proximity. Even in Paris, living Western lives, Muslims are still presumed dangerous, silenced, and ghettoized. Although January 7th was the largest “terrorist attack” on French soil in decades, it was only the loudest and most heinous strike back from an understandably embittered group in an old standoff.
With their assault on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris’s third arrondissement, the three attackers wrote their own demise and unforgiving condemnation by the Western world. The only forgiveness has come from the victim itself, Charlie Hebdo, whose first post-attack cover bore the words Tout est pardonné, all is forgiven, with a picture of that fellow questioner of the system, Muhammad, holding the now-famous solidarity sign, Je suis Charlie.
Charlie Hebdo is not to blame, but for those who stand in solidarity with Charlie—the world leaders and 3.7 million other marchers in a recent Paris demonstration only representing a fraction of this whole— it’s crucial that they find and follow the real lesson from what’s happened. They—we— must defend freedom of speech as a weapon against all war, not as another noisy firearm to wield in our own war. In this, I am least optimistic.
Through satirical writing and cartooning that lampooned every institution in sight, from Islam and the Vatican to the EU and President Francois Hollande’s resemblance to a Twinkie, Charlie Hebdo carried on the centuries-old French tradition of mocking things out of their seriousness. The treacherous line that satirists toe, they stomped all over. And they never tried to silence their opposition, only add to the clamor.
Their track record in provoking Muslims is undeniable. They tested and ridiculed Muslim sensitivities: when a Danish cartoon of Muhammad sparked violent protests and assassination attempts against the artist, Charlie republished the cartoon; when the amateur film The Innocence of Muslims caused deadly riots for allegedly depicting Muhammad as a pedophile, Charlie published pictures of Muhammad posing as a porn star. Hackings, death threats, and a 2011 bombing of Charlie’s office had only further embroiled its artists: the most recent issue contained a Christmas card from ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi saying, “To your health!”
Against government advice, Charlie Hebdo had come to symbolize freedom of speech and press in France, ideals for which the country has fought its fair share of revolutions. Given the shackled position of French Muslims outlined earlier, it may seem rather anti-revolutionary to taunt an oppressed group. But Islam received no worse treatment from Charlie Hebdo than any of the newsmag’s other targets did; by mocking everything in sight, Charlie may have provoked people to laugh at others, but it also demanded that they laugh at themselves. It was also a uniquely funny and bloodless weapon in the War on Terror, aimed against both sides. It’s a breath of fresh air from provocative, Islamophobic outlets like Fox News, who propagate the very cycle of hate which Charlie was brave enough to laugh at.
This can’t be stressed enough: Charlie Hebdo was a liberal, open-minded publication, the polar opposite of Fox News and the Front National, France’s xenophobic political party. And like much of history’s best satire, it was wildly misinterpreted. When he spoke at UVM last week, acclaimed author Salman Rushdie—whose own brilliant works of anti-colonial satire have famously backfired—said of Charlie Hebdo’s deceased editor Stéphane Charbonnier, “I’ve never met a less racist man in my life.”
Some critics who decry Charlie Hebdo as a voice of racism and oppression have even framed the Western importance of freedom of speech as a childish, destructive, and irresponsible obsession. I couldn’t disagree more. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Western media is rife with flaws, but the problem isn’t too much freedom, it’s not enough freedom. Critics of Charlie should redirect their anger at the real provocateurs; media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, whose monopolizing corporate ties let them dominate and subdue oppositional ideas, restricting free speech more than expanding it. This was never Charlie’s goal.
And it should never be the goal of the millions of people who have written, spoken, drawn, and marched in solidarity with Charlie, including Francois Hollande, the UK’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas, and countless others. #JeSuisCharlie isn’t about our right to speak over other people, but our responsibility to share the conversation with everyone. It’s also a difficult but extremely important challenge to the way we use language: our words must critique and replace violence, not accompany and sub-text it. As we Westerners hoist pencils and shout words from our moral high ground of free speech, we must think critically about whether those pencils are pointed against the tips of bullets—the ones fired at us and the many more we fire—or whether our pencils and our bullets are aimed in the same direction.
Obama, I think, understands this distinction perfectly well. He did not attend the march.