Reactions to the attack on Charlie Hebdo

  • Buzzfeed rounds up cartoons of solidarity from around the world. 
  • "Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike." This is from a piece by a radical London-based cleric published on the USA Today site entitled Why Did France Allow the Tabloid to Provoke Muslims? To which I would ask: Why the Hell Do You Think You Have The Right to Go Through Life Unprovoked?
  • Of course the overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics and thinkers condemn the attack. 
  • Juan Cole argues that this is a sophisticated operation aimed at alienating French Muslims and increasing recruitment. "Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination [...]Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites."

  • Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun makes a similar point, arguing that the attacks express "a fierce and radical intention to prevent Muslims from observing their faith in a secular land, while respecting the laws of the Republic, [an intention] to isolate them and make them France's enemies." 
  • "The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists. They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades." George Packer in the New Yorker. But how can we disassociate that ideology from history and politics, from Western interventions , conflicts and dictatorships in the Middle East, or from the current debate in Europe over the integration of its Muslim minorities? How can we explain its spread and virulence without any context? 
  • From Jacobin magazine: "Now, I think there's a critical difference between solidarity with the journalist who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow 'legitimate targets,' and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication."  Thanks for not conceding that we journalists are "legitimate targets." Does that really need to be said? 
  • Scott Long questions the "I Am Charlie" online meme in a nuanced and thought-provoking way. "I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club [...] This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of#JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. " Long also discusses the myth that satire is a weapon always directed by the weak against the strong, and reminds of the anti-Semitism of the father of French satire, Voltaire. 
  • Here is a counter-vailing argument regarding Charlie Hebdo's offensiveness. "....the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed." 

 In other words, a violent threat to censor a particular form of speech can only be countered by exercising that very speech. When some Muslims threaten to kill those who depict the Prophet, liberals must depict him on principle. This is a sharp argument, although one problem is that it requires us to evaluate the intentions of satirists and provocateurs.  In a piece we linked to recently, Adam Shatz showed how Islamophobia in Europe (and before that, anti-Semitism) has long covered itself in the mantle of a defense of free speech and liberal values. And how much does context -- Muslims in France are a minority from once colonized territories who continue to face discrimination -- matter in evaluating whether Charlie Hebdo was standing up to a totalitarian threat or picking on a marginalized minority? Could they have been doing both? 

I didn't read Charlie Hebdo, so while its covers were tasteless, I don't know if its editorial line was racist. Many, including some  former contributors, have argued so. But that does not matter. I defend the right of its staff to do their work in safety. I have no problem whatsoever expressing solidarity with a racist publication -- I'm not expressing solidarity with their views, but with their right to not pay with their lives for the expression of those views. I also defend everyone's right to call them out on those views, then and now.  I am so tired of these false and furious debates on the middle east, Islam, terrorism, in which everything is obscenely simplified (for or against terrorism? Islam? racism? satire?) and people cannot acknowledge more than one principle, one position, one idea, at a time. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.