Yesterday, as the whole world knows, three self-styled holy warriors carried out a military-style assault on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which they murdered ten journalists and two policemen, before leaving shouting ‘God is great’ and ‘ We have avenged our Prophet.’
These sickening events are a revolting and barbaric crime worthy of absolute and unreserved contempt and condemnation. There should be no ifs, no buts or caveats, and no attempt to marginalize the full horror of what took place. It may well be, as Juan Cole suggested yesterday, that these attacks were deliberately designed to polarize public opinion in France and generate racism and anti-Muslim sentiment in order to continue the ‘radicalization’ process and drive more Muslims into the ranks of al Qaeda/Islamic State and all the other groups that think like them.
No one has stated any such objective, and who knows if the individuals or the organization responsible (assuming there is one) are capable of such coherent strategic thinking. What we do know so far is that the three suspects fit a typical jihadist profile; alienated and marginalized druggies who experienced a rapid ‘conversion’ to a variant of Islam that is primitive, militant, ignorant and barbaric, that regards violence, fear and terror as essential instruments for the propagation of their version of the faith, that tolerates nothing and wants to kill anything that it doesn’t tolerate.
Initial reports also suggest that the two main suspects may have been ‘radicalized’ in part by the Iraq war, and in particular by the Abu Ghraib interrogations. These reports make it tempting to shift the responsibility for yesterday’s killings away from the perpetrators towards the terrorwars of the last fourteen years.
We can’t and mustn’t do this. We can’t reduce the debate to a discussion about ‘blowback’ or context. We can’t start talking about attacks on ‘soft targets’ as though the murder of ten cartoonists and journalists at an editorial meeting was some kind of inevitable response to these wars.
We can’t do this because the journalists weren’t just attacked because they were ‘soft targets’. They were killed because they published deliberately offensive and contemptuous (and to my mind contemptible) images of the Prophet Muhammad that were clearly designed to be as offensive as possible.
Nor should we allow our outrage at this atrocity to be muted by a discussion about whether or not these images were Islamophobic. We may question whether Charlie Hebdo’s offensiveness was useful or dangerous. We might ask whether testing the boundaries of free speech through deliberately courting offense is courageous or simply ignorant, wrong-headed and counterproductive.
We may well regard these cartoons as crudely provocative, Orientalist, or even racist. From the ones I’ve seen they were all these things, but then Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Jews, Catholics and the Pope weren’t much better. Only yesterday the new issue of the magazine mocked the repellent anti-Muslim provocateur Michel Houllebecq as a self-regarding, coke-addled fraud.
I don’t speak French and I’m not familiar enough with the magazine to make an overall judgement about the magazine’s content and intentions. But as far as its cartoons are concerned, its treatment of Islam does not appear to have been any more or less offensive than its depiction of other religious groups. Is there a difference between taunting an already-besieged and vilified minority with a deliberately contemptuous and insulting cartoon ‘biography’ of Muhammad and attacking a powerful institution like the Catholic Church?
Yes there is, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for some headshaking ‘ well what can you expect?’ argument. Theo Van Gogh was pretty damn racist too in his depiction of Muslims as ‘goatfuckers’, among other things. That doesn’t mean that he deserved to be butchered like a hog in an Amsterdam street or that we should accept that it was somehow inevitable that he would be.
Some commentators have questioned whether Charlie Hebdo was ‘good’ satire or whether it was satire at all. Will Self yesterday cited HL Mencken’s adage about good journalism that it should ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’ to suggest that Charlie Hebdo wasn’t really satirical. Arthur Goldhammer has an interesting piece on al Jazeera, in which he described the magazine as an example of a tradition of Parisian humour known ‘gouille’, which he describes as ‘ an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful.’
This type of humour has a long pedigree in French culture. You can find it in the equally offensive nineteenth century anarchist magazine Le Père Peinard, which frequently publishing joking cartoons and columns celebrating the bloodiest anarchist bombings in an attempt to épater le bourgeois.
Are we therefore expected to hedge our condemnation of yesterday’s events because Charlie Hebdo didn’t satisfy our conception of good taste or ‘real’ satire? I didn’t particularly like what I read of The Satanic Verses, and wished that Salman Rushdie had never written it, but his translator Hitoshi Igarishi was murdered as a result of a fatwa that was not based on its literary merits.
Two nights ago I watched the Russell Howard show with my daughter on BBC3. Howard had a very funny and very irreverent sketch which imagined Jesus as a stand-up comedian – funny to me, but undoubtedly not funny at all to many Christians. Nevertheless they have to take it, and they are also entitled to express their anger at it. But the grim reality is that very few people would even consider doing anything like this about Islam, because they might be liable to attract not just anger, but a death threat, and sooner or later someone might actually carry out that threat.
So we might well ask whether free speech should be a license to insult and abuse the ideas and beliefs of others. We may well debate whether Charlie Hebdo ‘pushed the boundaries’ between ‘legitimate’ satire and pure offensiveness for its own sake, or whether it was bravely trying to make the point that no group in French society should be excluded from ridicule.
But we cannot have a society in which it is possible to critique and satirize all religions except Islam, because to do so runs the risk of being killed. Yesterday’s murderers didn’t distinguish between ‘good’ satire with a moral purpose and ‘bad’ satire that may or may not have had one. They weren’t interested in whether Charlie Hedbo obeyed conventions of civility.
They represent a disparate global movement that uses violence and terror in the same way that the Inquisition once did – to control people’s thoughts and behavior and enforce ideological and religious conformity on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We don’t know yet which group yesterday’s holy warriors belonged to or were affiliated with, but on one level it doesn’t really matter, because all these groups share a broadly similar ideology and worldview that is profoundly reactionary, anti-human and inherently tyrannical.
This movement represents only a minority of the world’s 1 billion Muslims, but it is dangerous and it is growing. It has already had disastrous consequences in the societies where it has emerged and yesterday’s killings are an absolute gift for the National Front and for Muslim-haters across the continent. No matter that many Muslims have condemned them, including leading scholars and institutions. No matter that the majority of French Muslims are not interested in jihad or even in religion.
So let us by all means criticize the hypocrisy of politicians who uphold free speech as a universal marker of ‘our’ values and then pass laws which seek to restrict speech that ‘glorifies terrorism’. We may well be contemptuous of the pathetic Nigel Farage, who yesterday defended the right to satirize on Channel 4 News even though he himself called for the removal of a video by schoolchildren satirising Ukip’s immigration policy.
When defenders of free speech hail the right to offend and be offensive as the hallmark of a liberal society, we may well ask why Steven Salaita lost his job because of his anti-Israel tweets. or why France has just become the first country to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations. We might also remember that contrary to popular belief, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated attacks on freedom of expression are not uniquely Islamic. In 2008 the Russian artist Anna Michalchuk committed suicide in Berlin after an exhibition that she helped organize was targeted by vandals for its supposedly blasphemous content.
But none of that can detract from the fact that three murderers acting in the name of Islam killed ten journalists because of what they wrote and drew. They – and the organizations and individuals that have tweeted support for their actions – have no interest in whether Muslims and non-Muslims coexist in France or Europe or anywhere else, and would rather that they didn’t. But that is all the more reason for the rest of us to develop a politics that can defeat them – an inclusive politics that can establish a common European home for Muslims and non-Muslims.
This must be our priority, because if we can’t do this, we will give the ‘fundamentalist’ kaffir-haters and the Muslim haters the ‘clash of civilizations’ that they both want, and with it a future of endless civil and ethnic conflict, murders and counter-murders and a far-right resurgence that threatens to bring the most terrible ghosts from Europe’s past back onto the historical stage. And if we are to have any chance of avoiding that outcome, we need to recognize yesterday’s attacks for what they were: as a crime against all of us; against Muslims and non-Muslims; against free speech, coexistence and fraternity and our common humanity, by tyrants-in-waiting who threaten us all.
And that is why I add my name to the Je Suis Charlie Hebdo meme. Not because I like or respect the magazine, or because I want to ‘sacralize’ it or fetishize the universal ‘right’ to be offensive. But I mourn the vicious murders of ten human beings who worked in the same profession that I have worked in myself for so many years, and I loathe the murderous fanatics who killed them and everything they represent.