Taking “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo” Too Literally

Increasingly, I’m running across the view that true opposition to the Charlie Hebdo attack, and true dedication to free speech, requires reprinting the Muhammad cartoons that got the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists (and others) killed. A corollary of this view is that if you don’t reprint them, the terrorists will win, and those who don’t reprint them are contributing to their “victory.” Here’s a crystal clear version of the view, from the combox of BHL (via Mark Friedman):

By murder, these terrorists are attempting to shrink the moral space available to everyone else. They are trying to place certain ideas off limits. There is only one effective way to reclaim this space, and it is not just to condemn and punish them, and to express our love and solidarity with the victims. No, the only way is to repeat and amplify the original message; in other words to republish on a wider scale the cartoons that mock and insult Muhammad. Every publication that claims to care about free expression should do this. Otherwise, whatever we do to these particular terrorists, they have won.

I don’t buy it. Here’s my response (I’ve rephrased one sentence, but retained the same basic meaning):

How does it expand moral space to demand that everyone either reprint the cartoons or be regarded as giving aid and comfort to terrorism? That sounds more like trapping everyone in a false dichotomy: it’s either your idiosyncratic preferences or else being regarded as a terrorist-sympathizer.

If I just happen not to like the Muhammad cartoons, but explicitly come out against the terrorists and in favor of free speech, your view implies that I have to reprint them against my own aesthetic judgments–or else I’m helping the terrorists win. As far as you’re concerned, no matter what someone says, no one can sincerely be in favor of free speech unless he or she reprints the cartoons. That demand doesn’t “expand” anything but the license to poison the well.

If someone shot Jeff Koons on religio-aesthetic grounds, would I be obliged to festoon my blog with his artwork? At that point, I’d hope that someone might shoot me, on grounds of mercy.

If a modern-day Julius Streicher came into existence, then got shot for publishing a modern-day version of Der Sturmer, would we all then have to reprint this?

I think pluralism implies that we get to choose our own way of defending free speech, as long as it’s a genuine and sincere way of doing so.

In that “genuine and sincere” spirit, I wanted to draw attention to a comment on my earlier post, by PoT’s own Derrick Abdul-Hakim:

The attack on Wednesday marked a threshold for me, a day signifying a point of no return. Wednesday’s attack had the hallmarks of a neatly scripted horror film. But it was no horror film. It was violence in real time. The attack wasn’t just an attack on a magazine or its sacrilegious protocols to defame and mock. It was a coldly calculated attack on liberty itself. Whatever happens next, going forward after Wednesday will require us to rethink some of our conclusions and come to terms with a few hard truths. By “us” I don’t mean those of us in North America, Europe, or Australia. I mean Muslims. I can’t speak for every Muslim, but I’m sure I’m not alone in my reflective mood.

Going forward we must bear some degree of accountability. I don’t mean we should collectively bear responsibility for what happened. No Muslim apart from the thugs who carried out the heinous act ought to take responsibility for it. However, at some point we have to admit there are those within our vast communities who believe it is morally acceptable to resort to tribal rage in the name of grievance, those who sanctify it, and those who are utterly complacent about it. We’ve used the grievance trump card for decades now. It’s time to man/woman up and place blame where blame is due. Non-Muslims now have grievances against us.

We also must come to terms with the reality that there are those within our midst who believe there is scriptural warrant for aggression. They’re not a fringe, microscopic minority. They exist in every corner of the Muslim world. Referencing statistics about how the majority of us are serene and law abiding is at best evasive. In addition to that we must also call out those who justify or advocate for violence, and call them out loudly and unequivocally. Sure, it’ll be a cosmic struggle, one that in some quarters will be taken as an act akin to treason. It’ll result in communal libel, slander, accusations of all sorts, etc. But we’re also aggressive promoters of local and global jihad (struggle). And if jihad is a virtue worthy of its honorific status then weaselling out of doing what’s right is no excuse. It’s time to put our money where our jihad-filled mouths are.

Lastly, we ought to cut ties with non-Muslim enablers who attempt exonerate the violent ones among us from accountability by placing blame on “external causes” or explanatorily epiphenomenal notions like “extremism”. The Nicholas Kristofs of the world who believe they can commentate on Muslim affairs without reference to agency do us more harm than good.

I doubt half of this will be met. Nonetheless, let my thoughts here serve as a piece of electronic evidence that there’s at least one Muslim who refuses to bury his head in the sand.

Jazak’allah. One of these days, we’ll have to hash out the “Allah” part of that, but for now, I’ll just stick with the jazak.

PS, a nice post on Charlie Hebdo, with illuminating historical perspective, by Tim Sandefur at Freespace (ht: Carrie-Ann Biondi).

PS 2, January 14: Another excellent piece on Charlie Hebdo by Hussein Ibish. I wish I’d seen the Omid Safi piece to which he links, which makes such an obvious but cogent point.



Guess who?

PS 3, February 7, 2015: A very useful piece in The New York Times on the authoritarian double standards of French laicite

8 thoughts on “Taking “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo” Too Literally

  1. Irfan,
    Thanks for displaying my comment. As I said, I was initially going to write up a piece and offer a reflective Muslim perspective on the events. However, I don’t think I could have managed to tie the Charlie Hebdo attack and Martin Anderson’s untimely death beautifully as you did. In fact, apart from your piece I haven’t read anything substantial on Anderson’s death apart from the obituary in the New York Times. So kudos for that.

    As for Mark Friedman’s claims, sadly he’s not alone in his thinking. Though let’s say I have a principled objection (and I do) to the Muhammadan cartoons on the ground that they exemplify stereotypical features of Arabs. Should I then, in the name of free speech, display them? Why should I display morally objectionable cartoons in the name of liberty? As you rightly point out, one can defend free speech without having to agree with the content protected by it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks (and you’re welcome). I was surprised that Martin Anderson’s death didn’t get more comment within libertarian circles too, but this piece was a notable exception.

      Friedman’s arguments on this subject have gotten more and more convoluted, and at this point we’ve both agreed to let it go. I really do think that my Streicher/der Sturmer counter-example is decisive: if a neo-Nazi editor promulgating anti-Semitic cartoons were shot, would we be obliged to display anti-Semitic cartoons in order signal our commitment to free speech? Whether he accepts it or not, Friedman’s argument implies “yes.” He has no explanation for why displaying the cartoons is more “effective” than simply asserting a commitment to free speech and condemning the attacks. Even if the cartoons didn’t exemplify racial stereotypes, suppose they just flouted someone’s religious beliefs. Is it reasonable to expect those people to display the cartoons in order to prove their commitment to free speech? It’s just an insidious way of creating a pointless dilemma where none need exist.

      Here’s another example of the same attitude. It’s not enough to defend free speech; you have to draw a specific image to count as a true defender. Here’s another one–either accept this author’s tendentious interpretations, or you’re complicitous in murder. Not too much different is the attitude of the New York Police Department’s union: Bill de Blasio sat next to Al Sharpton; hence Bill de Blasio has the blood of the recently-assassinated NYPD officers on his hands. More complicated, but in the same general ballpark is the Steve Scalise/EURO controversy. And the Sari Nusseibeh one I mentioned before. The McCarthyite impulse is alive and well.

      PS, Jan 14: One more for the list. Derrick, if you happen to travel up to Birmingham, give us a report on that non-Muslim no-go zone. I’d be crestfallen to learn that the birthplace of Judas Priest and Black Sabbath had become so exclusionary (though I rather doubt that it is). Of course, there are places in the U.S. that are Muslim-free zones. Is this what salat looks like in Birmingham, by the way? Or is it zikr? Or breaking the Ramadan fast? Not the Islam I grew up with!


    • I’m assuming you’re referring to the point of view expressed by Mark Memmott in that link, but my answer is “no,” I don’t think there’s a false dichotomy in his argument. I think what he’s saying is basically reasonable. The only proviso I would add is that back in 2006, I do think it was appropriate for both NPR and the Times to publish the cartoons, and it was a mistake on their part not to do so. That’s when the cartoon story first broke, and at that time it was necessary to see the cartoons to know what the controversy was about. But that was nine years ago. Now the cartoons are available on Google in 0.3 seconds. Anyone curious about them can look them up. There’s no need to keep reprinting them every time someone decides to foment a terrorist attack over them, any more than it would make sense to reprint excerpts from The Satanic Verses everytime someone attacked someone over that.


  2. The flip side of Friedman’s argument that I’ve been encountering is to assert that of course killing people because they publish offensive material is wrong, and all the people running around (or its social media equivalent) with their ‘Je suis Charlie!’ signs should be scolded for not distancing themselves from a publication that frequently indulges in anti-Semitic and generally racist stereotyping. It’s as if they fail to appreciate that there are actually quite a few people in France and elsewhere who are sympathetic to the killings, or at least inclined to say that the victims got what they had coming to them. I’m tempted to diagnose this as a reluctance to acknowledge that the broadly liberal commitment to non-violence in the face of disagreement is not a universal value opposed only by a few fringe nut-jobs, but a fragile achievement that is, in some places at least, under threat. I do think it matters that Charlie Hebdo is not Julius Streicher — it would be inappropriate to express commitment to the freedoms of speech and press in the wake of the murder of Streicher Redivivus by posting ‘Je suis Julius!’ on one’s Facebook wall. Given the difference, though, it seems perverse to shift the focus of discussion to what is aesthetically or morally objectionable about the Charlie cartoons at the expense of a clear voiced denunciation of this sort of violence and of the non-negligible plurality of those who support it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just happened to hear a story on NPR that reported that many French schoolchildren are refusing to observe the minute of silence in honor of Charlie Hebdo on the grounds that the cartoonists got what they deserved. I think this is it. A schoolteacher interviewed in the story points out that the development was predictable, and has been a long time in coming.

      My objection to Friedman was an objection to his claim that re-display of the cartoons was the “only,” or “most effective”–in effect morally mandatory–response to the Hebdo killings, more effective than any other, including display of “Je suis Charlie Hebdo.” Adopted as a general principle, I think Julius Streicher or Jeff Koons become a reductio for a view like that.

      I agree with you that Charlie Hebdo is decidedly not Der Sturmer. I think this video brings that home very well. The discussions in that office can’t easily or obviously be characterized as racist.

      Having said that, once one has offered a clear-throated denunciation of the Hebdo killings, I think there is room to demur at the cartoons themselves. I don’t think that that should be the main topic of discussion, and there’s a case to be made that it’s now being overdone. But the stereotypes embodied by the cartoons are a legitimate concern. I myself wouldn’t go so far as to say that they are racist, but they involve some tiresome quasi-racial stereotypes, tiresome enough that in offering a full-throated defense of free speech, I wouldn’t want to be understood as offering a comparably full-throated defense of the cartoons.

      I also sympathize with complaints about French double standards re free speech and free expression. The French have done themselves no favors by criminalizing anti-Semitism (on a very broad definition of it) but valorizing a form of anti-Islamic discourse that imitates classical anti-Semitism but displaces the object of animosity onto Muslims. Consider: according to French law, a woman who wears an Islamic headscarf in a French school is guilty of something akin to what in American law is the felony of assault: wearing that article of clothing is considered a prima facie threat to those who do not want it worn, and do not want to see it worn. Meanwhile, forcing someone not to wear one is not considered coercive, but an (unconsenting) act of liberation. Very Rousseauan, but also very absurd. Even if we ascribe culpability to them, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that so many French Muslims are so tepid about free speech: the French themselves lump free speech with ‘laicite‘, but laicite is obviously, systematically discriminatory against Muslims. Just as our experience in Vietnam doesn’t seem to have taught us anything, the French experience in Algeria doesn’t seem to have taught them much, either. For instance, it’s hard to think of anything dumber than arresting Dieudonne. Not that I have any intention of displaying a “Je suis Dieudonne” banner anytime soon.

      I’ve actually made the Charlie Hebdo (and related controversies) the first topic of study in my aesthetics class. Here’s the syllabus, with links to some interesting (infuriating, etc.) material. I don’t agree with either Greenwald’s or Canfield’s take on things, but I think there’s a legitimate point buried within what they’re saying–alongside a lot of questionable rhetoric and grandstanding.


  3. Pingback: The institutional hegemony of least-common-denominator Islam | Policy of Truth

  4. Pingback: Norman Finkelstein on Naz Shah’s “Anti-Semitism” | Policy of Truth

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