The Threat From Within: Free Speech and Prejudice at Charlie Hebdo

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo is an appalling act of brutality and form of censorship by revenge violence. Free speech has been assaulted, the West must reassert it. Every form of support must be given to Charlie Hebdo as it reasserts its right to free speech, as I’m sure it will do in time. It is necessary that this reassertion of free speech happens, but, unfortunately, it will be tainted by Islamophobia. For those of us with memories of Charlie Hebdo back in 2008 will not soon forget what happened then, as we will not forget what has happened now. When we remember this, we Westerners will need to reflect on the fact that our prejudices now mean that when we reassert our right to free speech it will be an act poisoned by racism.

When events like this happen, and when we react to them, there are certain things that need to be stated, established and reaffirmed. Free speech must always be defended, must be valued, and that is no different in this case. The massacre on January 7th was utterly appalling and unjustified. Rightly it has been deplored and a mass public outcry has resulted. The deaths of 12 people over a series of cartoons is tragic and disgusting. I do not support the attack. I would never defend the perpetrators. The brand of Islamic fundamentalism they seem to have been motivated by is repressive, totalitarian and without merit. Drawing a picture of the Prophet Mohammed is not inherently racist, and I do not think that the staff at Charlie Hebdo, or the magazine’s editorial line, are consciously racist towards Muslims.

Yet, due to an unfortunate weakness of editorial will in 2008, those Muslims who might find the publication of cartoons that mock the Prophet Mohammed offensive would have right to feel a small taint of prejudice in our support for Charlie Hebdo’s return (I’m aware not all Muslims are offended are offended by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but many are). I say this even though I would support Charlie Hebdo reasserting its right to free speech if it were to again publish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed. I say this even though it is a necessity that we collectively reassert our right to free speech. It is against this necessity that I claim that, whether or not any Muslim’s would find it offensive, our society really needs to question and reflect upon what it would really say about us. I say it because if we do not say it, then it will be prejudice and not freedom that defines the West.

My call for reflection might be heard most clearly by those who remember the Siné Saga. Siné, real name Maurice Sinet, is an anrachist, anti-capitalist, anti-church, and, allegedly, anti-semitic French cartoonist. In 2008 he published an article, with accompanying cartoon, about then-president Nicholas Sarkozy’s son Jean’s upcoming marriage to heiress Jessica Sebaoun-Darty. The cartoon alleged (baselessly of course, it is satire after all) that Jean Sarkozy would convert to Judaism in order to marry into wealth. This was published by Charlie Hebdo by then-editor Philippe Val. Some (many) accused it of being anti-semitic, in much that same way that many considered the re-publication by Charlie Hebdo of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed two years earlier to be Islamophobic. I don’t want to pass judgement on whether either cartoon is actually racist, though it must be said that by playing on the trope of ‘the greedy/wealthy Jew’ certainly looks a little anti-semitic. Instead, what matters is how Charlie Hebdo reacted to the criticism.

Charlie Hebdo has been portrayed as an unflappable defender of the right to free speech, and in particular the right to offend. Those who remember 2008 know that this, unfortunately, is not true. On publication there was little response to Siné’s cartoon, but after a few days a journalist at the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur claimed it was anti-semitic. Seizing the opportunity, as good politicians and business people do, the families of Sarkozy and Sebaoun-Darty threatened to sue. Val told Siné to apologise. Siné, in typical fashion, answered that he’d ‘rather cut his nuts off’. At that the axe of censorship fell and Val fired Siné.

Such an egregious act of censorship is bad enough, the fact that political power seems to have played a hand in forcing it is worse. It looks even worse for the fact that Siné was then charged with inciting racial hatred before being acquitted in 2009. Following this he won a court judgement against wrongful dismissal to the tune of E40,000 in 2010. All of this adds up to Charlie Hebdo conducting self-censorship and bowing to the pressure of ‘offence’ alone.

The Siné saga shows that Charlie Hebdo does have a line it will not cross, and that line is anti-Semitism. One might point out that their hand was forced. One might also say this in the case of the Danish cartoons, but in that case Charlie Hebdo admirably stood up for free-speech, and not just under the threat of legal action, but under threats to their very lives. They took that stand again, again admirably, with their ‘Charia Hebdo’ issue in 2011. The great tragedy is that just how brave they were has now been demonstrated in blood. But, one unfortunately has to ask, why weren’t they so brave when it came to allegedly anti-Semitic cartoons?

It is a small example, and by no means justifies the assassinations (as I believe political motivated killings outside of war zones ought to be called), but it is an example nonetheless of the Islamophia that exists in Western societies, and in France above all. I support the return of Charlie Hebdo, and they must be supported and protected so they can get back to doing what they have done so well for so long. However, I question why support for satire was not shown when it came to anti-Semitic cartoons? For many, it fits nicely into a structural oppression of Muslims in French society: the ban on face veils; the National Front, who campaign against the ‘Islamisation of French society’, excluding Islam and Muslims from French society in the process; the suspected anti-Muslim attacks that have taken place across France in response to the actions of two (possibly three or four) individuals. This Islamophia is a West-wide problem as well: The Dresden anti-immigration protests – so called Pegida (Patriotic Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes – Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) protests; Nigel Farage warning of a ‘fifth column’ in Paris and London; the fact that #Killallmuslims had been tweeted 100,000 times within 24 hours as the vicious counterpart to the solidarity expressed by #JeSuisCharlie.

We can only hope that the incredible strength of those at Charlie Hebdo will pull them through and see them return – defying the violent censorship of revengeful terrorists. But at this time when our attention goes first to those who have directly suffered, and second to the danger of a dark and evil other, let us also reflect on ourselves. We have to acknowledge that our support for Charlie Hebdo at this time feeds into, in only a small way, the incipient Islamophobia of our societies. We celebrate Charlie Hebdo defying censorship when it comes to the concerns of some Muslims. We do not seem to have offered the same support to Siné, nor condemned Val and Charlie Hebdo with severe enough fervour for their censorship in a case of alleged anti-Semitism.

Our previous failure to defend free speech from Charlie Hebdo’s internal censorship means that the necessary reassertion of free speech after this attack will be tainted by Islamophobia, and, in a society where Muslims suffer discrimination and prejudice we badly need to reflect on this when the dust has settled. To assert the right to free speech is becoming, or perhaps has already become, a racist act. We need to reflect on the fact that we have allowed the assertion free speech to become infected with our own prejudices. Our values themselves are under threat from our prejudice. That is terrifying. Those at Charlie Hebdo who died did so in service to free speech. We who survive them must be ever vigilant against new threats from far away lands, from within our borders and from the prejudices of our time.

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