Charlie Hebdo and the meaning of freedom


Screenshot 2015-01-09 02.53.52NB: Many of the pages linked below contain images of Charlie Hebdo covers and cartoons, which (obviously) may contain idolatry of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and be otherwise offensive to some. No idolatrous images are displayed directly in this post.

Yesterday I wrote about the reaction to the attack on Charlie Hebdo in terms of coverage of the attackers. Today I’m writing about the magazine itself – and more specifically, the cartoons which have longed sparked outrage in some quarters.

When talking about Charlie Hebdo, we must inevitably discuss freedom of speech. But before I get started, I would like to state, for the avoidance of doubt, that I believe assaulting or killing people for something they have created is never acceptable, under any circumstances – Charlie Hebdo’s editors did not “bring this on themselves” in any way.

It might also be said that the immediate aftermath of a horrific attack is not the best time to offer criticism – and I would agree. But as many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and images are being passed around and reprinted, I would argue it’s more important than ever to consider their meanings in and of themselves, and not just as symbols of a tragedy.

So. Let’s look at two sides of the concept of freedom of speech.

First: Freedom of speech means having to experience something which you, personally, find extremely upsetting or offensive – and not being able to do anything to stop it, other than advance your own point of view. This makes freedom of speech a very hard freedom to stomach, once you find yourself on the wrong end of it.

Second: If the main defence for the existence of a work is “freedom of speech!” then this means the best thing that can be said about this work is it isn’t actually illegal. This is not a cause for celebration.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, many people have been quick to praise the magazine and its creators for their boldness and their willingness to “poke fun” at Islam and other religions and sacred cows. One British media lawyer called out the UK papers for their cowardice in declining to print any of Charlie Hebdo’s covers or cartoons on their front pages, as papers in Europe did.

But others have called out the magazine for what they see as lazy, racist caricatures of Arabs and Muslims in general. That linked article is particularly horrified by this image of “Boko Haram sex slaves” demanding their welfare payments aren’t cut:


On a first reading, this cartoon looks pretty offensive – portraying BH kidnap victims as “welfare queens”. But when we learn that this cover is referencing not just the kidnapped Nigerian girls, but also a demand by the French right to cut welfare spending, other readings emerge, such as this being an absurdist take on the idea of welfare queens as people with power, when in fact most welfare recipients are anything but.

On the other hand, there are also cartoons such as those featured here, which depict Muslims and the Prophet himself in various sexually explicit positions… and I struggle to see this as anything except a rather crass and offensive set of images. I’m sure there is some deeper story behind it – but I will need some convincing that there was a genuinely strong satirical reason to produce these images.

As to CH’s two most prominent cover depictions of Muhammad – here, depicted as the magazine’s guest editor, and promising 100 lashes for anyone who doesn’t die laughing (this was the one which got the CH office firebombed in 2011), and here, depicted crying and saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots” – it seems to me that their biggest offence comes from idolatry, rather than being offensive in terms of their depictions. While the first mocks perceptions of life under Sharia law, the second is, I think, rather poignant, and a condemnation of how Muhammad’s teachings have been interpreted by some. But it’s still idolatry.

(Avoidance of idolatry is the main basis on which Muslims have traditionally objected to depictions of the Prophet – as with the Hebrew god’s commandment to Moses not to make “idols or graven images” and worship them instead of god, many Sunni Muslims see any graphical depiction of Muhammad’s form as blasphemous. Some Shia Muslims, it seems, are less bothered by this – but still highly likely to feel offended at many of the satirical uses of the Prophet’s image.

As many have pointed out, the Quran does not actually specify any punishments for idolatry or blasphemy, but this has not stopped growing numbers of extremist groups and governments from seeking to punish it. I won’t get into it here, but Fareed Zakaria has an interesting perspective on anti-blasphemy laws in Islam.)

And as many have pointed out, Charlie Hebdo does not single out Muslims as targets of its satire. All French politicians, other religions and their leaders, various celebrities, and even the English have been depicted in unflattering, and often offensive ways – all in the name of what has been described as a liberal, left-wing viewpoint. (Here’s a selection of covers, including images of Muhammad, with translations.)

Does that mean Charlie Hebdo passes the “something other than not-illegal” test, and that its detractors should accept this as the price of the freedom to say or write anything? Not quite, I would argue.

By choosing to illustrate perceived problems with “Islam” by depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo fell into the lazy trope of defining all Muslims by the worst of those that claim the label. Of course, many Muslims would reject the idea that members of IS, or Al Qaeda, or other “Islamist” terrorist groups are Muslims at all.

Worse, Charlie Hebdo was actively engaging in the very thing I railed against yesterday – helping to cement in the mind of the public, even if only unconsciously, a link between the labels of “Muslim” and “terrorist”. As I argued previously, this only ends up driving a wedge between Muslims and the rest of society.

The end result is that all Muslims are likely to have been offended by many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, despite not being their targets – while at the same time becoming linked to the real targets in the minds of others, reinforcing existing stereotypes which have already resulted in high levels of anti-Islamic feeling in France. This is not a good result.

So in many cases, I would argue that the best thing to be said about Charlie Hebdo’s controversial Muslim-focused cartoons is they are not illegal. The magazine had a perfect right to publish them, and a perfect right not to be physically attacked because of them – but I don’t believe they represent much else, least of all effective satire (which, last time I checked, was meant to punch up, not down).

This comes back to the idea that freedom of speech is hard. It carries with it another dreadful freedom – of being responsible for one’s own words, and the need to understand that just because one can publish something doesn’t mean one should.

In France free speech is deeply ingrained and protected, unlike in Britain, where more and more types of speech are now under censure. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism – and given Charlie Hebdo’s progressive agenda, I’d suggest such criticism and analysis is entirely justified.

Again, nothing here is meant to detract from the tragedy which occurred on Wednesday – and I absolutely do not suggest the editors of Charlie Hebdo brought this upon themselves. The people who killed 10 magazine staff and two policemen are dangerous criminals, and absolutely nothing can excuse their actions.

But it is inaccurate and problematic to paint the magazine as a pure and uncomplicated purveyor of truth. We should not idolise these images, but look at Charlie Hebdo’s work with open eyes, and appreciate its strengths and weaknesses.

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