Nothing at all justifies the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo’s journalists, still less on the Jewish victims chosen only for their religious and ethnic identity. The aftermath of such cataclysms is often complicated in that it ensnares us into seeking explanations in binary morality rooted in biases.
For instance, just as it does not make sense to blame all Muslims for the attacks, it is stupid to blame Western foreign policy for these attacks, for a generally irreverent satirical magazine and a joint selling meat, pepper, and food items have nothing to do with the Western government policy. Even a passing assessment of blasphemy killings in Pakistan can tell us that the real reasons why the cartoonists were attacked were not because of Western foreign policy, the Iraq War, or colonialism, but because of an ideology that has always been fanatical and dogmatic in nature, that has been abetted by the West in unmistakable measures, and that is responsible for the murder of thousands of people, particularly in Pakistan. The perpetrators of the tragedy in Paris belong to the latest breed of the murderous fascists in the history of humanity. Like all fascists before them, they are defined by the choice of their targets, they loathe dissent, and they hate satire. Understanding this is the very least we owe the dead.
Yes, freedom of expression is not freedom from consequence, but murder is not an acceptable consequence for anything. Don’t force an explanation, where there is none. This is not the moment to assail or rethink freedom of expression. Let’s not let murderers push us into doing it. This is the time to back the freedom of expression, unequivocally. This debate is not about the freedom of expression. This debate is about the tyranny of deadly certainty which is our common enemy. Only the tyranny of certainty has the power of igniting vigilante justice and provoking mobs into indulging in violence and vandalism.
Dubbing these acts of violence as criminal is also off the mark. The shooters in Paris were not trying to steal or rob and neither were they involved in a gang war. These are also not acts of insanity or sudden anger. These are well planned and well thought through acts of violence driven by a coherent ideology. To understand it one has to understand the ideology that inspires such violence in its adherents and that this ideology is a subset of Islam is beyond doubt. There must be no doubt that what we are up against is a vicious cult bent on blending itself with Islam and declaring to operate in the name of and on the authority of Islam.
The tragedy that struck Charlie Hebdo and Paris has been unprecedented in its nature for Europe. Charlie Hebdo –a satirical colossus in French world- has indeed endured a turbulent history and remarkable record of full-throated opposition to religious fundamentalism and restrictions on freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo published cartoons about Prophet Jesus and Christianity, too, causing the magazine being sued time and again by the Catholic Church. Charlie Hebdo holds few things sacred. And that’s why French of a certain stripe hold it dear and independent observers acknowledge that it is equally and indiscriminately irreverent within the scope allowed by the laws of its country. You name it, and Charlie Hebdo has lampooned it. The birth of Jesus Christ, for instance.
To say that Charlie Hebdo is particularly anti-Muslim is outright ignorant. This allegation is being levied on the sole basis of a few selected cartoons. Instead far-right, like the Front National and the Le Pen family, has been the main target of Charlie Hebdo. Then follow crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians. When it comes to religion, Charlie Hebdo is an opponent of all forms of organised religions, in the old-school nihilist sense: Ni Dieu, Ni Maître! It ridicules all of them with the same biting tone. In my twenty years of acquaintance with the magazine, I have seen Charlie Hebdo publishing much more scathing cartoons against the Christian God and Jesus. (As recently as Nov 7, 2012, the magazine published a cartoon of the Almighty being sodomized by His illustrious son.) Yes, many may have found such material distasteful. I also find some of the work of Charlie Hebdo distasteful as it does exhibit a preponderance of another kind of bigotry. But my distaste should not dictate the work the magazine produces or anything else and to assert that Charlie Hebdo is discriminatingly anti-Muslim is not factually correct. What is factually correct is that Charlie Hebdo is an “equal opportunities offender”, abusing all religions alike.
Even if you dislike its humour, please take my word for it: it falls well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. Civilizations that have no history and no culture of satire will not understand it. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is ludicrous in that the two young Arab immigrant warriors did not assault the numerous extreme rightwing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly attack Arabs, Muslims, and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism. Charlie Hebdo took vociferous postures against the bombings of Gaza. Charlie Hebdo also continuously fought for minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH
What is unmistakable though is that it was an attack on free speech. Freedom of speech is a principle that must be defended, but in order to defend it with clarity we must first define it. Like all human undertakings, freedom of speech is still work in progress –marred by limitations and double standards- even in the countries which flaunt and champion it. In 2005 Le Monde was adjudged guilty of racist defamation against Israel and the Jewish people. In 2004 Jyllands-Posten –the Danish paper that published the cartoons of Muhammad in 2006- turned down publishing cartoons lampooning the resurrection of Christ for fear they would incite uproar. Numerous such examples abound. While declaring the freedom of speech as sacred, even the Western countries make it contingent upon who the object of ridicule or denigration is in terms of cultural, racial, and religious sensitivities. It varies and, for instance, for the parts of media that relishes in attacking Muslims there is a section of media –like the Guardian- that tends to be cruel with all sensibilities, like Jews or coloured races, but takes maximum care to not to cause pain to Muslims. For all the talk of freedom of expression being a non-negotiable right, Holocaust denial is outlawed in France, and performances by the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné have been banned. On the other hand, the right to single out one religion for abuse has been raised to the status of a core liberal value. Then we saw in Paris, a march meant to celebrate the freedom of expression included people representing regimes that have killed and flogged any number of journalists and have orchestrated massacres and interventions that have left thousands dead. From Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu to Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s foreign minister marching in support of freedom of expression embodied a crude joke with no satire intended.
On balance, there is a much stronger case for upholding freedom of speech than for curbing it. Doubt is nothing to fear, ambiguity is not darkness. There is possibility that our beliefs and value systems that we cannot sensibly defend may be wrong and can be blown away like straws in the wind. On this measure, business is a religion, career is a religion, family is a religion, race is a religion, language is a religion, nation is a religion, democracy is a religion, secularism is a religion, and religion is a religion. When those beliefs are threatened and our worldview is criticized we become aggressive, which we should not. The world of unprecedented change and complexity that we inhabit is capable of making us more desperate than ever to cling to what we think we know. When we do so we resemble the jihadists who raise and concretise their questionable set of beliefs into an unquestionable ideology, not ready to bend before any amount of facts. Instead, we need to understand that our beliefs are products of our minds and not concrete realities and we must withstand their confrontation with reality without revolting with self-protective rage. If the outlooks that contest our views provoke abuse and name-calling then it is a symptom of irrational fear – the fear of finding oneself confused or wrong.
After all it is only through asking questions, challenging authority, and probing established wisdom that we make progress. As regards cartoons, there is little reason to stop people from using humour instead of guns and knives. However, the progress of freedom of expression has to be measured in relative and not in absolute terms. It is a progress whose march we must strive to ensure because the fight for freedom begins with freedom of speech. Yes, there will be times when we disagree with the lack of compassion of some people in exercising their right to freedom of speech, but it is a freedom worth preserving. Freedom of speech itself means that we will hear things that we don’t like and people will express distasteful things. It is also the freedom to mock and ridicule, unfortunately. There always were, are, and will be people who will misuse their freedom in the estimation of others. But in the end the freedom is worth upholding. People who hate free speech are generally those who want to control through an ideology or authority. I have seen that what the despots and religious absolutists most dread is not criticism or confrontation – it is being ridiculed or laughed at. They hate being lampooned. That explains control-freak radicals’ disproportionate reaction to all that is satirical.
Yes it is also an exercise of freedom of expression to express offense at the way satire like Charlie Hebdo’s characterizes something you hold dear – like your faith, your personhood, your gender, your sexuality, your race or ethnicity. People have the right to express that offence, provided they don't resort to violence.
I think the freedom of expression should be universal without rendering religious faith an easy prey while protecting gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity. To me it is wrong to say there is something different between faith and the things like gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity because those things are part of you and cannot really be changed, whereas religious faith is changeable and therefore is fair game for ridicule or criticism. This argument is weak. For an overwhelming majority of humans, religious faith –like nationality- is not a matter of choice, instead they are born into it and live by it all their life. To tell a Hindu he can simply stop being a Hindu, a Christian that he can stop being a Christian, a Muslim that he can stop being a Muslim, is impertinent and insulting, and anyhow insensitively underestimates the importance that religious and communal adherence can have to a person’s sense of self and identity.
MUSLIM or ISLAM PHOBIA IS COUNTER PRODUCTIVE
Muslims are not a monolithic group, in fact for every non-Muslim killed by the Islamic extremists many times more Muslims are killed by the same extremists. Even in the midst of the mayhem in Paris, a Muslim policeman lost his life whereas another Muslim shop assistant saved fifteen people by hiding them while shooter killed hostages in the kosher supermarket. Immediately after the attack a delegation of Parisian mosques’ imams visited Charlie Hebdo offices, declaring the gunmen as barbarians and evil.
Instead we need to be very discerning in terms of which subsets of multiple Islamic sects and cults provide the breeding ground for Islamic Jihadists. By just taking an instance to examine one can easily discern that Islamic terrorists and Jihadists, from Senegal to Indonesia, belong to only a couple of subsets falling under the Salafist belief system.
Islam is neither inherently peaceful nor inherently violent. Like any other religion, it becomes what its followers make of it with excerpts from the scriptures available to support conflicting views. A religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents. Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions. The fact is that Charlie Hebdo had been nondenominational in its satire, sticking its finger into the sensitivities of Jews and Christians, too—but only Muslims responded with threats and acts of terrorism. Like any other religion, an extremist –and in this case highly violent- minority becomes significant. This minority ensures that in many countries the younger generations are now being raised on a daily diet of violence and massacres, thus rendering Islam’s ecosystem more conducive to brainwashing.
While there have been a few sporadic instances of anger, there has been no perceptible systemic outburst of Muslim Phobia in France or the West. Not long ago Australians also behaved with a great deal of restraint in the fit of anger that gripped them after the coffee shop killings and now the restraint in France barring some sporadic individual acts. Look at the North African faces in the crowds protesting. This restraint amounts to an egg on extremists’ face. The assault on Charlie Hebdo was intended: one, to raise the stakes of the exercise of freedom of speech; two, to stir anti-Muslim sentiments across the West, encouraging the rise of the white far-right so that ordinary coexistence becomes impossible; and three, to widen the divide between Muslims and the West by polarizing opinions that lead to hardened positions.
Islamophobia or Muslimophobia in the West at general level is Islamist militants' ultimate dream, which they are working towards. West’s refusal to treat the Jihadist cult and Muslim majority as one is a huge step in thwarting the objectives of the jihadists. All efforts must be focused to trounce the Jihadists’ objective to turn this into a holy war and to identify, isolate, and defang the ideology that breeds these evil fanatics to wage their dirty war for the abstraction of death rather than the reality of a meaningful life. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, which hardly anyone pays attention to. The representation of these jihadists as medieval throwback, fuelled by olden obsessions, may be tempting but it is not correct. These jihadists are thoroughly modern brutes, looking to bring about global submission to the will of their God. These are the same Jihadists that the West sponsored, trained, and armed -and welcomed their ideology to the mosques and madrassahs in its backyard- to fight against the communism in the first place and then to fight its enemy despots like Assad and Khadafy. Like the US and Britain, France has been arming and garrisoning the Gulf autocrats, while the French president has declared himself a “partner” to the Egyptian dictator Sisi and “ready” to bomb Libya again. The former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who led opposition to the Iraq war, has rightly described ISIS as the “deformed child” of Western policy. He further writes in the wake of the attacks in Paris that “The West’s wars in the Muslim world always nourish new wars and terrorism among us, while we simplify these conflicts by seeing only the Islamist symptom”. Apart from the threats of terrorism a price is also being paid in loss of freedoms, rising anti-Semitism, and increasing Islamophobia. What we need to understand is that the times for colonization are gone; our globalised world offers little insulation.
Lastly, while it is fighting terrorists and their financial supporters, the West seems oblivious to the imperative of fighting their religious ideology – the Takfiri Jihadist ideology. Until the very real and growing threat of this ideology is contained, all sorts of terrorism, almost unthinkable in many parts of the world just decades ago, will continue to spill the blood of innocents. Murdering girls for going to school! Massacring religious pilgrims for the crime of being Shiite “heretics”! Murdering Muslims for being Ahmedis! Raping Alawite women! Annihilating Christians! Destroying world heritage historical sites whether Buddhist statues in Afghanistan or tombs of the world famous Mansas of Mali, Islamic tombs, but still not “pure” enough for these fanatics! Razing and bombing saints’ shrines from Pakistan to Syria! From Pakistani secularists killed for opposing theocratic savagery, to Western Muslim parents nervous that their children will join Jihadist Islam, this radical Islam is a real, present, and effective fascistic force. There can, indeed, be no compromise with Jihadists and their ideology for the jihadist ideology is absolute because otherwise it amounts to nothing. We have to fight this war till the end before the historians take over.