The Day Liberté Died

Sic semper tyrannis.

Within hours of the offices of a satirical magazine in the capital of a European democracy being attacked by theocrats, excuses and throat-clearing echoed between certitudes of ignorance. The act of militant censorship exerted in ammunition and innocent blood could have been forestalled or prevented if proper restraint had been exercised in advance. Charlie Hebdo was a ‘racist’ publication that mocked oppressed minorities from a position of privilege in the capital of a former colonial power. It had, like the victim of domestic violence or overconfident civil rights campaigner, brought the attack on itself.

It was not simply religious apologists or the friends of Islamism on the far-left who rushed to apportion blame on the authors of a satirical magazine for inciting their own murder. Tony Barber, the Financial Times’ Europe editor echoed the received wisdom of the British establishment twenty-five years ago when the Satanic Verses affair erupted against Salman Rushdie. Guilt lay with the cartoonists and editors for not exercising more restraint. As Salman Rushdie ‘should have known better’ with his Muslim heritage than to stir any controversy, Charlie Hebdo bears responsibility for its targeting by not embracing self-censorship:

 “Some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.”[1]

Who is the provocateur? And who is the offended party? To condemn Hebdo for cartoons that ‘provoke Muslims’ is first to regard Muslims as unable to withstand provocation, grouping Muslims globally with the three attackers of January 8th. Why was ‘baiting’ anyone with cartoons to be thought of as ‘stupid’? Barber and the celebrants of Hedbo’s apparent comeuppance are, in the name of anti-racism and sympathy to Muslims, telling the world that mocking Islam will or should entail death. If the attackers are merely an unrepresentative extremist minority (which they are), espousing a hateful and totalitarian ideology, why should special care be made for their feelings?

Charlie Hebdo is condemned as ‘racist’[2] for its grotesque, absurdist cartoons which, as ignored by its critics, target every ethnic, religious and political group[3] including the publication’s own readership. In 2008, the editors fired a cartoonist, Maurice Sinet, for making baseless anti-Semitic slurs in an article about a son of Nicholas Sarkozy. To remove a man shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, as Justice Oliver Wednell Holmes’ over-wrought and now tired metaphor for sensible limitations of free speech described, was not above the magazine.

Charlie Hebdo has mocked Popes and the Papacy, the leaders of Conservative and Hasidic Judaism and politicians from every party in France. The first to accuse critics of Islam taking quotations of the Qur’an and the Hadith out of context are also the first to distort Charlie Hebdo’s editorial stance and ignore the magazine’s status as one of the foremost satirical opponents of racism and right-wing nationalism in Europe. Its original targets were the French Catholic nationalist right and it has consistently savaged Front National leader Marine Le Pen on its cover pages, painting her as a concentration camp officer responsible for the drowning of migrants in the Mediterranean[4]. It keeps to the original leftist traditions of anti-clericalism and anti-authoritarianism – tendencies abandoned by the magazine’s po-faced dismissives.

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Charlie Hebdo did not group Muslims, Islamists and hypersensitive censors into the same reservoir of reverential fear as its critics did. It saw everyone and everything as game for a laugh. Muslims could, did and can laugh at its cartoons and commentary and co-exist with it without fear or outrage. You could have asked Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer protecting the streets around the magazine’s offices who was executed while begging for his life[5].

The democratic world has become cavalier with abusing and discarding its liberties. The political Right sacrifices privacy to surveillance and counter-terrorism[6] and excuses pre-emptive arrest and detention in the name of ‘public order’; see The Sun Says editorial marking the Paris attacks by calling for the mass surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden to be forgotten about[7]. The cultural Left and the legions of the professionally, perpetually offended turn campuses into echo chambers[8] and shut down controversial discussions before opposing views can even be heard[9].

The national motto of France is a legacy of the Revolution of 1789. The words Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité express not only a commitment to the best hopes of humanity but by necessity a rejection of the contrary hierarchies of fear, division and enslavement. Charlie Hebdo were one of the few publications willing to stand up to the ideas and assumptions, not merely the individuals, who terrorise and enslave entire societies. They were undiplomatic, uncompromising and unafraid. The rest of us are unworthy to say Je Suis Charlie.

 

 

 

[1]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/07/financial-times-charlie-hebdo-stupid-muslim-baiting_n_6430242.html

[2]http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2015/01/in-the-wake-of-charlie-hebdo-free-speech-does-not-mean-freedom-from-criticism/

[3] <blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”><p>Jews, Catholics, Muslims, white people, black people. Everyone attacked by Charlie Hebdo, yet who reacts like this? <a href=”http://t.co/fkvhfJxPoO”>pic.twitter.com/fkvhfJxPoO</a></p>&mdash; Harry Cole (@MrHarryCole) <a href=”https://twitter.com/MrHarryCole/status/552787361437057024″>January 7, 2015</a></blockquote>

<script async src=”//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

[4] http://p2.storage.canalblog.com/25/61/177230/90438006_o.jpg

[5] http://www.newsweek.com/officer-shot-during-charlie-hebdo-massacre-identified-297603

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/10/the-nsa-files-edward-snowden

[7] http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/sun_says/4508014/The-Sun-Says.html

[8] http://www.newstatesman.com/sarah-ditum/2014/03/when-did-no-platform-become-about-attacking-individuals-deemed-disagreeable

[9]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11239437/Oxford-students-shut-down-abortion-debate.-Free-speech-is-under-assault-on-campus.html

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Jack Staples-Butler is a BA History student originally from Scarborough, North Yorkshire. He studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) as part of York's Global Programmes study abroad scheme and represented Illinois on the UIUC Speech Team. He runs the blog historyjack.com where he blogs about History and current affairs.

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