Alongside the declarations of “Je Suis Charlie,” there have been several important calls to carefully consider the impact of the journalists’ work, even as we mourn their deaths.
Since the tragic shootings at Charlie Hebdo last Wednesday, there has been an outpouring of support for the journalists and cartoonists that were killed. Well-known journalists, celebrities and even public officials — even some who had previously been subjects of Charlie Hebdo‘s ridicule — have lauded the publication and have promised to uphold notions of free expression.
The Paris-based weekly has been no stranger to controversy over the more than four decades it has been in print. In recent years Charlie Hebdo has been even been threatened and attacked. It should go without saying that no matter how many boundaries the publication pushed, its staff members did not deserve to be executed.
Alongside the vocal support for Charlie Hebdo and the declarations of “Je Suis Charlie,” there have been several important calls to slow the uncritical praise for the publication’s record and carefully consider the impact of the journalists’ work, even as we mourn their deaths.
Among the most well-known to do this was the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald. He noted that a common instinct has been to republish some of the publication’s most offensive or even bigoted work as a way to validate the right to publish it, an instinct he questioned Thursday on Twitter:
When did it become true that to defend someone's free speech rights, one has to publish & even embrace their ideas? That apply in all cases?
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 8, 2015
The next day, Greenwald published a piece on The Intercept that expanded on this idea. He said it was “surprising” to see many western commentators celebrating anti-Muslim cartoons — “not on free speech grounds but due to the approval of the content.” He said that there is an inconsistency in the standards applied to free speech rights and that some offensive content would never be republished “in solidarity.” In this case, he points out that the danger is that much of the anti-Muslim commentary aligns with some of the existing anti-Muslim agendas of policymakers and societies that continue to marginalize Muslim communities.
“Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome. And this messaging – this special affection for offensive anti-Islam speech – just so happens to coincide with, to feed, the militaristic foreign policy agenda of their governments and culture.
In an article widely distributed via Jacobin Magazine, political theorist Richard Seymour argues there is a “critical difference” between solidarity with those attacked and solidarity with what he calls a “racist publication.” He writes that much of Charlie Hebdo‘s representations of Muslims and Islam smacks of orientalism during a time that many European countries already have a massive problem with Islamophobia:
“The argument will be that for the sake of “good taste” we need ‘a decent interval’ before we start criticizing Charlie Hebdo. But given the scale of the ongoing anti-Muslim backlash in France, the big and frightening anti-Muslim movements in Germany, and the constant anti-Muslim scares in the UK, and given the ideological purposes to which this atrocity will be put, it is essential to get this right.
“No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.”
At the blog Hooded Utilitarian, Jacob Canfield republished many of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons to argue that while the publication claims to “attack everyone equally,” many of the work they publish “represent(s) a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia.” He writes that Charlie Hebdo cartoons served, in many cases, to mock an attack already marginalized communities, and that should not be waved away by claiming the shootings were an attack on political correctness:
“Political correctness did not kill twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices. To talk about the attack as an attack by “political correctness” is the most disgusting, self-serving martyr bullshit I can imagine. To invoke this (bad) Shaw cartoon in relation to the Hebdo murders is to assert that cartoons should never be criticized. To invoke this garbage cartoon is to assert that white, male cartoonists should never have to hear any complaints when they gleefully attack marginalized groups.
“…The attitude that Muslims need to be ‘punished’ is xenophobic and distressing. The statement “JE SUIS CHARLIE” works to erase and ignore the magazine’s history of xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. For us to truly honor the victims of a terrorist attack on free speech, we must not spread hateful racism blithely, and we should not take pride in extreme attacks on oppressed and marginalized peoples.”
At the blog The Conversation, Aurelien Mondon, a lecturer in French politics and the University of Bath, writes that the killings at Charlie Hebdo does not represent a clash of civilizations, but a clash of extremists. He writes that the public should be wary of the “calculated form of recuperation” being called for by the likes of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National. Le Pen, who has a track record of anti-Muslim posturing, said the French should not be in “denial” but should name things for what they are. It is time to talk about Islam openly, she suggested. Mondon responds that there is plenty of open discussion about Islam, though it may not be constructive:
“What is absent from our mainstream media and politics is a careful analysis of what Islam is in France today. This would show once and for all that the Muslim ‘community’ is not the monolith Le Pen would like us to believe. The terrorists who massacred 12 people on 7 January are apparently Muslim but so was the policeman who lost his life trying to stop them. Mustapha Ourrad, Charlie Hebdo’s copy-editor killed in the attack, was born in Algeria.”
“This is not a clash of civilisations, this is not a war between the West and Islam, but a fight waged by some very few, marginalised yet extremely dangerous people, for whom division is key. Ultimately, condemning Islam and Muslims indiscriminately would play in the hands of those seeking to terrorise and divide us, as well as fuel the kind of nationalism that Charlie Hebdo has always fought.”