Charlie Hebdo is a bastion of the French tradition of hard-hitting satire. It has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling Muslims. Two years ago the magazine published a 65-page strip cartoon book portraying the Prophet’s life. And this week it gave special coverage to Soumission (“Submission”), a new novel by Michel Houellebecq, the idiosyncratic author, which depicts France in the grip of an Islamic regime led by a Muslim president. This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that 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.
This is a toned-down version of Barber’s original post, which called Charlie “not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech” and accused it of “editorial foolishness”. Chait follows that line of argument to its logical conclusion, which he finds dangerous:
On the one hand, religious extremists should not threaten people who offend their beliefs. On the other hand, nobody should offend their beliefs. The right to blasphemy should exist but only in theory.
They do not believe religious extremists should be able to impose censorship by issuing threats, but given the existence of those threats, the rest of us should have the good sense not to risk triggering them.
The line separating these two positions is perilously thin. The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome. The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.
Jesse Walker puts it more bluntly:
If there is an unconvincing champion here, it is not Charlie Hebdo. It’s Mr. Barber, a man who seems to think “the principle of freedom of speech” is best represented by speakers with views so inoffensive that no one would want to censor them in the first place.
Ezra cautions against framing this atrocity in terms of the magazine’s editorial choices or how offensive they are to Muslims:
What happened today, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count. The answers to what happened today won’t be found in Charlie Hebdo’s pages. They can only be found in the murderers’ sick minds.
Juan Cole posits that an anti-Islam backlash is exactly what the terrorists who carried out the attack are hoping to produce:
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination. …
The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.
Poniewozik fears that this incident, like the threats surrounding the release of The Interview, will only further encourage self-censorship:
Terrorism, by definition, is never just aimed at its direct victims. The slaughter in Paris was aimed at every news organization that now has to decide whether to show the cartoons. It’s aimed at anyone who reports the next story like this. The Sony hack was aimed at anyone considering another movie that might offend radicals. (Already, one thriller about North Korea has been cancelled in advance.) It’s all aimed at any media corporation that looks at the headlines of shootings and hacking, thinks of the danger, however remote—not to mention the potential legal liability—and decides, you know what, not worth the trouble.
And it works. That’s not the inspiring, uplifting thing I want to say right now. But unless all of us reject the kowtowing and the playing-it-safe, it absolutely has worked and will work again.
Alyssa also sees parallels with The Interview, and meditates on what these incidents tell us about the price of free expression – and why it’s worth paying:
These are difficult equations of governance and freedom; how to express respect for the beliefs of others without sanctioning attacks on those who offend those beliefs; how to exhort private individuals and companies to courage while also protecting anyone who might suffer as a result of their actions. And as we experiment with our calculations, we reach different and unpredictable results. In the United States, “The Interview” has inadvertently become an advertisement for a new model of movie development, netting $31 million in online sales and rental fees. It’s as much a lesson about commerce as about courage. But in France, at least twelve people are dead.
In the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the hack of Sony Pictures, we see the costs of making provocative art and protecting the people who make and distribute it. But we shouldn’t let these consequences blind us to the very high price we would pay for backing away from such a defense: a grayer, duller, smaller society, in which much milder challenges to orthodoxy and taste are met with ugliness and violence.
Last but not least, Slate reprints Hitchens’ reaction to the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy from 2006:
Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.
I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find “offensive.”