Quote For The Day

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“I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees,” – Stephane Charbonnier, the publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, killed this morning alongside 11 others.

(Photo: Candles, a rose and a sign that reads in French “I am Charlie” are placed on the ground as people hold a candle lit vigil at the Old Harbour in Marseille, on January 7, 2015, following an attack by unknown gunmen on the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. France’s Muslim leadership sharply condemned the shooting that left at least 12 people dead as a “barbaric” attack and an assault on press freedom and democracy. By Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

Houellebecq’s Nightmare

Charlie-Hebdo-Secondary2-320The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo this morning coincided with the publication of controversial author Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, which today’s Charlie either lampoons or praises (or both) in the cover seen to the right. Today’s attack was so clearly planned and premeditated that it likely wasn’t a response to Houellebecq’s book or Charlie‘s cover thereof, but there are plenty of parallels between Submission, which critics have derided as an anti-Muslim screed, and the offensive material that made the satirical weekly a target for Islamic fundamentalists. Ishaan Tharoor explains what the book is about:

“Submission” tells the story of France in the near future — 2022 — where a Muslim wins a presidential election against a far-right candidate and presides over the Islamization of French society. Persian Gulf monarchies pump in funds into new Islamic schools; teachers at the Sorbonne are compelled to convert to Islam; women slowly disappear from the workplace; polygamy becomes legally permissible. …

Houellebecq says his book leaves “unresolved” the question of “what we are meant to be afraid of” — Islamists or nativists. Ironically, the rule of a Muslim president in his book leads to stability and an improved economic outlook for France. But the premise certainly feeds into an already overheated conversation in Europe and sketches the disturbing end point for a polarization already taking place, even if its predicted outcome is completely implausible.

Bershidsky discusses how Houellebecq’s paranoid vision of the future, which far-right leader Marine Le Pen called “a fiction that could one day become reality”, fits into France’s ongoing culture war:

The point “Submission” makes isn’t so much political as cultural. It turns the integration debate on its head. Many in Europe want Muslim immigrants to merge into the host society on its terms. This is especially pronounced in France: the country has a profound shortage of mosques, and it bans wearing of Muslim face-covering scarves in public. What, the novel asks, if the French were told to integrate with the Muslims on the latter’s terms? What if the traditional parties had to join a coalition with an Islamic element? And what if ordinary people had to accept some Muslim traditions as part of living in a Muslim-run society — adopt polygamy, for example, bar women from working or convert to Islam to be able to teach school or college? Houellebecq posits that the French would submit. Why not, if unemployment among men is eliminated in the process and men could have three wives instead of resorting to prostitutes? …

No wonder the European far right portrays integration as a zero-sum game, in which one side must submit to the other — after all, isn’t that what the Muslims are after?

Submission is currently number one on amazon.fr’s bestseller list, and today’s events aren’t likely to hurt sales. But Houellebecq also faces some harsh criticism for what his detractors are calling a contribution to the wave of right-wing nationalist xenophobia currently making European Muslims nervous:

One German newspaper critic warned the novel could be seized on by anti-Islam protesters in Dresden as proof they are right to voice concern. Laurent Joffrin, editor-in-chief of left-leaning French newspaper Libération, argued that the novel “will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.

“This is a book that ennobles the ideas of the Front National,” he added. Alain Jakubovitch, president of the anti-racism group LICRA, said: “This is the best Christmas present Marine Le Pen could wish for.” Houellebecq retorted that he could “see no novel that has changed the course of history” and that besides, “Marine Le Pen doesn’t need this. Things are working pretty well for her already.”

But Jonathon Sturgeon notes that Houellebecq, who once called Islam “the most stupid religion” and the Koran “badly written”, has softened his anti-Muslim edge of late:

More recently, Houellebecq appears to have shed his own atheism and disdain for religion, including Islam. In a recent interview with The Paris Review, the novelist admits that his atheism hasn’t “survived” in recent years, and, against a statement he made about the Koran thirteen years ago, he concedes:

…the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it—or rather, read it. The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims.

Although the new novel won’t be released in the US for some time, it’s clear that Houellebecq doesn’t consider it an affront to Islam. On the contrary, he sees it as a thought experiment meant to reflect the absence of political representation for Muslims in France. … With no present English translation, it’s impossible to tell whether Houellebecq’s new novel is a skilled experiment in political modality, or a thinly veiled attack on religion disguised as a mea culpa. In either case, Houellebecq may have seriously misjudged the power of novels to affect history.

Face Of The Day

Global Reaction To The Terrorist Attack On French Newspaper Charlie Hebdo

A cartoon lies on the ground while people gather at a vigil in front of the French Embassy in Berlin, Germany following the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris on January 7, 2015. By Carsten Koall/Getty Images. A voxplanation of the edition seen above:

In 2011, the magazine published an article “guest edited by Mohammed,” calling him “Charia Hebdo.” On the cover, a grinning, bearded figure promised “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”

After that issue was published, the magazine’s office was firebombed and its website was hacked. The attackers posted a notice on the hacked site that read, “You keep abusing Islam’s almighty Prophet with disgusting and disgraceful cartoons using excuses of freedom of speech. Be God’s curse upon you!”

Rather than capitulating to the violence, the magazine lampooned it.

Slaughtered For Satire, Ctd

https://twitter.com/thekarami/statuses/552898632320831489

Tony Barber’s reaction to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo has been criticised for seeming to blame the victim:

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.”

France’s South Park

A reader writes:

enhanced-27032-1420647847-2Here’s something I’d like to contribute re: the massacre. First, I went to high school with the daughter of one of the victims, a long time ago but still. I met him and knew him – a very nice and funny guy. So it’s shocking on a personal level.

Second, these things do not usually happen in France. Especially the part where a commando uses automatic weapons (AK-47). It’s very hard to procure AK-47s in France. It’s not on sale at Walmart, like here. So this means these are organized criminals (obviously).

Charlie Hebdo is an institution. Its humor was always very corrosive and harsh. The writers and illustrators have been active in one form or another since the late ’60s, making fun of everybody and angering everybody since then.

Its first incarnation, aptly called “Hara-Kiri” was the most scandalous weekly magazine you could find.

The week after the General de Gaulle died, they came out with the title: “Tragic ball at Colombey: one dead.” (Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises was the village where the General’s private residence was located). After the scandal, they were forbidden to print and had to start another weekly under a new name.

enhanced-22753-1420647659-17Charlie was always committed to intellectual anarchism, virulently anti-clerical and anti-religion and resolutely left wing. But always in a hilarious manner. There is no 40-year-old French person of all political persuasion who has not read and laughed along with Charlie’s weekly delivery of caricatures.

More recently, Charlie been printing lots of cartoons making fun of Islamists and their Prophet. They were already the target of a bombing a couple of years ago. So everybody is thinking what I am thinking. If it turns out to be the doing of an Islamist cell, this is almost like France’s 9/11. On a much smaller scale, but France is a much smaller country. To assassinate the comedians and the satirists is as big, if not bigger thing. It is a direct impact on France’s most cherished cultural trait: the active, public, vocal disrespect and skepticism towards any form of authority, political or religious.

I am crestfallen and scared. This is a very dark moment.

Amy Davidson adds:

Recently, the magazine had mocked the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. Its last tweet before the attack was of a cartoon making fun of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That is not recklessness; it’s how one knows that ISIS has not won, and never will. There Charlie-Hebdo-Secondary2-320ought to be more such tweets. (Whether ISIS in particular had a role in this attack is a question that can’t be answered at this stage; its members are, sadly, not the only ones in the terrorism business.)

The current issue of Charlie Hebdo, published the day of the shooting, featured a caricature of the novelist Michel Houellebecq on the cover. Houellebecq’s new novel, “Submission,” also out Wednesday, according to the Times, “predicts a future France run by Muslims, in which women forsake Western dress and polygamy is introduced.” The drawing of Houellebecq, accompanied by a joke about Ramadan, is not flattering. The French police have added the protection of Houellebecq to their list of priorities on what is, by all accounts, a traumatic and disorienting day for the entire country.

Update from a reader:

I have to ask, does your reader who states:

Especially the part where a commando uses automatic weapons (AK-47). It’s very hard to procure AK-47s in France. It’s not on sale at Walmart, like here.

… understand that automatic weapons are not on sale at Wal-Mart? Granted, something of the point may stand – it’s not as if illegal firearms play no role in crime in the US – but it makes me question someone’s ability to expound on a topic of they’re willing to throw out factual inaccurate remarks in the process.

(Top cover translates to “Love: Stronger than hate.” Middle cover depicts Catholic bishops discussing how to get away with pedophilia. Bottom cover is the aforementioned one featuring a caricature of the Houellebecq.)

Slaughtered For Satire

The Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has in the past been condemned and firebombed for its satirical depictions of the prophet Muhammad, were ambushed this morning by two gunmen, who killed 12 people before fleeing the scene. A massive manhunt is now underway throughout the French capital:

Visiting the scene of the country’s worst atrocity in decades, the French president, François Hollande, described it as “a terrorist attack, without a doubt”. Hollande said the assault, which happened at about 11.30am on Wednesday after the magazine’s staff had gathered for their weekly editorial meeting, was “an act of exceptional barbarism”. Warning that several other attacks had been foiled in recent weeks, the president called for national unity and convened an emergency cabinet meeting. The French government raised the terror alert level in the greater Paris region to the highest level possible. …

A spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office, Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, confirmed that 12 people had been killed in the attack. Police said three attackers were involved, two who entered the building and a third who drove a car to the scene, in rue Nicolas Appert in the 11th arrondissement in eastern Paris. The gunmen escaped in the car before abandoning it in the 19th arrondissement, where they hijacked another car, ordering the motorist out.

The Guardian is live-blogging. As of this writing, the gunmen have not been identified or apprehended, and no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, though ISIS had previously threatened to target France. Katie Zavadski speaks with a terrorism expert on what made this attack unusual:

That the attackers sped away instead of fighting to the death, however, means that Wednesday’s attack is different in style from the suicide attacks often deployed by terror organizations. Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, tells Daily Intelligencer that the highly-trained gunmen may have been too valuable to waste on such a mission — especially given that a suicide attack would have only required one bomber. “This is a far more dangerous kind of attacker because the terrorist group invests heavily in their training and preparation, and will be able to have a second or even a third strike if they want to really spread terror and panic beyond the magazine and the 11th arrondissement,” she said, referring to the area of Paris where the attack occurred.

Max Fisher stands up for Charlie Hebdo’s dedication to pushing Islamists’ buttons:

The magazine was not just criticized by Islamist extremists. At different points, even France’s devoutly secular politicians have questioned whether the magazine went too far; French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius once asked of its cartoons, “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”

It is, actually. Part of Charlie Hebdo’s point was that respecting the taboos strengthens their censorial power. Worse, allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists’ premises: that free speech and religion are inherently at odds (they are not), and that there is some civilizational conflict between Islam and the West (there isn’t). These are also arguments, by the way, made by Islamophobes and racists, particularly in France, where hatred of Muslim immigrants from north and west Africa is a serious problem.

Michael Rubin comes to a similar conclusion:

Satire and ridicule are like carnival caricatures. They may exaggerate, but they strike a chord because their basis in fact resonates with a wide audience. Such is the case also with satire. Islamists cannot handle free thinking at the best of times, but ridicule is their kryptonite, for it shows that the would-be caliphs have no clothes.

Free speech can be a powerful tool, and so Western liberals should rally around Charlie Hebdo. To suggest that the satirical outlet brought violence upon itself is to suggest women wearing bikinis invite rape. Do not blame the victims, but rather the perpetrators. Recognize that free speech is under assault, and that it is a value worth protecting. Let us hope that no government or publisher responds to today’s violence with self-censorship, as some commentators and journalists have counseled under similar circumstances. If they do, the Islamists have won and all man’s progress since the Enlightenment is at peril.

But Massie despairs of the aftermath of this attack:

Doubtless some will still, even now, find a way to blame the victims. Doubtless some will do anything they can to avoid looking reality squarely in the face. Doubtless some will pretend that reality can be wished away or that responsibility can be transferred to someone, anyone, other than the perpetrators. Shame on those people. Shame. 

Doubtless, too, there will be the usual calls on all Muslims everywhere to condemn these attacks as though they bear some inchoate communal responsibility for the barbarous actions of their co-religionists. This too will be drearily predictable and familiar and, most of all, desperately unfair. Their Islam has nothing to do with this even if it is also true that other subscribers to the faith do not share their views. The platitudinous suggestion Islam is a religion of peace is evidently, abundantly, true for the vast majority of Muslims while being utterly untrue for some. And so what? Where does that leave us? Only in a state of dread that’s matched only by its inadequacy.