#JeSuisCharlie? No, I'm really not Charlie Hebdo: Here's Why


Je suis Charlie

Credit: New America Media

Crossposted from New America Media
Je suis Charlie?
Well, not quite. I really am not Charlie Hebdo.
Nothing – no cartoon, no book, no song – justifies the kind of shooting rampage that happened in Paris. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy mosque in Paris says, “These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their souls to hell.”
And he is not talking about the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He is talking about those who mowed them down and fled.
But the spontaneous outpouring of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtags also elides over the really thorny issue of free speech. While we want free speech to be absolute, in the real world, it is not. And even as we stand with Charlie Hebdo we cannot pretend not to understand that.
Today, as a tribute to Charlie Hebdo, outlets in India like Mint and NDTV have published a sort of collector’s edition of some of their cartoons. It’s a respectful gesture but it’s also somewhat misleading.
Assuming most readers in India are not regular consumers of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, it gives them a more sanitized, PG-rated impression of their fare. As Jacob Canfield writes in the Hooded Utilitarian, “its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.”
And that’s putting it mildly.
In reality, some of Charlie Hebdo’s most offensive cartoons would not be published in most parts of the world. Few media outlets would print a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad crouched on all fours with his genitals bared or show the Father, Son and Holy Ghost sodomizing each other. For that matter, most will balk at a cartoon like the one Onion put out showing a Lord Ganesha, Jesus, Moses, and Buddha all naked with erect phalluses having an orgy in the clouds? Now, that’s being equal opportunity offenders but that remains way outside the pale for most of the world. Anyway, in a freedom of expression absolute, it should not matter if you are an equal opportunity offender or a one-sided offender.
Let’s make no mistake – these cartoons are offensive to most people. And they are meant to be that way. They exist almost as a way to test freedom of expression to its limits rather than to make a satirical point. “This is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good,” writes Canfield. “Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist and remains racist.”
But that does not mean they deserved it. Not at all. The true mettle of freedom of expression is always tested against what we consider offensive or hateful or repugnant. That’s where the protection of freedom of expression actually means something. It’s easy to stand up for freedom of expression when we agree with the viewpoint being depicted or do not care about it one way or the other. It gets far trickier when we are called upon to defend the right of someone to say what offends us deeply – whether it’s about our religion, our mothers, or our national leaders. The right to offend always butts up against the right to be offended.
In India, the latter routinely trumps the former. We prescribe to the thumb rule – when in doubt, ban. A publication putting out something like the cartoons Charlie Hebdo was infamous for would be picketed and shut down in double quick time. Our laws protecting “communal harmony” have far more teeth than our laws protecting freedom of expression. That’s why an NDTV or a Mint has to be careful about what images it selects from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons even as it wants to show solidarity.
As much as we might want to say “Charlie Hebdo tum aagey badho, hum tumharey saath hain” we cannot pretend that freedom of expression in India is the same as freedom of expression in France is the same as freedom of expression in the United States.
In an ideal world, the response to a cartoon that offends should be another cartoon. The response to a book that offends should be to not read it. The response to a film that offends could be a #BoycottPK social media campaign.
But the reality is there is no absolute right to free speech.
And yes, we forget that even France, which has become the embattled bastion of freedom of expression today, wears its own limits on its sleeve. Its staunch defense of freedom of expression did not prevent it from passing a ban on the niqab even though it was deliberately veiled as a ban on “clothing intended to conceal the face.” “Bans like these undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect anyone compelled to do so, just as laws in other countries forcing women to dress in a particular way undermine their rights,” says Izza Leghtas at Human Rights Watch. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab.
A Reuters report points out that many of the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo got their start in another satirical magazine called Hara Kiri which proclaimed its aim to be “inane and nasty.” That magazine was banned in 1970 after printing a mock death notice for General Charles de Gaulle. Its reincarnation after the ban was as Charlie Hebdo.
Everyone will read the lesson they want into the tragedy in Paris. Some will see it as proof that Muslim immigrants can never be truly French because they do not get what former President Nicholas Sarkozy called an “old French tradition, satire.” Some will see it as evidence of France’s xenophobic attitude towards immigrants coming home to roost. Salman Rushdie sees the attack as “the deadly mutation in the heart of Islam” and how “religious totalitarianism combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedom.” Of course, that “threat” is not news in many parts of the world. People being killed in Iraq and Syria by ISIS or in Afghanistan by the Taliban have known that for a long, long time. It just hits us harder when it hits us in Paris. Or Sydney. Or London.
And very ordinary Muslim immigrants minding their own business will probably bear the brunt of the backlash as Arabs and Sikhs in the US did post-9/11 for as Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo once told Le Monde while defending his right to offend that “when activists need a pretext to justify their violence they will find it.”
But that argument offers us no answers to the knotty question of freedom of expression, an idea to which we all think we subscribe. Those JeSuisCharlie profile pictures on Facebook, perfect little squares all of them, create an image of geometric uniformity as if we subscribe to that right in equal measure. But if anything this tragedy forces us to admit that when it comes to what constitutes freedom of expression, most of us are not even close to being on the same page.
I think of myself as a staunch supporter of freedom of expression but I realize the disquieting truth that I could never publish some of the cartoons Charlie Hebdo did. It would go against every fiber of my being. But I will defend their right to exist and condemn what happened to them with every fiber of my being as well. But I just cannot say #IAmCharlieHebdo.

9 thoughts on “#JeSuisCharlie? No, I'm really not Charlie Hebdo: Here's Why

  1. I support the right of bloggers to publish offensive material here in Tikkun Daily and elsewhere. That material includes holocaust denial, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and painting Jews as a deceitful race deserving of anti Semitic attacks. Yes as a Jew I am offended, But I would defend their right to offend me and strike back at them with a pen. Je suis Charlie.

  2. You have perfectly expressed my views on this.
    I found those cartoons eerily similar to the cartoons of Jews during Germany’s Nazi era. They racist and vile.
    Those people didn’t deserve to die and I am appalled at what those TWO men did, but neither do I condone what Charlie was trying to do.
    No I am not Charlie…but I hope I could be Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim French police officer who died trying to defend those racists and their freedom of speech, even tho it dehumanized him and his religion and his people. Despite their evil views, he rushed in to defend them.

    • Landen, I have news for you, there is a great BIG difference. What was published in Nazi Germany was done by Nazi government propagandists. It was government policy. The Nazi government used that propaganda to launch attacks that resulted in the Holocaust. The magazine’s cartoons were privately published and were nog endorsed by the French government. Je suis Charlie.

  3. Dear Gentle Friends, First we must weep. Then the can remember all the terrible things Christian anti- Semitism has done to kill 100 million Jews, & bemoan the bad influence of Christians on Muslims. We can retell the painful tales of the Crusades, the expulsion of the Jews & Muslims from 800 years (really more like 2 years) of harmonious living in Spain. Of all the harm, evil, & violence we can recall, none of that can throw a cloak of acceptance over the crazed, fringe, radical pervertors of Islam. Whether they came from the Saudi Arabian brand of Sunni or the Egyptian brand, or some off-shoot of Persian Shia, they have violated a sacred trust, which is our right to be human. None of us has created themselves. Allah God Bless Her/His Name (anthropomorphizing is deeply wrong because indeed we do not know) is the Ground of our Being, & no violence against another human is legitimate because it is the most profoundly blasphemous assertion, for in violence you claim to be God/Allah. None of us is Allah/God.

  4. I believe that when the threat of terror is used to silence those who disagree with a particular philosophy or political view, we must all of us step up and denounce the terrorists, even if the original statement was offensive. If FREE SPEECH is squelched, religion itself is squelched.

  5. Aha! When Zionist Jew Rose Flemming commissioned and posted insulting cartoons of Prophet of Islam at Danish newspaper, his action was defended under “Freedom of Speech” by the so-called “civilized” westerners. However, when an editor of a Tehran daily commission a “Holocaust Cartoon Contest” in December 2006 – the same “Freedom of Speech” hypocrites called the 70 participants as “anti-semites”.
    “The public’s right to know is one of the basic principles of a genuine democracy, but in Israel it not only is curtailed by “Military Press Censorship,” but also by the frequent imposition of gag orders by the civilian courts,” says Jay Bushinsky, April 15, 2011.

  6. 1. I respecg your right to post an anti Semitic response even though I am offended. Sunshine makes for a great disinfectant.
    2,. Freedom of speech include the right to label a cart0on anti Semitic or anti Islamic.
    3. Since when was there freedom of speech in Iran. I recall some young adults being jailed for making a music video with both genders
    4. Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a free press and free speech.
    Je suis Charlie.

  7. Frankly, I am so disturbed by all the sheeple (sheep+people) blindly supporting racist cartoons and slapping the overly simple slogan “Je suis Charlie” onto every single comment and e-mail. Please do yourselves a favour and read Rabbi Lerner’s article and re-read this one! Open your minds and hearts a little and put yourselves in the place of people who are marginalized and have every right to be offended by this magazine. I wonder how many “I am Chalies” have even READ the damn magazine! From the few cartoons I saw I can honestly say it looked racist and was NOT funny or satire. “Satire” means challenging the status quo NOT people without power! And no, I do not care that this is not government propaganda like the Nazi cartoons. It is still propaganda albeit by a private corporation. It does not make it any better or any less hateful. This in no way justifies the violence that happened in Paris, let’s push that assumption aside, shall we? The point is racism is racism and hate is hate. Neither side is offering anything to make this world a better place. If I must sign off with a simple slogan how about, Je ne suis pas Charlie?

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