Media

Beyond free speech: What’s lost in the debate about Charlie Hebdo

The true threat to our freedoms comes not from terrorists, but from our own governments
Photo: Kelly Kline

The massacre of 12 people in an attack at the office of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo has illuminated stark divides, even among those usually in agreement.

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Those who have not taken up the mantra Je suis Charlie, which arguably extends beyond an expression of support for free speech to personal identification with the publication, and instead critiqued the magazine’s provocative content have been accused of finding racism where there is none, of not understanding French humour and politics, and, most heinously, of callously dismissing the atrocity.

With the massive amount of coverage and social media discussion on the Paris shooting, many anglophones have for the first time come into contact with the work of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Certain caricatures, such as that depicting black French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira as a monkey, have widely circulated. Is this cartoon racist? Yes, said many upon viewing it. Others fired back that those who understood the French context knew it was in fact a message against racism: it lampooned a similar image that had come from France’s far-right National Front party; Charlie Hebdo was a leftist publication; and the creator, Charb, had participated in anti-racist actions.

Certainly this context was not familiar to most anglophones. And yet, did it ultimately render the cartoon free of racism? Crafting a work with an anti-racist intent is no guarantee that it won’t prop up racist ideas, particularly when it relies on the reproduction, in a literal sense, of anti-black imagery steeped in a history of violence. Telling readers it actually undermines racism, because that was the aim, doesn’t stem the pain that many feel when confronted with it.

Satire easily runs into the danger of reinforcing rather than subverting, of tearing open the wounds of the oppressed while declaring solidarity.

Similarly, Charlie’s extensive assailing of Islam has been defended as part of a proud French tradition of anti-clerical criticism, as though ridicule of the dominant religion, one practiced by those in positions of social power, can be equated with derision of Islam, while Muslims are among the most marginalized people in French society.

The denigration of Islam cannot be separated from ethnicity and race, particularly when those who target Muslims don’t bother to make such a distinction — a conflation made apparent in the post-9/11 targeting of brown bodies, which nets more than those who identify as Muslim, as well as the 2005 riots in France by Arab and black youth, which were misinterpreted by some commentators as involving Islamic extremism rather than a response to repressive and bleak living conditions. The dominant society does not accept Arab and African descendants as fully French, and their position on the margins is reflected spatially through their ghettoization. In the banlieues, housing issues, unemployment, and police violence abound; for many residents, incarceration follows.

The point of satire is to offer social commentary by skewering centres of power: this cannot be accomplished without an understanding of the dynamics at play. Satire easily runs into the danger of reinforcing rather than subverting, of tearing open the wounds of the oppressed while declaring solidarity.

To discuss these points is not to dismiss the murders. We can mourn the loss of journalists without endorsing their work. We can dissect how they may have bolstered racist ideas without suggesting their deaths were warranted. We can support the principle of free speech without approving every exercise of it.

World leaders in Paris
A series of rallies called the marches républicaines (Republican marches) occured across France on Jan. 10 and 11.
European External Action Service

But is free speech really the issue? In a formidable spectacle, world leaders and their representatives flocked to Paris to march side by side. They came from across Europe, as well as countries including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the United States, where Chelsea Manning remains in jail for leaking classified documents exposing her government’s dictatorial and bloody approach to global affairs. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney represented Canada, notorious for its muzzling of scientists and destruction of science libraries, manipulation of the press, and extreme concentration of media ownership. Amid the linked arms, free-speech hypocrisy could be found on all fronts.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, free speech has served as a red herring.

To centre the debate on the meaning of cartoons and freedom of speech is to misunderstand the fundamentals of jihadism. Drawings of Muhammad and other expressions of disrespect towards Islam serve as pretexts for violent action, where jihadis aim to spread their values, including the devaluation of human life, and their aesthetics, where blood and carnage are tools in their quest to alter human values and change the nature of civilization. The racist backlash that follows attacks such as the one in Paris plays into their hands. As Muslims face increasing surveillance, physical violence, and ostracism within Western societies, they provide easier targets for jihadis. It’s not so easy to recruit among people living well.

Thus, the Paris attack cannot be seen as terrorist revenge for Islamophobia in the West. In fact, as others have written, the likely motive for the shooting was to increase Islamophobia and isolate and radicalize youth who might otherwise have little taste for violence, or even politics and religion. When the fires of Islamophobia are stoked, jihadis benefit.

République and laïcité, models of assimilation and secularism upon which French society is based, must be said to have failed when ostracism occurs in their names.

Jihadi terrorism knows its enemies well. With the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda sought to provoke the United States, to make the world a battlefield, and former U.S. president George W. Bush obliged. In France, al-Qaeda and ISIS have thrust themselves into a social breach that existed long before the Charlie Hebdo massacre. République and laïcité, models of assimilation and secularism upon which French society is based, must be said to have failed when ostracism occurs in their names. When the école républicaine cannot produce equal citizens, when it cannot provide Muslim youth with tools of expression, they are pushed to look outside for social and political inspiration. Without the creation of new and worthwhile ideas of revolt and change in French society, jihadi groups can appear to fill the gap.

The political scene in France is such that there is talk of the likelihood that the National Front, a party buoyed by colonial nostalgia with an anti-immigrant mission that includes deportation, could win the next government. And that would be just fine with jihadis.

Jihadism is a sign of sickness in a society. The Paris attackers were the product of a country in which immigrants and their children are among the most dehumanized and live in conditions that foster despair, a sense of dislocation, and social problems. Indeed, the appeal of terrorism is often the ability to leave a mark, to make an otherwise miserable life mean something. If there are no other avenues for the alienated and dispossessed to find meaning or support, then more of them will succumb to the allure of quick fixes painted in blood.

France has to find solutions at home by taking a critical look at itself.

The debate now should focus on how to stop the social and economic neglect of communities at home, and the fuelling of war abroad, in order to create the conditions for societal inclusiveness essential to safety and peace. The true threat to our freedoms comes not from terrorists, but from our own governments.

As we mourn the deaths in Paris, let’s oppose restrictions on civil liberties and remember that there can be no greater victory for the attackers than to fuel the flames of intolerance.

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