CHARLIE HEBDO, CENSORSHIP, AND THE DANGERS OF AUTHORITARIAN SYMPATHIES

Republished from Free Press Houston

2015 had barely begun when, on the 7th of January, two gunmen forced their way into the headquarters of a French satirical publication and opened fire, killing twelve and wounding eleven. The gunmen were heard shouting “Allahu akbar” and “the Prophet is avenged.” The attack, for which Al Qaeda in Yemen would later claim credit, shocked the world with its motive and barbarity. Hundreds of thousands of French people turned out in marches and rallies across the country in shows of support. Leaders in the Muslim world joined millions of those from any or no faith in denouncing the vicious attacks.

But a troubling response also stood out, and should be addressed. Some leftist writers and publications joined right-wing religious conservatives and one controversial British Sunni Muslim cleric to say, more or less, that the publication, Charlie Hebdo, brought the killing upon themselves with the cartoons they published. The religious right saying that “they had it coming” isn’t the least bit surprising to me. What disappoints me, personally, is to see anyone at all from the left also say anything along the lines of “they had it coming.”

Brendan O’Neill, a British writer complains of the rise of today’s “Stepford student.” I share his concern about a generation of students so worried about their ideological and intellectual comfort that they’re willing to shut down people and ideas and discussions they don’t like. One common tactic is what’s called “no platforming,” where they petition universities to deny speaking opportunities to controversial figures.

The Charlie Hebdo murders are the ultimate example of a no platforming attempt, and censorship in one of its most extreme forms. I call it censorship because it is a successful attempt to silence people by killing those who produce what others find objectionable. The dead certainly won’t be able to produce anymore writings or cartoons  so, mission accomplished? Fortunately not, because It’s also a similarly extreme case of the Streisand effect, which states that any attempt to suppress the publication of something exacerbates its spread with a print run of at least 3 million copies of Charlie Hebdo (which normally prints roughly 60,000 copies) without any interruption.  The point of advocating for free speech is the respect of the right to present words and ideas which challenge those words and ideas which should be challenged, which should be any idea, in almost any form.

This massacre inevitably evokes comparisons with the Rushdie Affair. In 1988 British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie wrote a book called The Satanic Verses. The book, which Rushdie described as not being about Islam, but immigrant experiences of “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay” faced accusations of blasphemy. For this, he was placed under a religious order by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran calling on Muslims (at the time Rushdie was one) to kill him and his publishers…for writing a book. Many of his translators would face violent attacks, some of them fatal, for making such a book more available globally. Rushdie has since 2006 described himself a “hard-line atheist” and the order still remains in place. In 2012, he wrote a book about his experiences in a life of hiding entitled Joseph Anton, the alias he used while running for his life.

It’s important to remember the hostile response too many had at the time for, guess who? Salman Rushdie. Labor and Conservative members of the British parliament at the time villainized him by marching in favor of banning the book, or denouncing him for blasphemy and betraying everything about his upbringing. But Salman Rushdie to this day rightly laments such sentiments similarly expressed in today’s publications, and in the blogosphere as the arrival of the “‘But Brigade.’” “Murder is wrong, but…” “I’m all for free speech, but…”

Today some similarly couch their not-quite-but-maybe-one-or-two-steps-removed sympathies for the attackers, or lack thereof for the victims, in calling the publication racist. Some writers do so with no evidence, nor even a single argument in support of that claim. Others do so by quoting long-time French Communist Party supporter Stéphane Charbonnier, one of the gunned-down cartoonists, in which he simply says that he is not a Muslim.

Certainly, some of their cartoons come off as questionable at first glance. I don’t know exactly what they were trying to get at with their Boko Haram cover, for example. I don’t speak French, so some of the contexts and nuances are inaccessible to me. Some French citizens have expressed their annoyance at these accusations of racism, noting that the supposedly racist cartoons actually, ironically ridicule the attitudes and policies of the French Right. They also express irritation with Americans who arrogated the role of Grand Cultural Arbiter without taking any real interest in French politics and culture. Unfortunately, the people who produced these images are no longer alive to explain them.

The refrain we hear from those who apparently sympathize with the attackers is that “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.” That may do well and good for someone getting fired from their job for saying something stupid in public, but 22 people were made casualties because a group of people feel that people should die for drawing cartoons. Bluntly put, the term used to describe this behavior is victim-blaming.

Some are concerned that these attacks will stoke the enduring climate of Islamophobia in Europe, which has taken on a more substantive and sinister veneer with far-right, nationalist parties making substantial gains since the recession began. Parisian Mosques have been attacked in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. It would be no surprise were it the work of far-right supporters of Front Nationale (the far right political party which picked up 25% of the vote in the last election). It should be noted, too, that far-right gains come also with the specter of anti-semitism, which looms in ways not seen for decades.

But we should not let this discourage us from principled stands in favor of free speech. You don’t have to fall into the trap some censorship advocates set of being goaded into defending content of a statement while defending the right to say it. Regarding free speech, It’s been said “It’s all okay, or none of it’s okay”. I steadfastly agree with that.  Everything should be open for discussion, every subject should be on the table, and everyone should have the right to hear, or not hear what they want to (with very few exceptions, none of which easily come to mind), without others assuming the power to control what others get to see and hear because they don’t like it.  What people say should stand or fall on its own merits.