It’s been a month since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and there are lots of things I wanted to say. I’m not sure I can be perfectly coherent or organised. But I need to say them, so I’ll try.
The reason why it’s hard to organise one’s thoughts is that it’s a messy situation. It would be lovely to be able to pick a definite side, to have good guys pitted against bad guys and not just a bunch of people flailing around, trying to do their best (or sometimes not) and just all messing up in varying proportions. I count myself among those trying their best and messing up, by the way.
The journalists killed in the attacks messed up, too. And did their best. And this is why I’ve been deeply uncomfortable with some of the reactions that emerged, calling them horrible racists, shunning them and their work and reminding the world that just because some people died for the cartoons they drew is no reason to celebrate their work. I’m uncomfortable, not because I completely disagree, but because it seems, once more, that it’s a way to pick up a side, and it also seems to me that it would be a decent thing to wait a little before throwing mud all over those people, because that’s usually what you do when people die, unless they were truly hateful and horrible during their lives. Which those guys were not.
I’d like to go over the context a little bit, if I may. And no, I’m not going to play the ‘cultural differences’ card. I’m not going to argue that we’re so special and different in France that what seems racist or sexist to other Westerners isn’t racist or sexist to us because of some arcane cultural reason. I did (and still do) find many of Charlie’s cartoons objectionable. But unlike what some people seem to believe, tons of people realised that. ‘Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism’: I’ve read that in some places after the attacks, and it pained me, because in this particular case, shit, criticism came from everywhere. Left-wing, right-wing, even the bloody government actually told them to stop because they were starting to be tired of paying policemen for their protection. Also, people were absolutely exercising their right to not buy a newspaper they didn’t approve of. In fact, Charlie Hebdo was in such financial trouble that the only reason we can be sure there will still be a Charlie in 2016 is because of the support they received after the attacks. Yes, I know. Ironic.
My point is, this wasn’t Fox News. This wasn’t a bunch of powerful old white guys spewing venom all over the place in perfect impunity and getting all the money and attention in the world to do so. They were heavily criticised, and while they defended themselves, I think it would be fair to remember that they actually did not pull the ‘unlimited freedom of speech’ card in their defence. They defended themselves, obviously, by stating the reasons why they kept publishing those cartoons. Because there actually was a reason, beyond wanting to annoy people.
Charlie Hebdo journalists had been receiving death threats ever since they republished the Danish caricatures in 2005. And the reason why they republished those caricatures was precisely the death threats their authors had received. They were not acting offended because someone had criticised them. They actually were in the situation where desisting would mean giving in to actual death threats. In other words, for once, this was truly a question of freedom of speech, in the sense of not getting yourself be scared into saying what your opponents want you to say. And that’s messy. It would have been much easier if this was a situation like GamerGate, with a bunch of hateful, pathetically entitled, despicable jerks threatening feminist women for daring to speak about an innocuous subject. Then it would be easier to pick a side. Yet the Charlie Hebdo situation was exactly like GamerGate: misguided, despicable people feeling it was all right to send death threats in reaction to being offended, and journalists, who, as a result, felt that desisting would have meant letting the terrorists win. I’m definitely calling GamerGaters terrorists, by the way.
Yes, there probably would have been a way to keep disrespecting religion without the added sprinkling of racism. They could have left out the caricatures of big-nosed Arabs and big-lipped African women, and been just as effective in their message. They might have been far more sensitive in many ways instead of acting like non-White people, women and gays are just meant to be the subject matter of jokes and not actual people with their sensitivities, I’m not excusing that. That’s part of the messiness.
Side note: I also don’t quite agree that caricaturing religions is racist in itself. I’m ready to accept criticism on that point. As an atheist, I acknowledge that many atheists can be jerks in their obsessive hatred of religion (I personally don’t hate religion; I just don’t give a crap about it); but I’m usually quite baffled when I hear people calling atheists jerks just for saying that God doesn’t exist, or making fun of this or that aspect of religious beliefs. I’m not sure I see why, if you believe in God, you should be affected when someone tells you that God doesn’t exist, rather than sorry for them or indifferent. But then I’m an atheist. I may get those things completely wrong.
That put aside, another reaction that saddens me a lot is the many people calling for explicit action on the part of Muslims. Seriously, people: shut the fuck up. The message you’re really sending is not that you want reconciliation. Instead, you’re telling everyone that you’re standing there, all ready to judge whether ‘moderate Muslims’ have condemned the attacks enough, and all ready to condemn them as ‘not moderate enough’ if they fail to act up to your standards of moderation. Which of course they will. People who think it’s a problem for the Muslim community to solve within itself, but who still feel the need open their mouth and tell Muslims to do something already, are not usually people who will look at anything that might be considered a ‘positive’ reaction. They are people who will count how many Muslims have failed to say or do anything, and then will use that to say that the Muslim community is not really that ‘moderate’ and that they’re enabling terrorists. In short, they are people who badly need to shut up.
It’s not that there haven’t been problematic reactions. Many French teachers are dismayed by some of their students, who are very happy to declare that the attacks were a good thing and that Charlie had it coming. It’s no use pretending that those reactions don’t exist. There are people who approve of terrorism and that’s a fact. But it would also be useful to remember that when the Twin Towers were destroyed, many teenagers in France who had absolutely no connection to Islam, Palestine or the USA gloated over the attacks and said that the Americans had it coming. Yeah, sorry about that. It’s useful to remember that teenagers are jerks. Again, that doesn’t excuse anything either way; just because you’re a hormonal jerk and you may (hopefully) grow out of it doesn’t mean you’re not doing actual damage now. What it does mean, however, is that when teenagers in school express support for terrorism, perhaps they need guidance rather than public outrage. That’s what you do when children screw up. Instead of sending them to the police booth (when they already think of the police as their enemy anyway), maybe it would be a better idea to help them get their shit together. With actual listening and compassion. You know, what people do when they actually want results.
But staying fixated on those children (and sometimes, unfortunately, not children; not everybody grows out of being a jerk), and on the reactions of the Muslim community in general, is a terrible idea. Let’s face it once and for all: people who identify as Muslims don’t owe it to the rest of us to react as a community. I identify as a feminist, and I’m fairly riled when people expect me to express condemnation of whatever questionable thing another feminist said or did. It’s not my job. I don’t owe it to the rest of the world to re-establish the balance of global feminism. A feminist screwed up? She didn’t ask for my permission or input before she did. I have nothing to do with it. And while I’m using feminists as an example here, that’s what happens every time a member of a community you identify with screws up. It’s fairly easy to figure out when it’s your own community. You don’t ask people to take responsibility for making their community as a whole look good. In fact, you don’t ask people to identify as part of the community you think they should be a part of, full stop. There are many Muslims in France who don’t care about ‘the Muslim community’; who don’t, in fact, feel that there is such a thing. They have no responsibility in what happened. If they want to speak up, that’s great, but if they don’t want to, that’s it. Consider that they’re already doing their part against terrorism just like we’re all doing it: by not engaging in fucking terrorist acts in the first place.
Incidentally, I’m not the first one to say this. You know who said it before me? Charb.
I’m not afraid for my country. We’re not going to fall into the grip of radical Islam, whatever far-right pundits say. Our local alcoholic-with-delusions-of-being-smart, Michel Houellebecq, recently tried to start a controversy by imagining a future where milquetoast liberals get allied with an Islamic party in an attempt to fend off the far right, and thus allow France to descend into radical Islam. That’s all the more pathetic given that, in fact, if one thing is happening right now in France, it’s the opposite. The far right is getting more and more vocal in public spaces. We have people like Eric Zemmour vomiting their bile on TV every day of the week (if you don’t know who Zemmour is, google him, but make sure you keep some distance between yourself and your keyboard because you might throw up). Racist, islamophobic discourses have never fared better in recent times. I’m far more worried about the increasing number of far right seats in the parliament than about the acceptance of radical Islam.
There’s another ironic thing about that. At the moment, there is great complacency in the French media for far right discourses; it’s become normal to ask liberals to show some compassion and understanding for bigots who are, supposedly, just normal people at the end of their tether (strangely enough, few people advocate for compassion when people equally at the end of their tether start shouting insults to white people or taking an interest in radical religion), under the pretext of not ‘demonising’ far right voters. And one of the very few venues that has always refused to take that shit, and to show even an ounce of complacency for far-right nationalists… is Charlie Hebdo. In reality, those guys who died last month hated our National Front even more than they hated radical Islam. That may not excuse their racist, sexist and homophobic cartoons (again), but if we look at the big picture, it does mean one thing. Yes, even if not openly racist, they were enabling islamophobia. There’s no denying that. On the other hand, they furiously fought against radical far-right ideas, and that includes drawing militant anti-discrimination cartoons and opposing the National Front in every way they could. This is not merely symbolic: in a country where the near-totality of the media enables far-right bigoted ideas to thrive, they did (and still do) an active job of pushing back. No, they were not perfect. They were straight white guys (and some girls) who had the best intentions in the world but refused to question their own implicit biases. Sounds familiar? It’s nothing to be proud of, but reviling them is a bit strong. Especially when they’ve not been dead for a month.
And one last thing: there has been a battle between ‘Je suis Charlie’ and ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’, and it seems you have to pick a side. So let me say it: I’m not Charlie for the simple and very obvious reason that I have never written for them, I haven’t been killed and I have not taken risks for them. What I am is a French citizen who will try to do the best for her country, and that includes not expecting the ‘Muslim community’ to prove themselves to me, not pretending I’m scared when I’m not, and never believing that criticising religion should earn you the death penalty, or even post-mortem opprobrium.