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Posts Tagged ‘France’

Après Charlie Hebdo, Thoughts on Free Expression and Islamic Violence

Friday, January 9th, 2015

CoverStory-Solidarite-690-938-08192139Will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like their hate-filled, illiberal mirror image, or will we, as the guardians of the modern world, as the custodians of freedom and the occupants of the privileged lands of plenty, go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice? Will we become the suits of armour our fear makes us put on, or will we continue to be ourselves? The frontier both shapes our character and tests our mettle. I hope we pass the test. —Salman Rushdie, “Step Across This Line” (2002)

“Mr. [Didier] Cantat spoke for many when he said the attacks could fuel greater anti-immigrant sentiment. ‘We are told Islam is for God, for peace,’ he said. ‘But when you see this other Islam, with the jihadists, I don’t see peace, I see hatred. So people can’t tell which is the real Islam.’ ”New York Times


In our first post after wishing for a new year with less “horribilis,” we would like to offer some thoughts about the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris of Wednesday, January 7.

First, along with people around the world, we are shocked and disgusted by the slaughter in Paris, and we send condolences and commiserations to the people of France—especially to the families and friends of those who were killed (eleven staff members and one police officer). Vive la France. Long live the free press and freedom of expression. Some members of LNW work in journalism and publishing, and we remember how some of our colleagues at Viking (especially in the London offices) were at risk during the Satanic Verses fatwa (1989–) against British novelist Salman Rushdie (born into a Muslim family), we feel for the victims and those still at risk.

We will not, however, echo thousands or millions of others who are saying “Je suis Charlie.” For one thing, we had never heard of the publication before Wednesday. Also, we don’t claim to be that brave—nor are we that reckless. Although we defend and depend upon freedom of speech and the principles of a free press—particularly for investigative journalism into corporate or governmental wrongdoing—it is our opinion that Charlie Hebdo was being unnecessarily, irresponsibly provocative, poking a hornet’s nest over and over, for fun and profit. Of course they did not deserve to be harmed, much less massacred. But, in a country that has about a 7 percent Muslim population, and after a fire-bombing of their offices in 2011 (in response to a satirical front-cover depiction of the Prophet Muhammad), and with police protection for the editor, they had to know that they were running a very serious risk of bloody retribution by incensed, offended believers. (We also thought Sony was extremely irresponsible in making and hoping to profit from a film about the fictional assassination of an actual, living head of state, but that’s another matter.)

Now, there is a long and life-sustaining tradition of satire in France (and it lives on, for example, in New Orleans’s satirical Carnival krewes), as there is in Britain, and any publication should be able to print anything it wants—particularly if the satire is directed at errant politicians and the rich and powerful when they obnoxiously throw their weight around. It is also true that devout Muslims are not noted for their sense of humor. But we do not know what it’s like to grow up Islamic, so we don’t understand how irreverent (or any) depictions of the Prophet Muhammad can be blasphemous; we’ll have to take their word for it.

By personal heritage and by Louisiana’s historic ties to France, we may be more sympathetic to France and French culture than the average American, but for many years we have also been friends with more than a few Muslims (from Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, etc.), so this atrocity pulls us in more than one direction.

And yet, but now . . . Even liberal, tolerant Americans and other westerners are saying enough of the familiar excuse that “[this latest atrocity] is not Islam; Islam is peace.” We want to hear the grand ayatollah and other prominent mullahs and imams denounce this kind of violence, but it seems we never do. Could it be that they have denounced the killings, but for some reason their denunciations are filtered out by a biased western media? We don’t think so.

(Former president George W. Bush did a good thing when shortly after September 11 he emphasized that “Islam is peace,” and gave signals that Americans should refrain from acts of retribution against innocent Muslims. Maybe he was asked to say this by his close family friend Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. In any case, it was the right thing to do, and we commend Bush for having made the statement.)

JeSuisCharlieThis blog has tried to be tolerant of Muslims and understanding of their grievances. As stated in a previous post, since high school and college days we’ve had quite a few friends from the Middle East, and we admire and respect and sometimes love them. But we have no tolerance for extremists of any kind, foreign or domestic. (See “Anti-Islamic Furor Helps al Qaeda, Endangers America,” LNW 8/23/10)

There is some hope, however, that this view is shared by moderate Muslims. Last week Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said in a speech to Egypt’s clerics, “It is unbelievable that the thought we hold holy pushes the Muslim community to be a source of worry, fear, danger, murder and destruction to all the world. . . . You need to stand sternly.”

Meanwhile, Think Progress says the Associated Press reports that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of a Lebanese Hezbollah group, “said extremists who murder and behead people have done more harm to Islam than ‘anyone else in history.’ ” Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also denounced the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center (though not on the Pentagon).

We are not alone in wanting to hear the ayatollah and prominent mullahs firmly and clearly denounce jihadist killings—not only September 11 but also the bombings and attacks in Madrid (2004), London (2005), and Mumbai (2008), etc.—as well as ISIS’s calls for slayings of non-Muslims by “homegrown” killers in western countries. (On the Jan. 7 show, Rachel Maddow lists recent random, low-tech killings by jihadist extremists in London, Australia, and elsewhere.)

In late September 2005, while many Americans were still reeling from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published some editorial cartoons of Muhammad under the headline “The face of Muhammad.” A hot controversy about self-censorship and criticism of Islam ensued. Read more about it here.)

A few months later, after stormy protests (and about 200 deaths) around the world, Christopher Hitchens published a piece in Slate, “Stand Up for Denmark!

You wish to say that it was . . . a small newspaper in Copenhagen that lit the trail? What abject masochism and nonsense. It was the arrogant Danish mullahs who patiently hawked those cartoons around the world (yes, don’t worry, they are allowed to exhibit them as much as they like), until they finally provoked a vicious response against the economy and society of their host country. . . . The hypocrisy here is shameful, nauseating, unpardonable. The original proscription against any portrayal of the prophet, not that this appears to be absolute, was superficially praiseworthy because it was intended as a safeguard against idolatry and the worship of images. But now see how this principle is negated. A rumor of a cartoon in a faraway country is enough to turn the very name Mohammed into a fetish-object and an excuse for barbaric conduct. As I write this, the death toll is well over thirty and—guess what?—a mullah in Pakistan has offered $1 million and a car as a bribe for the murder of ‘the cartoonist.’ This incitement will go unpunished and most probably unrebuked.

—“Stand Up for Denmark!” Slate, February 21, 2006, and in Christopher Hitchens, Arguably: Essays (2011)

Why are these satirical cartoons being printed in the first place? One reason could be that there is among Europeans a profound impatience and intolerance of immigrants who refuse to assimilate, who stay in their own close-knit neighborhoods, insist on wearing attire (including the hijab) from a world that is alien to Europe, and seem to hate or keep at a distance the culture into which they have settled. The widely admired historian Walter Laqueur explained the situation in his 2007 book The Last Days of Europe (the title refers in part to the continent’s overly permissive immigration policies).

Many of the immigrants of 2006 live in societies separate form those of the host countries. This is true for big cities and small. They have no German or British or French friends, they do not meet them, and frequently they do not speak their language. Their preachers tell these immigrants that their values and traditions are greatly superior to those of the infidels and that any contact with them, even with neighbors, is undesirable. Their young people complain about being victims and being excluded , but their social and cultural separateness is quite often voluntary. Western European governments and societies are often criticized for not having done more to integrate these new citizens. But even if they had done much more, is it certain that integration would have succeeded? For integration is not a one-way street.

Do these immigrants identify with their new homeland? If you ask them, they will frequently tell you that they are Muslims (or Turks or Nigerians) living in Britain, France, or Germany. They get their politics, religion, and culture from Arab and Turkish television channels. . . . However, they have no wish to go back to Turkey or Algeria—this is their country and they show it; no one should have any doubt about it.

—Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe, pp. 7–8


We’ve probably said more than enough . . . for now. Many of us will continue to reflect on what it is we’re doing, what we have gotten ourselves into—never forget the West’s thirst for oil that has brought our corporations and armies into the Muslim lands in the first place,  and the complicated legacy of European colonialism—and how we can live together in this globalized, intermixed world. It’s an International World, after all, and we have to find ways to live together. We hope that the Muslim clerics will heed the call of Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Let’s close with the final two paragraphs of Salman Rushdie’s “Step Across this Line” (the source of the epigraph above), an address given at Yale University not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001 (The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, February 25 and 26, 2002):

Even before the attacks on America, I was concerned that, in Britain and Europe as well as America, the pressures on artistic and even intellectual freedoms were growing—that cautious, conservative political and institutional forces were gaining the upper hand, and that many social groups were deliberately fostering a new, short-fuse culture of easy offendedness, so that less and less was becoming sayable all the time, and more and more kinds of speech were being categorized as transgressive. If it was important to resist this cultural closing-in before 9/11, it’s twice as important now. The freedoms of art and the intellect are closely related to the general freedoms of society as a whole. The struggle for artistic freedom serves to crystallize the larger question that we were all asked when the planes hit the buildings: how should we live now? How uncivilized are we going to allow our own world to become in response to so barbaric an assault? 

We are living, I believe, in a frontier time, one of the great hinge periods in human history, in which great changes are coming about at great speed. On the plus side, the end of the cold war, the revolution in communications technology, great scientific achievements such as the completion of the human genome project; in the minus column, a new kind of war against new kinds of enemies fighting with terrible new weapons. We will all be judged by how we handle ourselves in this time. What will be the spirit of this frontier? Will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like their hate-filled, illiberal mirror image, or will we, as the guardians of the modern world, as the custodians of freedom and the occupants of the privileged lands of plenty, go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice? Will we become the suits of armour our fear makes us put on, or will we continue to be ourselves? The frontier both shapes our character and tests our mettle. I hope we pass the test.


“Vive la France.” Click here for President Obama’s remarks written in a condolence book at the French Embassy in Washington on Thursday, Jan. 8. Video here.


New Yorker cover illustration by Ana Juan; broken pencils illustration by Lucille Clerc.