Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine whose staff were murdered for the crime of blasphemy. This fact alone should entail support and sympathy from everyone who believes the right to mock ideas and cause offence trumps acquiescence to blasphemy law. But it hasn’t. The qualification of ‘but’ is still bandied about and it rests on the premise that, while Charlie Hebdo had every right to offend religious sensibilities, giving them an award for courage constitutes an endorsement of their work. This reasoning has led reputable writers such as Teju Cole, Michael Ondaatje and Peter Carey and three others to publicly declare disapproval of PEN America and consequently disengage themselves from an annual PEN gala celebrating Charlie Hebdo.
Teju Cole remarkably prefaces his disapproval of Charlie Hebdo by saying he is “a free speech fundamentalist”. He argues that Charlie Hebdo has the right to satirise religion but giving them an award for bravery lends moral credibility to their satire, which allegedly demonises the Muslim community. His words were published by The Intercept:
I’m a free-speech fundamentalist, but I don’t think it’s a good use of our
headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular.
L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different
as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to
sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been
difficult for people to understand, and any dissent from the consensus
about Charlie Hebdo is read as somehow “supporting the terrorists,” or
somehow believing that they deserved to be murdered.
Anyone oblivious to the facts may be forgiven after reading this for concluding Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine, analogous to Der Sturmer and without any redeeming features. Racism and hate speech carry a toxicity which shouldn’t be applauded with an award for courage, it is suggested. Bravery means Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Bravery doesn’t mean a magazine that attacks the earth’s downtrodden 1.6 billion Muslims.
But Charlie Hebdo are not racist and their staff were not murdered for racism and hate speech. They were murdered for depicting a religious figure. Rewarding them with an award for bravery therefore constitutes an endorsement of a liberal ideal: people in free societies have the right to offend religious beliefs unencumbered by the threat of murder and intimidation; this right must be reaffirmed and encouraged, especially after an attempt at enforcing blasphemy law through murder.
Francine Prose in The Guardian also recycled the arguments from taste:
Perhaps my sense of this will be clearer if I mention the sort of writers and whistleblowers whom I think would be appropriate candidates: Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, the journalists who have risked (and in some cases lost) their lives to report on the wars in the Middle East. Or the extremely brave Lydia Cacho, who has fearlessly reported on government corruption in Mexico, along with the dozens and dozens of Mexican journalists who have been murdered for reporting on the narco wars
This strikes me as petty and myopic in the face of the facts. So I’ll restate the facts again: In a western democracy, people who drew cartoons of a religious figure were murdered by those who espouse a viciously totalitarian, theocratic ideology. Charlie Hebdo published an image of Muhammed a week after large chunks of their staff were murdered. They were defiant in the face of murderous fascism. The content of what they published is irrelevant as to why they are feted as brave, so arguments from taste miss the point. Their murder, instead, symbolised an attack against our most elementary liberty and for that they deserve our unreserved solidarity and nothing less.
Glenn Greenwald also, unsurprisingly, misses the point. He argues thus:
What, pray tell, is remotely admirable about sitting in the West — which has been invading, bombing, and otherwise dominating Muslim countries around the world for decades, and has spent the last decade depicting Islam as the Gravest Threat — and echoing that prevailing sentiment by bashing Muslims? Nothing is easier than mocking and maligning the group in your society most marginalized and oppressed.
An invitation to double standards is made here. Muslims are oppressed in a western context therefore offending their sensibilities perpetuates this victimisation. This is patronising to Muslims as it assumes they can’t accept the informal contract that attends an open society – being able to face offence, gratuitous or otherwise. But more perniciously, it nullifies universal human rights; one standard for western people, another for fragile Muslims. Those dedicated to celebrating the courage of Charlie Hebdo all recognise that right to draw cartoons that is potentially offensive supersedes the right to be offended, and a visceral attack against the right to mock beliefs necessitates solidarity with those attacked. No matter their provenance, offending deeply held beliefs is acceptable in a free society. Murdering people for offending beliefs is unacceptable. This is why Charlie Hebdo are awarded for their bravery. Their staff were murdered for offending religion but they continued to offend. Their actions entrenched and enacted our most noble principle in the face of unimaginable terror. Je suis Charlie.