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We Shouldn’t Be So Quick To Claim 'Je Suis Charlie'

Ashley Yang |
January 12, 2015 | 2:00 p.m. PST




On Wednesday, January 7, three gunmen stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine, killing 10 journalists and two police officers. 

Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed in 2011 after it printed a spoof issue featuring Muhammed as its guest editor. Wednesday’s attack was determined to also be motivated by Islamist extremism after the assailants were heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). Two of the gunmen, who later took hostages in a printing factory north of Paris, were identified as French citizens of Algerian descent and longtime international terror suspects. They, along with a third militant who did not participate in the massacre at Charlie Hebdo but took hostages at a kosher market in eastern Paris, were killed Friday in police operations.

READ MORE: Charlie Hebdo Suspects Killed, Another Gunman Takes Hostages In Paris

The horrific scene that unfolded in Paris’s 11th arrondissement Wednesday morning was another chilling reminder of how profoundly the violent, fringe beliefs held by a few can paralyze a nation. 

But unlike terror attacks perpetrated against random civilians in public spaces, Wednesday’s massacre wasn’t indiscriminate. The gunmen specifically sought the offices of Charlie Hebdo - and in particular, its editor, Stephan “Charb” Charbonnier, under whose editorial discretion the satirical magazine produced a rich collection of religiously irreverent cartoons. Although Charlie Hebdo’s covers have mocked all three major religions, Muslims have voiced their particularly strong opposition to the cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, as their faith prohibits visually representing his form. 

In this way, the gunmen seemed to target not only the members of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff, but the free press at large - which, even as members of a society that does not believe (as the French do) that the right to free speech is necessarily a blank check to freely offend, struck at the core of our collective consciousness. Millions of everyday people posted to Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie - "I am Charlie" - to show support for the free press. 

I initially jumped on the #JeSuisCharlie bandwagon, sharing an article about French Muslim responses hours after the attack. But I regretted it after viewing the cartoons - because in an American version of Charlie Hebdo, I and many of my peers would not be Charlie. And the people who would laugh at its cartoons are not those who would support our challenges to the status quo. 

In the words of Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Those sentiments certainly extend to modern-day France, where “hate speech” restrictions on free speech are even more strictly interpreted than in America. 

As the author of an opinion column plainly titled “Unpopular Opinions,” I support heightened scrutiny of speech restrictions: democratic societies broadly protect people’s right to free speech because democracy can be perpetuated only when any citizen has the right to criticize the established, ruling entity and the most marginalized viewpoints can be freely expressed without the threat of suppression or backlash. So as distasteful and uncouth as I may personally find Charlie Hebdo’s editorial choices, the publication was within its rights to make them. It had the right to offend, to commit blasphemy, to make the kinds of radical statements that would no doubt incite riots if printed by any major paper in the United States. 

READ MORE: Obama Condemns Attack In Paris

But as much as Charlie Hebdo reserves these rights, its audience also reserves the right to reply. Blindly promoting the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag and exalting of the 10 dead Charlie Hebdo staff members as “martyrs for the free press” without examining the social context from which they emerged effectively silences any meaningful discourse over the work at the root of the tragedy - which by the way, are opinions, that by nature exist within a forum as one of many perspectives that deserve to be heard.  

France is inarguably caught in the crosshairs of a cultural divide. As its Muslim population of a mostly North African immigrant background continues to swell, the predominantly white, Catholic French citizenry are feeling the culture clash. Among the most prevalent points of contention is the French commitment to radical secularism, which is openly hostile to public displays of faith - and how Muslim practices like the veiling of women and the call to prayer seemingly trample on those values.   

French identity is based on certain “universalist” claims, which “insist that one becomes fully French… and accepts the values of the republic,” according to Robert Zaretsky, a specialist in French history at the University of Houston. Unlike in America, where assimilation means accepting broad ideals like freedom and equality but still being allowed to retain one’s “foreign” traditions, French culture leaves little place for ethnic or linguistic communities. A person of immigrant origins must wholly renounce their native values and completely immerse himself in the universalist idea to be considered “fully French.” 

Combine this mounting challenge to secularism with broader forces of globalization and the spread of American pop culture, all of which undermine the integrity of “Frenchness,” and it’s no surprise that French society is hostile ground for Muslims. According to a 2008 report by Human Rights First, although French authorities do not explicitly report on violence against Muslims, over 60 percent of reported incidents of racist and xenophobic hate crimes were perpetrated against people of North African origin. And even absent overt racism, Muslims are still (quite literally) marginalized; the banlieues, suburbs at the periphery of major French cities that are usually poor and socially troubled, are heavily populated by immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa.  

The highlight reels of Charlie Hebdo’s most controversial covers, by BuzzfeedThe Daily Beast and TIME certainly affirm its assertion as an equal opportunity offender that “laughs at every extremist,” be it a Jewish, Muslim or Catholic one. But that position brazenly disregards the fact that France’s xenophobic political atmosphere specifically targets its Muslim population - and conveniently so, given that most of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are “French” in the traditional sense. No amount of cartoons depicting cardinals as pedophiles or the Pope presenting a condom as the body of Christ will displace the prevalence of Christianity in French society, but ones equating a central figure in Islam with terrorists beheading people might reinforce support for laws that further chip away at Muslims’ right to practice their religion. Continually insisting that such “commentary” is part of France’s secular culture does not absolve it from responsibility for aggravating the negative lived effects that xenophobia already has on Muslims. 

Charlie Hebdo journalists’ claims that the cartoons criticize radical religiosity are also unfounded. The prophet Muhammad, who stars in all but a few of the cartoons involving Islam, is not central to the beliefs of only fundamentalists, militants or proponents of Sharia law. He is the prophet of all Muslims, most of whom openly denounce the violent beliefs of those on the fringe. This is a fact that any journalist expressing an informed opinion about Islam would know, meaning that Charlie Hebdo’s staff either willfully misrepresented a faith shared by millions to appeal to the perverse humor of a society tinged with Islamophobia, or that they just didn’t care enough to make the distinction between actual perpetrators of faith-based extremism and the faith as a whole. If more of their supposedly “anti-extremist” cartoons featured individuals like Osama bin Ladin or the leader of ISIS, that statement would be slightly more believable, but their consistent editorial trajectory begs the question of exactly what effect they were after.  

Since these social tensions in France may not be common knowledge in the United States, American media’s portrayal of the Charlie Hebdo issue is predictably oversimplified. Major news sources following the narrative have mostly presented it as another explosive episode in the struggle between radical Islam and the free society. They have also been confronted with the difficult decision of whether to reprint the cartoons in question, and the obvious choice is to republish them - because violent radical beliefs should never succeed at silencing an organ of a free society. This flawed absolutism exudes privilege and undercuts the reason for which we value freedom of the press - so that minority groups can be heard and challenge the status quo when it alienates them.

To put it bluntly, Charlie Hebdo’s free speech wasn’t free - not for nearly five million French Muslims whose marginalized social position and internal struggle with rising fundamentalism was consistently turned into a punchline. Therefore, reproducing the magazine’s work doesn’t only promote freedom of the press; it promotes that very Western value at the expense of a population that will undoubtedly suffer as xenophobic ideology further depicts them as anti-Western invaders. But in America, we can comfortably ignore that consequence by tuning out France’s social problems as easily as we tuned in. 

French Muslims have been responding to Charlie Hebdo’s inflammatory cartoons in an appropriate, legally sanctioned manner for years - by filing multiple lawsuits against the paper for speech that incites racial hatred. But after Wednesday, they also find themselves having to incessantly apologize for an act they never condoned, motivated by an ideology that they do not espouse (whether the bulk of French society believes that, however, is debatable). While we raise the 10 dead journalists up as martyrs of free speech, they who occupy an already marginalized segment of French society now find the little forum they had to challenge Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire closed off. 

A more accurate motto would be to #NeverForgetCharlie - not its defense of the absolute right to free speech, not the 12 journalists and police gunned down by terrorists, and not the millions of French Muslims whose very presence was vilified by their country. 


Reach Columnist Ashley Yang here, or follow her on Twitter

Read more Unpopular Opinions here



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