Thursday, January 8, 2015

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XI: Je Suis Charlie

On Wednesday morning, the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by three masked gunmen who stormed the building and killed ten of its staff and two police officers. The gunmen are currently identified as Muslim extremists. The attack came shortly after the paper tweeted a satirical drawing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Irreverent and stridently non-conformist in tone, the publication has always been anti-religious while taking on the extreme right, Islam, Judaism and Catholicism. Its sensibility was clearly defined by its former editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, as "left-wing pluralism." In September 2012, the newspaper had published a series of satirical cartoons of Muhammed, some of which feature nude caricatures of him, in response to the anti-Islamic film, Innocence of Muslims, which led to attacks on U.S. embassies and increased security in France. Before yesterday's attack, the magazine had also been the victim of an earlier terrorist attack  a firebombing in 2011.

Curiously, I'd already been planning an edition of Critic's Notes scheduled for today, but after the horrible events yesterday in Paris, I've decided to forgo that one in favour of this new post. In solidarity with those who perished for exercising their freedom of speech, I've decided to let others have their voice in response to those events and to sit back and listen to those voices. In the spirit of Charlie's pluralism, I've also included contrary ones, as well, to keep to the spirit of equal opportunity democracy. Wherever possible, I tried to create links to the original articles (unless they were quotes from social media). For the first time, the picture of the pen that has always lead off this column takes on an added significance.

“Nothing is sacred. Not even your own mother, not the Jewish martyrs, not even people starving of hunger. Laugh at everything, ferociously, bitterly, to exorcise the old monsters.” François Cavanna, founder of Charlie Hebdo, in 1982.

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell.

"Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home...Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium...The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating." David Brooks, The New York Times.

"The statement, “JE SUIS CHARLIE” works to erase and ignore the magazine’s history of xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. For us to truly honor the victims of a terrorist attack on free speech, we must not spread hateful racism blithely, and we should not take pride in extreme attacks on oppressed and marginalized peoples." Jacob Canfield, The Hooded Utilitarian.

David Pope, Canberra Times.

"[T]he kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more." Ross Douthat, The New York Times.

"Why does the news media keep calling terrorists 'militants'? I thought Buzz Hargrove [the former National President of the Canadian Auto Workers trade union] was a militant." A comment from a friend a few years back.

"I’m the liberal in this debate. I’m for free speech. To be a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal principles. It’s not my fault that the part of the world that is most against liberal principles is the Muslim part of the world....In 10 Muslim countries, you can get the death penalty just for being gay. They chop heads off in the square in Mecca. Well, Mecca is their Vatican City. If they were chopping heads off gay people in Vatican City, wouldn’t there be a bigger outcry among liberals?” Bill Maher, On Jimmy Kimmel Live.

"Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect." Salman Rushdie.

"After the horrific massacre Wednesday at the French weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, perhaps the West will finally put away its legion of useless tropes trying to deny the relationship between violence and radical Islam. This was not an attack by a mentally deranged, lone-wolf gunman. This was not an 'un-Islamic' attack by a bunch of thugs—the perpetrators could be heard shouting that they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad. Nor was it spontaneous. It was planned to inflict maximum damage, during a staff meeting, with automatic weapons and a getaway plan. It was designed to sow terror, and in that it has worked. The West is duly terrified. But it should not be surprised." Ayaan Hirshi Ali, The Wall Street Journal.

Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.” Tony Barber, Financial Times.

"After 9/11, Americans often said that in the 'war on terror,' America faced a different enemy than in past conflicts. Instead of a state, the U.S. government was now fighting a terrorist network that operated within many countries but formally governed none. But the Sony and Charlie Hebdo attacks flip that paradigm around. Instead of redefining the enemies we fight, they redefine who among us is doing the fighting. In last year’s struggle with North Korea, America’s primary combatant was an entertainment company. In France today, the primary combatant is a humor magazine. This time, the shift to non-state actors is occurring within the United States and other Western countries." Peter Beinart, The Atlantic.

"The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied." President Barack Obama speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in 2012.

"Swashbuckling war correspondents, muck-racking investigative journalists: we’re familiar with the type of fearless reporters who are willing to risk death in dogged pursuit of That Story. But drawing cartoons, giving people a bit of a giggle — even a politically charged giggle — is not supposed to make you eligible for combat pay. That it was for Charlie Hebdo is not only a commentary on their radical Islamist antagonists, but on the magazine itself. Totalitarian ideologues of whatever kind are, it is well known, implacably hostile to humour — for humour is the crack in their mirror, the flaw in the perfection they seek to create on earth, the 'crooked timber of humanity' the most despotic regimes have never managed yet to straighten out. But if that is true then it is equally true that humour is and must be implacably hostile to totalitarianism. They are mortal enemies; each is in peril so long as the other lives." Andrew Coyne. National Post.

illustration by Dutch artist Ruben L Oppenheimer.

"Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated," he explains. "But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction." Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League.

"Charlie Hebdo and the Muslim community's reaction to it is a complicated issue. But the murders are not.
Twelve people were murdered because of the publication of ideas.We can try to figure out what those ideas are, but it is irrelevant to our reaction to the murders.We can look at the value of those ideas, but it is irrelevant to our reaction to the murders. We can look at the affect of those ideas on a larger community, but it is irrelevant to our reaction to the murders. Our reaction to the murders should be to defend the expression of those ideas." Ruben Bolling, Tom the Dancing Bug Blog.

"The horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public. The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France. Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination. This tactic is similar to the one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century." Juan Cole, Informed Comment.

"We have been here before: the 11 September attacks led many liberal intellectuals to become laptop bombardiers, and to smear those, such as Susan Sontag, who reminded readers that American policies in the Middle East had not won us many friends. The slogan ‘je suis Charlie Hebdo’ expresses a peculiar nostalgia for 11 September, for the moment before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, before all the things that did so much to tarnish America’s image and to muddy the battle lines. In saying ‘je suis Charlie Hebdo’, we can feel innocent again. Thanks to the massacre in Paris, we can forget the Senate torture report, and rally in defence of the West in good conscience." Adam Shatz, LRB Blog.

"The debate should not be about freedom of expression and extremism. The real debate should be about France and how it deals with its Muslim population. Attacking and killing journalists is highly symbolic, as was the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Why are the media and politicians pushing us to choose a side: liberty or oppression, freedom of expression or violence, secularism or religion? In their pursuit to make us choose the 'right' option, politicians and media pundits create a new holy entity called freedom of expression. It becomes another sacred, holy, untouchable 'cow.' Another religious concept which if you're 'killed' promoting, you become a 'martyr.'" Monia Mazigh.

"The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be 'understood' as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists. They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. It’s the same ideology that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention. Because the ideology is the product of a major world religion, a lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn’t, have to do with Islam." George Packer, The New Yorker.

"Much of Europe, which, as a political entity, is not fully grappling with the totalitarian madness of Islamism, is not Charlie. Certainly much of journalism is not Charlie. Any outlet that censors Charlie Hebdo cartoons out of fear of Islamist reprisal is not Charlie. To publish the cartoons now is a necessary, but only moderately brave, act. Please remember: Even after Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011, it continued to publish rude and funny satires mocking the essential ridiculousness of the Islamist worldview. That represented a genuine display of bravery. CNN, the Associated Press, and the many other media organizations that are cowering before the threat of totalitarian violence represent something other than bravery." Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic.

"Today, every major world religion is experiencing a significant revival, and revived religion isn’t an opiate as we once thought, but a very strong stimulant. Since the late 1970s, and particularly in the last decade, this stimulant is working most powerfully in the Islamic world. From Pakistan to Nigeria, and in parts of Europe, too, Islam today is a religion capable of inspiring large numbers of men and women, mostly men, to kill and die on its behalf. So the Islamic revival is a kind of testing moment for the left: can we recognize and resist 'the possibility of tyranny?' Some of us are trying to meet the test; many of us are actively failing it. One reason for this failure is the terrible fear of being called 'Islamophobic.' Anti-Americanism and a radical version of cultural relativism also play an important part, but these are older pathologies. Here is something new: many leftists are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots—and so they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world." Michael Walzer, Dissent Magazine.

"Part of the argument against the cartoons is that they caricature Muslims and therefore contribute to discrimination against Muslims in France, people whose rights have been impinged by, among other things, cruel and arbitrary laws against the wearing of headscarves in public schools. However, most of the images that I’ve seen reproduced so far (and I confess to having never heard of Charlie Hebdo before this tragedy), depict not average French Muslims, but either Mohammed or Islamist extremists. This in itself might be troubling to those Muslims who believe any representation of Mohammed is sacrilegious, but it doesn’t necessarily meet the typical Western definition of racism, that is, by implying that all members of the group look and behave alike." Laura Miller, Salon.

"Because I don't have as many bookshelves as I'd like, I have only a selection of books on display (the rest are in boxes), but one book I always have on the shelf, at eye level, is my wounded copy of The Satanic Verses. They tried to kill it, but they didn't succeed. So the very least I can do is make sure it is always there, always on display, always showing its wounded face to the world. Have I read it? I tried a couple of times over the years, but I always seemed to pick it up when I wasn't really in the mood for a challenging read, but last week I tried again. I'm about 100 pages in and it has finally really hooked me, so I read a little every night. For a short term, my wounded book is not currently on eye-level shelf, but my bedside table. As I said, the actual book is a challenging read at some points (and pretty straight narrative at others) that requires concentration and patients to get into the rhythms of how Rushdie wrote it; the beauty of his language and storytelling skills are hypnotic. But the final irony is this: I guarantee that 99% of the people who protested it, and Khomeini himself, never have read it. If they picked it up to try, they would have put it down within two or three pages because there is difficulty there, especially at the start. So, as with most thugocracies, they pick on something to deflect people from real issues (the bread and circuses method – or in his case, the fact he was losing the Iran-Iraq war), rouse up the rabble and set the mindless hoards loose on something else. It's happened throughout history and will continue to happen until the ends of time. But thankfully, there will always be a Rushdie, a Donker, and others out there to say no, this will not stand. And my wounded copy of The Satanic Verses will also continue to stare anybody down who dares to challenge it." David Churchill, Critics at Large ("When a Physical Book Becomes a Symbol: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses").

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

1 comment:

  1. We will never see the end of this discussion but that only means that we should definitely still keep having it.