I am completely horrified at news of the killing of twelve people in Paris today. Responsibility for the killings lies with those who pulled the trigger, and nothing can justify what they did.
Nonetheless, I have burned with a desire all day to state loud and clear, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.”
Rallies in solidarity with the magazine, motivated by justified horror at the killings, have taken up the slogan, “Je suis Charlie”, meaning “I am Charlie Hebdo”, the magazine that was the target of the attack. I cannot stand under this slogan. The fact that the magazine was horribly and unjustifiably attacked, with people slaughtered, does not absolve that magazine of the contribution it made to Europe’s chorus of hate and fear.
Charlie Hebdo, a “satirical” magazine, has waged a campaign against Muslims for years. Not just Islamic extremists, not just terrorists, but the Islamic faith as a whole, and all Muslims.
Forget the red herring about depictions of the prophet Muhammed being taboo in some branches of Islam. The main issue is that in cartoon after cartoon Charlie Hebdo has mocked and stereotyped Muslims. The issue that was “guest-edited” by the prophet Muhammed apparently had a cartoon of the prophet on the front, saying “A hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing.” Charlie also dabbled in anti-Semitism, claiming that Sarkozy’s son was converting to Judaism for financial reasons.
The current issue of Charlie Hebdo featured a new novel, Submission by Michel Houellebecq. Compared to Orwell and Huxley by some critics, it’s apparently about a dystopian future France in which the political establishment conspire to hand the country over to its first Muslim president. In the novel, a professor at the “Islamic University of the Sorbonne” is fired for not being Muslim. So he converts, and not only gets his job back but is rewarded with three wives – one to do the housework, two to have sex with him.
Islamophobia in France is not limited to this nauseating, wild-eyed lunatic of a book. These days far-right groups calling themselves “Identitaires” like to hang around subway stations beating up anyone who looks like they might be “a Muslim”. Identitaires have also invaded Halal shops wearing pig masks.
Context is everything
Imagine a magazine published in, say, Egypt, by Egyptians, that lampooned religious fundamentalism and relentlessly challenged the religious hierarchy. This would be a truly courageous publication. But Charlie Hebdo is published in France, where Muslims are an impoverished, demonised minority, a country with a militant racist far right, a country whose army has been occupying Muslim countries in recent years.
Likewise a magazine published in, say, Ireland, that criticises the Catholic Church, is something totally and completely different from a magazine published in Egypt, by Muslim Egyptians, that criticises Christianity. Father Ted was a satire of the powerful, of the church, which even today still runs most of our schools and hospitals. In Egypt, Christianity is the religion of a persecuted minority. It is a totally different situation. In the Egyptian case, what’s going on is not a brave challenge to power but a cowardly trampling on the powerless.
However, there’s another layer of context. We can’t just equate a Muslim country and a Christian country. It just so happens that globally the predominantly Christian countries of Europe and North America have been top dog, lording it over the rest of the world, for about 200 years.
Mass migration is a fact of life today, with huge numbers forced to leave their home countries by economic and political pressures that are totally beyond their control. Those refugees and economic migrants who happen to fall under the vague category of “Muslim” are the victims of a vicious slander. This is the lie that they are some kind of invading horde bent on destroying Christian civilisation and “Islamising” Europe, rather than people looking for reasonable things like jobs and security. This totally baseless, ridiculous and racist “clash of civilisations” belief is the foundation for the “Pegida” protests in Germany – which, interestingly, is strongest in areas where there are the least Muslims.
It’s OK, and often necessary, to insult and mock any religion. But the context in which it happens is so, so important. It is not OK to relentlessly mock and trample on a poor, powerless minority group. It is not OK to represent Muslims as if the majority are terrorists, extremists, or people with medieval attitudes. It is not OK to present the image of a racist caricature of Muhammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb.
You can complain about “political correctness” all you want. I’m not really sure what that phrase means. Does it mean “The fact that it is frowned upon to insult, intimidate and lie about people based on their race, gender, sexuality or religion”? If so, then I’m all for it.
You can claim the mystical protection of “freedom of speech” all you want. You can speak freely, but remember that I can say what I want in response. The fact that I disagree with you and criticise what you say does not make you the victim of 1984-style oppression.
I was in two minds about the title of this article. But in no way have I given the impression that I am supporting the horrific massacre of twelve human beings, and in no way have I implied that those murdered bore any responsibility. No, I’ve made it very clear that responsibility rests with the ones who pulled the triggers, and that nothing can justify what those killers did. If anyone tries to misrepresent what I’m saying, then they must not dare to use the phrase “freedom of speech” in the process, because they’re suppressing my right to free speech by lying about what I said.
But my fear at being deliberately or accidentally misunderstood is outweighed by my burning desire to stand up for the vast majority of Muslims at this terrifying and dismaying moment, to stand up against Islamophobia. When two maniacs killed an off-duty soldier in London, mosques were burning within hours. The xenophobic rampage that will take advantage of this horrible crime has already begun, and it has begun at the top.
It goes without saying that I am not on the side of whoever carried out this horrible attack. I suspect that a negligible percentage of humanity are. On the other hand it has to be said, in the spirit of Australia’s, “I’ll ride with you”, that I am not Charlie.