Charlie Hebdo: The Stark Viewpoint

For any sort of publication that puts “Euro” in its name, it would now seem that some sort of reaction to the massacre of the staff at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is expected, even required. I think I do have something to offer along those lines, boosted by the usual multi-lingual monitoring of the European press that I have been able to do since yesterday. As usual, I’ll try to shy away from any conventional wisdom; I apologize that that probably means that my slant is on the pessimistic side.

1) The attackers will achieve their objectives. Well, they already achieved their tactical objectives, in that it seems they managed to kill all of the skilled cartoonists (I believe there were four of them) there at the magazine. They managed this via the simple expedient of research to connect names and faces, combined with what appears to be some skilled use in wielding AK-47s to overcome security guards armed only with pistols.

By “objectives,” however, what I really mean is what we can presume were their more strategic objectives of deterring anyone who might want to insult the Prophet Mohamed in print in the future. (However, see also below.) Yes, I know that everyone is hammering on now about the need to protect free speech, in government pronouncements and in innumerable demonstrations around the world, most of them on some cold public square. But that is different from stepping up again to take up the flag of the “cause” of insulting Islam, one aspect of asserting one’s free speech. That sort of courage is rare; it’s the sort of courage that cannot reasonably be requested from anyone, including journalists or cartoonists who in most cases have not signed on to living every work-day with the dread of someone storming into their offices firing an automatic weapon. News reports from France today indicated that other big-name French newspapers (Le Monde, Lib√©ration, etc.) are ready to step in to provide funds and resources to get Charlie Hebdo back on its feet. That’s fine – but will they provide substitute writers and cartoonists to take up their places on the firing-line as well? I think not; I think those will be quite slow to come forward, if at all, since everyone will quite reasonably be intimidated – and so the attackers will win. (Indeed, at the personal level they may never even be caught.)

A related point: Let’s say that reasonably competent new writers and cartoonists with the right sort of attitude do come forward. What are the French authorities then supposed to do to protect them, and any other news publication which may want to indulge in offending fanatics? Post guards with sufficient firepower to have a chance against the next set of attackers to come along? No, we don’t want that as a society, we don’t want to be living perpetually in an armed camp. Nonetheless, something like that may happen anyway, and such incidents will inevitably provide further licence to government campaigns to further restrict civil liberties, to enlarge their surveillance over citizens (well, over everybody), and indeed possibly even to start torturing (or else to resume/broaden their torture activities – as in the USA, for example – if they have already been indulging). You can call this the “9/11 Effect”; people are scared again and, after all, you can’t exercise your civil liberties if you are dead.

2. What’s all this “freedom of expression” everyone is talking about? You would think this is a universal human value, shared by all of us living on this precarious blue-green globe, if you listen to Ban Ki-Moon, for example, or these people:

human values
Let’s just think for a bit: freedom of expression is in fact a rather rare thing, or else Reporters Without Borders would not have to bother with its annual Press Freedom Index. What about France in particular? How about this:

Actually, it turns out that the concept that true freedom of expression includes having to be exposed to opinions that you really don’t like – which mock your religion, for example, or your political beliefs – is something that really has not sunk through to a lot of people, when you test them outside of periods such as the present one when there has been an appalling massacre and they are busy demonstrating in public squares and printing “Je Suis Charlie” signs. This extends even to America, where First Amendment rights are ordinarily comparatively robust:

I’d recommend you read Chait’s piece (just click on the above), recounting how all-too-often, when there are not actual deaths involved, the societal consensus is against those trouble-makers who annoyingly want to exercise their free expression and insult people all the time. As for Europe itself, France included, the situation is even worse for true freedom of expression as there exist all sorts of “laws against inciting hate” (and that sort of thing; in the UK there are similar regulations plus rather vicious libel laws, for another example) that truly erode it.

Another example: the rabble-rousing Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders is now set to go to court for a second time to defend himself against such laws which seek to constrict what he is allowed to say, in his case mainly about the presence and designs of the Netherlands’ Muslim population. Yes, the first time he was acquitted; but now it seems the Dutch legal establishment wants to try again, and maybe this time they’ll get some judges a little bit more ignorant about what is supposed to be the commitment in the Dutch constitution to truly free speech, so that they’ll finally be able to relieve him of some of his money or even lock him up.

I generally do not subscribe to Wilders views and don’t vote for him – although both of those are my right to do if I want. The point is that, if we really had a regime of free expression, society and the ruling political regime would leave the sort of hateful nonsense that Wilders spouts to be counteracted solely by the good sense of those who hear and evaluate it. It would be really handy for someone – as Ali Abunimah already does above – to keep track of what society says when there has been a massacre and “We are all Charlie!” versus how it tells those with unpopular political views to shut up during more ordinary times.

3. Speaking of time: What great timing! Anyone with a taste for conspiracy theories should now be doing all in his/her power to investigate the prominent French author Michel Houellebecq. The very day that his new novel (Soumission, about how the Muslims take over France to the point that the new French President in 2022 comes from out of their ranks) is published, you have this sort of thing happening! That is publicity that you just can’t buy, for any price! (Plus, as I also indicated yesterday, there’s already hot demand in Germany for the translation set to be issued there in a few weeks.)

By the way, that Wikipedia entry on Houellebecq also mentions how he decided to move to Ireland for a few years after a previous book of his got him hauled before a French court for “inciting racial hatred.” How do you like your “freedom of expression” now? Es-tu vraiment Charlie? (In a further twist, initial indications are that in this new novel Houellebecq¬† sympathizes, between-the-lines, with some values more prevalent within Muslim families – fewer out-of-wedlock births, more sobriety and the like – to hint that perhaps their taking over the country wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. Anyway – go read it sometime! Surely an English translation is already being arranged.)

But the point here, even if it is being offset by M. Houellebecq’s great good fortune, is how this sort of incident is happening at precisely the worst time when it comes to easing relations in Europe between its Muslim and non-Muslim populations. In particular, there’s the new PEGIDA movement in Germany. It’s something I have been tracking but have not had a chance to write about yet in this forum; having started out in Dresden with mass-marches of people claiming to be fed-up with the way the Muslims are supposedly taking over Germany and German culture, it has spread to Berlin and many other German cities despite explicit condemnation by Chancellor Merkel in her New Year’s message. (Oh, and also despite city/religious authorities who have taken to turning off the lights in the streets/from cathedrals for when public marches of this movement are scheduled to come by.) And there has been that outbreak of mosque-burnings in Sweden, as that country struggles to cope with its very generous policy of accepting asylum-seekers from MidEast conflict zones. And there are the alarms being expressed by Muslim leaders in the Netherlands to government officials that their mosques might soon be attacked as well – again, this prior to yesterdays Charlie Hebdo massacre. (I mention Germany and Sweden in particular because, up until recently, those are countries which had no political-party expression of anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant sentiment.)

In light of this, the recent commentary by MidEast expert Prof. Juan Cole on “Sharpening Contradictions” is very interesting: could this Paris massacre have been intended, at some level if not the level of the gunmen themselves, precisely to set the majority European population against the Muslims living within its midst and so bolster ISIS/Al-Qaeda recruitment? You know, a strategy similar if but at a somewhat smaller scale to that which elicited the epic American over-reaction (two wars, trillions of dollars wasted, torture, etc.) to the 9/11 attacks? What is certainly true is that, just as mushrooms spring up in manure after a rain, demagogues who want to stoke up anti-Muslim hate for their own political ends have quickly seized on what happened Paris yesterday.

For example, Netanyahu:

For another, our old friend Wilders:

Translation (of the top part): “When will it finally get through to Rutte [Netherlands Premier] and other Western government leaders: it is war.” I’ll leave adding Marine Le Pen to this list as an exercise for the student.

4. Finally: Back to the cartoon barricades! It’s been a nice, mostly-peaceful almost-ten years since the Danish cartoon incidents of 2005 – which among other things featured rioting mobs in Pakistan and East Africa, you’ll recall, together with an intruder armed with a knife breaking into the house of one of those Danish cartoonists. But now we’re basically back to where we started from – with no more true understanding on the part of governments and the public about what “freedom of expression” really means, and probably running out of the sort of heroes required to carry its banner forward, to boot.

It’s depressing; it’s surely a losing battle. Still, it’s at least an occasion for me to dig out the T-shirt I had printed back then and was actively wearing around town – to show that I would not be intimidated, of course. I offer the image to you here. I cede all rights. (The point is that the depiction of Mohammed is not even insulting, it’s rather a little gem of a drawing that incorporates him into the traditional Islamic crescent.)


UPDATE: Times are not so happy for Michel Houellebecq after all. Numerous sources in the French press, among them this piece in Le Figaro, reveal that a good friend of his, Bernard Maris, an economist and sometime writer for Charlie Hebdo, was present at that ill-fated editorial meeting last Wednesday morning and was killed. So Houellebecq has suspended all promotional activities for his new book, and has left Paris for a while “to put himself in the green, in the snow.” The article also notes how he travels without any sort of bodyguard.

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