Thursday, 8 January 2015

Suis-je Charlie?

Yesterday's attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris were utterly horrific and indefensible, that goes without saying. It is not just the actions themselves that were appalling but the motivations behind the actions- this was an attempt to use brutal violence to suppress free speech, to impose a particular ideology and to drive a wedge between Islam and the rest of the world. The current crop of ruthless ideologically motivated terrorists are not the first of course, but it is a long time since the Red Brigade or the Bader-Meinhoff gang carried out similar atrocities and in the current world of instant global media we all feel the shock and outrage all the more keenly.

I hope that nothing I write here in any way softens the condemnation of those who carry out, or intend to carry out, such barbaric and anti-democratic acts of violence.

However there are are other questions to be considered here, and for me the main one is raised by the social media response that takes the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie as its rallying cry. This is the (understandable) response of many to align themselves with the intentions and values of the victims of this outrage. There is a solidarity in this that I find heartening, even uplifting, but it raises questions too.

France has a tradition of crude and brutal satire that would shock citizens of many other countries. In fact Charlie Hebdo, like its more successful counterpart Le Canard Enchaîné, revels in its ability to shock and disgust. Its ethos is defiantly iconoclastic and it uses satire to tear down anything with any pretensions to power or influence. Its journalists and cartoonists, many now tragically gunned down, were utterly unafraid of controversy and intimidation and continued to publish despite actual firebombing as well as a multitude of threats.

So what is there to criticise? Is Charlie Hebdo not then a manifestation of democracy and free speech at its rawest and finest?

Well, there is another side to it too, and it is worth considering Charlie Hebdo's attitude to organised religion specifically. France has a vibrant tradition of secularism and specifically religious iconoclasm, and many of Charlie Hebdo's most outrageous cartoons have aimed at the heart of organised religion- all organised religion. They have published cartoons of masturbating nuns and the pope in a condom, as well as many others. For French secularists organised religion is a fundamentally oppressive force that has to be repelled by any means possible to retain the national commitment to liberté, égalité and fraternité and Charlie Hebdo has been at the forefront of that struggle for many many years.

Recent cartoons lampooning Islamic symbols and values are well within that tradition of course, so should they not simply be applauded as part of an attempt to normalise public attitudes towards Islam by demonstrating that Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is susceptible to humorous and satirical comment? Or should they be seen, as many moderate Muslims see them, as almost the opposite- as an attempt to force them and their values out of modern Western society? Is this satire, or is it bullying?

For me the key consideration in this question is that of power. Where satire is used against entrenched power I would defend it no matter how outrageous or distasteful it becomes. However the position is very different when it used by the powerful against their enemies, and even against those they oppress. The Nazi parties were great users of satire against the Jews- so would we defend the right to free speech of creators of cartoons such as this?

Not that I am saying that Charlie Hebdos offerings are remotely similar of course, but attacking another's religion is very different from attacking ones own, particularly when the religion one is attacking is that of the poorest and least empowered citizens of ones country. Iconoclasm is literally the destruction of venerated images, and whilst doing this within ones own church is clearly an act of defiance, doing it in someone else's can veer close to cultural intimidation.

In the aftermath of incidents such as yesterday's it seems to go without saying that free speech must lie at the heart of any civilised community's values. Yet a moment's thought calls that assumption into question. Should a civilised nation defend the right to free speech of internet trolls? Of the perpetrators of racial hatred? Of the distributors of paedophile pornography?

And if it doesn't, who gets to determine which speech should be free and which suppressed?

I heard the view expressed this morning that the correct response from those offended by something like Charlie Hebdo's mohammed cartoon should be made not with guns but with other cartoons. The thing is, whilst I absolutely agree with the first part of this formulation, the second part is nonsensical. You see, for all their iconoclastic, anti-authority, revolutionary ethos, cartoonists such as those so brutally killed at Charlie Hebdo were and are central to the educated, white 'ruling classes' they lampoon. Whenever they wish to tear down, to attack and to mock they have the means at their disposal- they simply go into print. How many muslims offended by their attacks on symbols central to their world view have the same option?

The ideology of those who respond to any statement of which they disapprove with murderous violence is as incomprehensibly barbaric as President Hollande said. However that does not by definition imply that its victims were justified to exercise their right to free speech in the way they did. Islam is not an organised religion in the way Catholicism is and in general its adherents are not in positions of power in Western society to the extent that adherents of Christianity or Judaism are. So attacks on Islam veer uncomfortably close (for me) to attacks on the belief systems of the disempowered and marginalised rather than on the wielders of power.

True, Islam needs to be normalised within Western society, and its ethos and values need to come to terms with values such as those of free speech, equal rights and pluralism, just as the world's other religions have had to. It needs to change and it needs to expunge its extremist and repressive elements (mind you, if it does succeed in doing that it will be doing better than Chrisitanity). But to what extent will viciously sardonic, borderline racist satirical cartoons drawn by world-weary representatives of the cultural establishment help in that process?

  I condemn utterly the killers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, but I for one will not be using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie.

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