Read “The Case for #JeSuisCharlie” by Jon Kay
Wednesday’s deadly shootings in Paris targeting the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo were utterly hideous and unjustifiable. I do not wish to place that in doubt. However, I feel reluctant to join the #JeSuisCharlie Twitter campaign and the global vigils. Just because you have the right to say or draw something doesn’t mean you should.
The staff of Charlie Hebdo has consisted primarily of white men. They publish their magazine in a country grappling with xenophobia (I can attest that even a pasty British woman gets gawked at in Paris for looking anything like an outsider) and, more particularly, Islamophobia. As such, I believe they were misguided in publishing drawings depicting the prophet Muhammad in ways that could not fail to cause offence, and which easily can be construed as racist. (I admit that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between an unflattering caricature and a racist image, but the Hebdo portrayal of France’s black minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, as a monkey* is clearly beyond the pale.)
The fact of the matter is that most Muslims aren’t white, and France is a country where a quarter of the votes in the 2014 European elections went to the xenophobic Front National (a party that, despite Marine Le Pen’s attempts to soften its image, retains a racist agenda). Even among the left, low-level Islamophobia appears to be the norm. In 2004, “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools were banned. And in 2010, it was made illegal to wear face-covering headgear in public. Both these laws appeared to target female Muslims. According to the Paris-based Collective Against Islamophobia in France, verbal and physical abuse of Muslim women exploded after they came into effect. If a man should be able to draw what he likes, a woman should be able to walk down the street adorned in any way she chooses.
The French political scientist Catherine de Wenden attributed the increase in French Islamophobia in part to scaremongering publications. This includes Michel Houellebecq’s 2014 Submission, a novel about a France that is under threat of right-wing extremism and governed by a Muslim president. In 2008, 148 Muslim graves were desecrated near Arras; mosques have been vandalised with racist graffiti and pigs’ feet hung up. With all this as a backdrop, it is no wonder the young and marginalized are seduced by radicalism.
In 1988, the British, Indian-born author Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. The name references a disputed legend according to which Muhammad received Quranic revelations to worship pagan goddesses, which he later came to realize were imparted by Satan. (In the novel, however, these revelations come direct from the angel Gabriel, which Muslim theology holds to be the true Quranic source.) The novel was widely seen as blasphemous, was banned in various Muslim countries, and a fatwa was issued by Iran’s Ayotollah Khomeini calling for Rushdie’s death.
For these reasons, many commentators have compared the campaign against Rushdie to the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. But there are differences, even aside from the fact that The Satanic Verses had a lot more of pertinence and substance to say about Islam than did the Hebdo cartoons: Rushdie is Indian and was raised a Muslim. In other words he had some licence. In the same way, it seems acceptable for Chris Rock to make jokes disparaging of black people and for Louis C. K. to produce a sketch about Schindler’s List. The Hebdo cartoonists were probably the wrong people, in the wrong setting, to satirize Islam and its prophet.
I do not seek to delegitimize anyone who shows solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were brutally murdered for exercising their freedom of speech. But I believe that one can denounce this act of violence without celebrating the message promoted by the victims. That is why you will not see me telling anyone #JeSuisCharlie.