Round Down: The Complicated Response to Charlie Hebdo

As anyone paying even the remotest of attention to the news this past week, we all know this is a sobering time for journalists, satirists, publishing professionals, and supporters of free speech. The brutal murder of staff and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine offices by Muslim extremists, along with violent ricochets all over the greater metropolitan area of Paris in following days, has spurred a complex discourse around the issues of freedom of expression, satire, and inter-religious/cultural relations.

The discourse has volleyed from simple displays of solidarity (using #JeSuisCharlie hashtags) to more nuanced (using #JeSuisAhmed tags, which reference the French Muslim police officer who responded to the scene at the Charlie Hebdo offices and who died responding to the aid of those journalists who, as many pointed out, mocked his culture and religion). The latter spurred many to recall the oft-attributed Voltaire quotation, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” It also reminded many of the quotation attributed to Salman Rushdie, an Indian author who had an Iranian fatwa put upon him for his book, The Satanic Verses: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

The Rushdie quotation has seemed to contribute to another reaction, evidenced by #JeNeSuisCharlie. This latest trend on Twitter is, for the most part, an outcry against some apparent hypocrisy in the media’s obsession with the issue of freedom of speech, as well as against the offensive nature of the Orientalist, “out of Edward Said’s nightmares” cartoons that spurred the violent massacre in the first place.

Many writers feeling uncomfortable with uncritically propping up Hebdo cartoons to pay tribute to the victims of the attack—or, perhaps, looking for a new angle on the subject—have pointed out the moments in history in Western countries (especially France and the US) where governments have contributed to a less-than-sterling record when it comes to allowing the freedom of expression of dissidents. As such, in the past few days, many have surged forward in their attempt to both extol and condemn Hedbo–to break the binary of considering its cartoons either just offensive or just noble.

Surprisingly, Muslim scholar Karima Bennoune condemns those who try to empathize with the anger such cartoons have provoked. In her piece on openDemocracy, she calls such culturally relativistic responses an unfortunate side effect of do-gooder liberalism: “These Western apologists have justified everything from the burqa to theocracy in the name of cultural relativism–appalling many intellectuals of Muslim heritage who are determined instead to buck extremism.” She concludes her piece, much like Rushdie did during his stint this week on Bill Maher, applauding and encouraging more moderate Muslims to vocally disown the acts of atrocity, reminding us that satire is supposed to push buttons and boundaries—and, in the vein of Juvenalian satire, to provoke anger in an effort to promote change.

While Bennoune’s point about cultural relativism run amuck is prudent, especially in this situation, when it can be all too easy to get swept up in easy hashtags and 140-characters-or-less responses, I think cartoonist Joe Sacco hit it on the head in his decidedly un-funny, honest tribute to his fallen comrades. In it, he manages to be both respectful and critical, striking the chord so many of us trying to wrangle our complicated thoughts on the matter have tried to hit. His is a grim reminder that just because one can mock something doesn’t mean one always should do so without first considering context—especially when the butt of the joke happens to be a racial, religious, or cultural group that has been historically underrepresented, maligned, and brutalized by Western mainstream culture.

For their part, many publishers are refusing to redistribute the offensive cartoons, beckoning the question of whether or not self-censorship should be a moral trump card to freedom of expression in certain instances–or whether it is an act of cowardice. This is of course the same the question we faced with the recent Sony hack.

I also couldn’t help but notice that few English-speaking publications have made a connection between the Hedbo attacks and the fatwa put on French-speaking Algerian author Kamel Daoud, whose reinterpretation of Camus’ The Stranger earned him his own death threats as recently as December 16, after he appeared on a French television show and asked Muslims to reconsider the path religion has established in the Arab world. Since Daoud is taking on the brave work scholars like Bennoune call for by denouncing extremism in his own culture, and especially given that he has received no extra protection and has no plans to go into hiding, his is a story worth our attention. Similarly, the horrific story of blogger Raif Badawai being imprisoned and tortured for writing against Islam in Saudi Arabia is important to keep in mind.

In any case, the terrorists’ plan to avenge their faith in a violent manner has served only to strengthen their target’s foothold in our cultural memory, and to complicate further the media’s debate over the meaning of “freedom of expression” and the appropriate place of satire. The terrorists’ plan has thus failed–when the sword stops, readers flock to the pen that provoked it.

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