Responding post-Charlie

January 16, 2015

A friend asked me the other day what I thought about the recent Charlie Hebdo events. What could I say? Obviously, they're terrible. 

In the wake of the murders of Charlie Hebdo's staff, there's been a fair bit of back-and-forth over the idea of re-running the cartoons. In considering this, I think it's worth making a distinction between those who would run the cartoons as part of the job of covering a news story, and those who want to see them run mainly out of an urge to make a point

On the one hand, I can see why press organs discussing the story would want to run some pictures in order to better illustrate the news. In such cases, people should not censor themselves, and should indeed be celebrated for their courage in standing by their principles in choosing to run cartoons that they think are essential to the story they're telling. On the other hand, those who choose to re-print the cartoons primarily to teach an imaginary audience a lesson ("This is how freedom works!") are not helping matters, no matter how well within their rights they (rightly) are. Inviting people to knock another chip off of your shoulder simply to prove your toughness ("bring it on!") is not an effective response to extremism, not when you're making life more unpleasant to potential allies. 

I wonder: if a newspaper in the United States printed racially offensive material, and then suffered an attack as a result, would others openly encourage the re-printing of those same cartoons as a celebration of freedom of expression? What would have happened if the attack had occurred because Charlie Hebdo had run cartoons that deliberately sought to ridicule Jewish people? Would we be implying that journals choosing not to re-print the offending material were run by cowards? Or would we be looking at the matter in a more nuanced way, and come to the conclusion that, while attacks must be denounced, the best way to denounce them is not through offending a broader population of individuals who had nothing to do with the attack? 

Not all Muslims, of course, are deeply offended by displays of Muhammad--certainly the majority my friends over the years in Turkey over the years didn't care, though they're hardly a representative sample. Nevertheless, there are lots of people, especially in Europe, who have absolutely no sympathy for terrorists but who nevertheless will find themselves feeling required to either take a completely unnuanced stand along the lines of "Je suis Charlie," or having to defend themselves from appearing to be apologists. That can't be a very nice feeling. It's alienating, in fact.

How best to show you're not afraid?
It seems that there are a lot of people in Europe, especially, who are looking to pick fights with Muslims these days. Some, I think, believe that they need to tutor Muslims, give them some tough love and educate them about civilization and democracy. And these aren't just a handful of radical outliers, but rather large constituencies of European voters who are well within the mainstream of their societies. Re-printing the offending cartoons--rubbing people's faces in it, so to speak, while invoking high-minded principles--apparently strikes them as a good idea. 

Re-printing the cartoons just to get a reaction out of people is not "tough love" or "a bitter pill" that Muslims need to take, with European tutelage, in order to inoculate themselves against extremism. Instead, it's counter-productive, because no one enjoys being talked down to, or being told that they are being insulted for their own good. The movement to re-print the cartoons as a political message will likely succeed only in further alienating some European Muslims from the societies in which they live. Such a reaction can already be seen in France, where some people are rebelling against the viral "Je suis Charlie" campaign that has been sweeping France and Europe.  

Extremism carried out in the name of someone else's religion shouldn't leave anyone feeling civilizationally triumphant. Back in the 1990s, when Christians were massacring Muslims in Yugoslavia by the thousands in the name of Christianity, no one in Europe or America suggested that these crimes were somehow representative of troubles within Christianity more generally. Instead, we called it 'nationalism,' and ignored all of the religious discourse and imagery that some Christians in Yugoslavia were routinely employing during the course of these murders. 

For some reason, a lot of us are unable to make similar distinctions when it comes to Islam. Whereas the wars in ex-Yugoslavia and other atrocities are (correctly) understood as having been about a lot more than just "religious hatred," extremism carried out in the name of Islam is seen by many as somehow essential to that religion. There's an eagerness to assume the worst in others, to make sweeping claims about civilizational superiority based upon the paucity of information one might possess. This, I think, is the source of a lot of the energy behind the the sentiment supporting mass re-publication of the images.

It should be possible to respond to nihilistic acts of terrorism like the Charlie Hebdo massacre without making oneself look small in the process. 

More photos, analysis, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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