Charlie Hebdo: pencil lines and bullet holes, freedom and religion

Seven days into the new year, 2015, two men dressed in black forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and murdered eleven people. During their escape they shot and killed a police officer before going on the run, hiding out in a print works outside Paris, and were then killed as they emerged from the building with their guns blazing.

The aftermath has seen an ocean of words on terrorism, Islam, free speech, media bias and racism. It’s a useful debate to have, not least for the reason that some uncomfortable truths, on all sides of the argument, have come to light. But there is also a lot of confusion and anger that is clouding any kind of rational analysis.

The thing that has made me most uncomfortable are the articles and comments that question whether Charlie Hebdo was hiding racist and Islamophobic content behind a veil (if you’ll excuse the metaphor) of free speech. I find this attitude highly distasteful – it is tantamount to suggesting the journalists and cartoonists who lost their lives brought the situation upon themselves. It is the equivalent of suggesting that a rape victim is to blame because of the way she dressed, or because she drank too much.

Now, there may indeed be a wider debate to say that women (or men, for that matter) should take some care in social situations, but that does not excuse rape, or even light uninvited fondling of another person’s body. What it does is shine a light on the fact that it’s a sad indictment of society, and male attitudes, that a woman might have to consider these things at all. They shouldn’t have to. It is the perpetrator who is 100% in the wrong.

These people were murdered in cold blood. The only ones to blame are those who wielded the weapons and fired the bullets. Not the cartoonists, not the editor, not France’s free speech laws, not the makers of the AK47 assault rifle, and not Muslims.

Let’s pretend that Charlie Hebdo was a magazine that’s sole intention was to ridicule Islam, that its staff was populated by racists and suspected pedophiles, and, just to top it off, none of them ever bathed and they stank out the Paris Metro every morning on their way to work. Nobody liked them. Does this justify their murder?

I hope your answer is no. If a person feels they are a victim of hate speech or ridicule then there is a system that can be utilised to examine the claim and seek justice. You can take the offender to court. Let’s say the victim wins – should the death penalty be implemented for holding such a racist or hate-filled view? Again, I hope your answer is no. A monetary fine or maybe even a custodial sentence, sure, but as soon as you start taking lives, you become a savage.

It might be argued that the court, or even the law itself, could be biased or corrupt, or that the wronged party could not afford to take the accused perpetrator through the justice system. Even so, there is a better way than shooting someone in the face with a machine gun. Petitions, publicity campaigns, protest rallies, engaging the media – all are likely to elicit a more positive reaction and wider awareness of your cause than wilful slaughter. People might actually listen to you.

Every time someone shares an article that says Charlie Hebdo was a racist magazine, or cries hypocrisy because some anti-Semitic comedian or cartoon got taken to court and banned (not shot, you’ll note), or that two hundred people died in Nigeria and it’s being ignored by ‘the media’ (they usually then link to a BBC or Guardian article about it) and no one’s holding up signs and marching for them (like they did for Iraq in 2003 or Palestine in 2014), they are making an excuse for the murder of twelve innocent people.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo did not bring this tragedy upon themselves and they did not deserve to die.

That’s addressed the question of blame, so now onto the wider debate. Let’s play the game and look at what influences each side might have contributed to this tragic situation. There are two opposing ideas, as I see it: was Charlie Hebdo a racist/hate publication; and did the religion of Islam inspire the murders?

I don’t see strong evidence that Charlie Hebdo was pushing a racist agenda. Its fuzzy edges may have strayed over that line on occasion (cartooning often lampoons physical features, and this can indeed be insensitive, especially if your community is the target), but its raison d’être was satire – ridicule to promote analysis and discourse with the aim, one would hope, of achieving raised awareness leading to an improved situation.

Most people who see satire and misinterpret it as racism are not quite getting it (and many are not even actually seeing it, they just hear about it and then call for an immediate ban). It’s like the character of Alf Garnett in the 1960s and 70s sitcom ‘Till Death Us Do Part – he was created to highlight the absurdity of the racist Little Englander, but for a number of similarly narrow-minded viewers, who missed the point, he was a role model. ‘Till Death Us Do Part was accused by others, who also missed the point, of being racist.

Humour is a very powerful way to criticise bad ideas. Yes, you could write serious tracts analysing the possibility that the Quran, rather than being a book of peace, is a book that inspires some to violence. But satire, through the use of humour, can often make the point so much better. It’s showing rather than telling, one of the golden rules of good storytelling.

Charlie Hebdo was a liberal magazine from the start (in fact before the start, when it was Hara-Kiri) – it supported environmental concerns, free speech, feminism, equality, the rights of minorities and immigrants, social justice, and was anti-fascist and anti-racist. It lampooned all religions, Islam was not singled out.

Covers that often depict what some see as racism (for instance, showing Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey), are actually criticising racism. Taken out of context, and not knowing the stories (often two current events of that particular week combined), the misinformed and wilfully biased jump directly to the wrong conclusion.

If you can’t see the difference between the anti-Semitic stand-up comedian and friend of the National Front, Dieudonné, joking about urinating on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or sending someone to the gas chambers, and a Charlie Hebdo cartoon that shows the Prophet Muhammed lamenting the fact that some of his followers are “jerks” (for their extremist actions in the light of the Danish cartoons), then you’re missing the point.

Anti-Semitism is a form of racism; Jews are an ethnic group not solely defined by their religion. You can be both Jewish and an atheist. You cannot be an atheist Muslim – a Muslim is a person who follows the religion of Islam. It is a choice in a way that your ethnicity is not. You can be an Arab, a Celt or a even a Jew and be a Muslim.

I sometimes question, with my critiques of religion, if I am Islamophobic. Am I afraid of Islam? In some ways, yes, I am. I’m Christophobic too. I am afraid that a set of beliefs based not in evidence, but in blind faith, that are out of step with modern thinking, that are anti-science and anti-humanist, that advocate violence and intolerance based on irrational ideas, that convert people to the ideology through unthinking indoctrination and fear, that condemn me to eternal damnation for not also believing, will screw up this world and the people in it. If climate change doesn’t get us, then some religious war probably will.

But all too often ‘Islamaphobia’ and ‘racist’ are terms used to label those who merely criticise the tenets of Islam. They are hot-button keywords designed to shut down an argument that you don’t like. It’s equal to calling someone a pedophile – it has a power of its own and can stick, a molotov cocktail in a single word.

There was a meme that quickly did the rounds on social media in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, once the inevitable backlash started against “Je suis Charlie”. It showed the harrowing image of one of the gunmen advancing on the injured policeman, Ahmed Merabet. “In case you are confused”, it said, “this is a terrorist”, pointing at the gunman, and “this is a Muslim”, pointing at the man on the ground.

But that is a false equivalence. One is a terrorist and one is a policeman. One is a Muslim terrorist and one is a Muslim policeman. Both are Muslims.

It’s clear (to most) that not all Muslims are the same, and no Muslim should be obliged to either make excuses or apologise for the actions of an extremist. There is not one Islam. Just like Christianity and the Bible, there are as many interpretations of the Quran as there are Muslims. Each Muslim will cherry-pick from the book, interpret according to their own beliefs, conscience and moral barometer. It is a book that can be used for war or peace – and that makes it problematic.

Radio DJ James O’Brien produced some good radio when he shut down a caller who was demanding a condemnation from the Muslim community. “Your name’s Richard”, O’Brien fired back, “shouldn’t you apologise, on behalf of all Richards, for the actions of shoe-bomber Richard Reid?”.

It was a clever argument, but like the meme mentioned above, not quite logical (all Richards to do not share an ideology). Although I don’t agree with it, I can understand why some people want to know what other Muslims think of the terrorists’ actions. The terrorists made it plain they were avenging their Prophet. Whether you like it or not, they were directly inspired by their faith, and if you have Muslim neighbours or relatives, you may be curious to know where that influence comes from.

The killers were extremists, but extremists of what? What does an extremist cake decorator do? What does an extremist sports addict do? What does an extremist atheist do? What does an extremist Buddhist, Christian or Muslim do? Perhaps religion does have something to do with these terrible events after all.

The move to distance the general Muslim population from the extremists and proclaim that they were not Muslims is an example of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Islam is often claimed to be a ‘religion of peace’, but a simple read through the Quran and Hadith will soon disavow you of that idea (and the same is true of the Bible). ‘Divine books’ that are open to such a variety of interpretations are plainly imperfect and reveal their mortal origins all too clearly. It is advancing secular reasoning that has mostly tempered the extremes of religion.

You can find justification in the Quran and Hadith to kill those who insult the Prophet Muhammed. You can also find verses that show mercy and compassion within the religion. It all depends on how these passages are translated or interpreted – usually to reflect the taste of the particular ideology of the reader.

Many Muslms are angry. They’re rightfully angry at the terrorists who have dragged their version of the religion, once again, into the mud. Many are ethnic minorities in Europe and experience real racism on a daily basis, so it might be understandable that they confuse criticism of their philosophy – a philosophy that strongly defines them – with racism. But if there’s to be any real debate, reason must prevail – genuine criticism of bad religious ideas must be allowed.

For some, that anger has turned into making excuses for the killers, putting the blame on Charlie Hebdo, or the West, or secularism. Perhaps their faith is not quite as rock-steady as they would like to think. Perhaps the satire of Charlie Hebdo was a little too close to the truth, enough that reasoned argument fails and the accusatory grenades of ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’ have to be thrown.

In the end, it’s an incredibly sad situation. The growing far-right in Europe will use the events in Paris to expand their reach and bolster their hateful arguments;  fearful governments will have an excuse to bring in harsher laws and curb freedoms; religious fanatics will gain followers and claim victory; and everyday Muslims will be under more pressure and experience more prejudice, leading to a decrease in understanding between cultures that should be able to live in harmony. No one wins.

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