Defending Islam, defending Charlie Hebdo

A day after the attack on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo, the world has responded in a massive way. From editorials in every newspaper there is, to millions of tweets, to blogs like this one, people have voiced a huge range of opinions. They range from positive expressions of solidarity to criticism of Islam or even Charlie Hebdo itself. It’s these last two that have serious issues.

This first response of criticising Islam as a whole is clearly flawed. It is of course obvious that Islam has a problem with violent extremists, and denying that isn’t helpful. However, to yet again accuse Islamic leaders of not speaking up, or portray Islam as inherently violent is equally wrong. Muslim leaders across France and the world have condemned the attack in no uncertain terms, something that often fails to get media coverage. All of them have said that the greatest insult to the Prophet is killing in his name. Arab governments and important Islamic institutions such as al-Azhar university have been equally outspoken about the attacks. Islamic extremism is a problem – but it’s one that alienation and generalisation will not solve.

The second response is more subtly dangerous though. It is basically a form of victim blaming. These are the people who say “don’t forget that Charlie Hebdo was racist” or “imperialism reaps what it sows”. So first let’s look at what Charlie Hebdo actually published, before looking at why that doesn’t really matter.

There’s no doubt that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were often extremely crude. While some (the Prophet Muhammad saying “it’s hard being loved by idiots”) were cleverer than others, there’s no doubt that they were intended to offend Muslims, who object to any depiction of Muhammad. When the whole issue of cartoons of the Prophet arose a few years ago I was one of those who saw it as rude and pointless to offend people for the sake of being offensive. However, to say that Charlie Hebdo was racist misses some of the context. The magazine was offensive to almost everyone. The Catholic Church came in for particular fire, as well as far right politicians. It is part of a centuries old French tradition of crude satire that mocks those in power and those who take themselves seriously. While Charlie Hebdo was anti-religious, the editors themselves were against racism and the far-right.

But as I said, this really has nothing to do with the matter. It is sad that this needs to be stated, but no one, no matter what they have said, should be killed for their words. This doesn’t mean you can say what you like – I believe true hate speech should be a crime. But we have other ways of dealing with hateful speech in our society. Boycott them, sue them, take them to court. This applies even to the worst racists in our society, people like Geert Wilders. I would love to see him taken to court for his hate speech, or mocked for his cynical populism. But he doesn’t deserve to die. No one deserves to die for their words.

Citing insults to Islam, or even the West’s disastrous policy in the Middle East when talking about an attack on journalists is in some way justifying it, as if the editors brought it on themselves. Nothing can justify this. How low is the attackers’ image of the Prophet they claim as theirs that they believe he requires their bullets to defend him from words?  Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists had no guns, they had no drones or armies, they had nothing but their words – their often offensively crude words. Two men decided that they deserved to be slaughtered in their own office for using those words.

As a final note, we should forever remember the name of Ahmed Merabet. He was a French policeman who was executed by the attackers while lying wounded on the ground outside Charlie Hebdo. He was also a Muslim. Officer Ahmed Merabet died to protect those who insulted his religion. What better example of sacrifice in defending freedom can there be?


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