Irony is an overly used word but there is resounding incongruity in the way so-called champions of “free speech” have attacked critics of Charlie Hebdo in the wake of the Paris terrorist atrocities. They have tried to portray opposition to the latest in a long line of hugely provocative public insults aimed at one of the world’s largest monotheistic religions as being an apology for terrorism, and specifically 12 demonic murders.There is actually no question of anyone who believes in the rule of law supporting violence of this nature. What happened to the victims employed by the satirical magazine, and all others caught up in the slaughter, was absolutely abhorrent and is to be condemned unequivocally.
This has not stopped agenda-led commentators trying to manipulate the massacres into another vicious battle in their war on Islam. The Charlie Hebdo debate died with its key staff members, they argue, and anyone who thinks otherwise should shut up. “Je suis Charlie” is now the rallying cry of a new movement of self-styled idealists, united in their support of a free media befitting the country of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
In fact, the miraculous transformation of the notoriously censorial and secretive French Republic into a bastion of universal free speech is one of the most ludicrous effects of the Charlie Hebdo outrage. Beyond strict privacy laws, and other means used to protect the rich and the powerful, the sense of deference towards those in authority is as strong as ever.
As billions in direct and indirect state aid are ploughed into media outlets by the government every year, allowing even tighter control, the public’s trust in them is at an all-time low. This is a country where politicians’ Soviet-style TV addresses are as cynical as they are dated. Often dressed up as “interviews” they invariably involve fawning celebrity journalists allowing public figures to answer their own questions.
A prime example of how a pampered establishment is protected by privacy laws – one of hundreds – is Valérie Trierweiler, a onetime first lady of France, successfully suing journalists for revealing facts about her private life, before later making millions by releasing her own kiss-and-tell book on the same subject.
This is the kind of rank hypocrisy which has always seen a vast arsenal of legislation aimed at combatting hate speech, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against other minority groups, completely ignored when it comes to Charlie Hebdo. It is a heresy to say so at the moment, but it remains absolutely baffling that France should have allowed Charlie Hebdo’s nastiest material to be published in the first place, let alone to continue upholding its “right” to be racist.
That the magazine had, for many years, been at the forefront of an unrelenting campaign of vilification of Muslims is undeniable. Unlike many of my more hysterical and disingenuous critics, I had actually read it regularly, and spoken to Stéphane Charbonnier, its murdered editor. When he took on the job in 2009, he said: “We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism”.
Editions have since featured the much publicised cartoon “Prophet” character naked and playing himself in a pornographic movie, and with a star coming out of his bottom, under the caption “A star is born”, for example. Overtly racist material included Muslim men described as “bearded cretins who spend their time on porn sites” and as “desert pigs”. Women were graphically presented as “sexual jihadists” as they prayed towards Mecca, their alleged pimp.
A convenient “joke” about the Front National (FN) had allowed Charlie Hebdo to publish an image of France’s black justice minister, Christiane Taubira, as a monkey. There were plenty of cartoons of black people in other stereotypical roles, such as slaves. Charlie Hebdo apologists, meanwhile, still argue that you need to “get” the magazine to understand it …just like cliquey racists do when they exchange barroom banter about immigrants they actually despise.
In light of the monumental hypocrisy from those engaged in one of the most vindictive – and indeed nonsensical – “free speech” debates in media history, it is worth considering that the concept of free speech cannot be absolute. You do not need to demand measures like a blasphemy law (and I certainly do not) to accept that there are legal and conventional boundaries to how we communicate with each other. And no, Charlie Hebdo’s poisonous depictions of Christians and Jews is not mitigation for whipping up prejudice against Islam. Egalitarian bigotry should have no place in the Fifth Republic.
The secular nature of modern France by no means subjugates religion. On the contrary it is meant to create a respectful, equal society in which all expressions of faith can flourish. Unfortunately, this has not stopped Islam-baiting becoming a national pastime in recent years. The FN is not the only party that wants to restrict Muslims in everything, from what they wear, to the food they eat, and the places they are allowed to pray.
Stirring up this kind of discrimination with images portraying Muslims as sexually deviant, backward fanatics committed to nihilistic destruction is, to many of us, as chilling as Der Stürmer’s caricatures of Jews in the 1930s. These “enemy within” Nazi cartoons played a hugely important part in the Third Reich propaganda which tried to legitimise the persecution of European Jewry and – ultimately – the Holocaust.
Those who consider such comparisons far-fetched should speak to the French Arab widow whose husband was stabbed to death two weekends ago by a man screaming “I am your Islam”. Such Islamophobic attacks, which also include mosques being shot at and vandalised, have risen sharply in recent days. They will continue to do so while a French establishment defends the right to victimise minorities.
Manuel Valls, France’s Prime Minister, finally broke the “Je Suis Charlie” consensus last week by referring to the “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” experienced by millions of French Muslims, the majority of North African and African origin. Calling for an end to “segregation”, Mr Valls conceded that there was a direct link between the kind of economic deprivation and discrimination they are subjected to, and the way a tiny minority is radicalised. Disenfranchisement is by no means an excuse for lethal crime, but humiliating those who already feel subjugated is hardly going to improve the situation.
I was among those who sat through the trial of the fashion designer John Galliano, who was criminalised in France because of a drunken, anti-Jewish rant. Charlie Hebdo itself sacked a cartoonist for suggesting that the then President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was converting to Judaism in order to marry into a Jewish family for money. There are compelling arguments that such punishments were entirely justified, but why shouldn’t they apply to conduct which clearly offends Muslims, and directly leads to hatred and violence against them too?
Such gross inconsistency applied to French citizens who wanted to show solidarity with the Palestinian people last summer. Some of their marches across France were banned because the Interior Ministry deemed there was a risk of anti-social behaviour – the kind which has characterised large-scale demonstrations in the French capital for centuries. The human rights organisation Amnesty International is among those who have condemned such an outlawing of protest.
As more than seven million copies of a state-approved magazine causing massive turmoil including deaths across the Muslim world continue to be distributed, France has arrested more than 70 people for “hate speech” or “defending terrorism” since the Paris attacks. Those questioned by police include a 16-year-old who posted an online parody of one of Charlie Hebdo’s past front covers, while the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was threatened with a seven year prison sentence over a Facebook quip considered to be pro-terrorism. In Nice, an eight-year-old boy was interrogated by detectives for refusing to observe a minute’s silence for the Paris victims. The child is said to have claimed he was “with the terrorists”, even though he was too young to understand “what a terrorist is,” according to his lawyer.
Amnesty once again spoke out against such practices with the words: “Freedom of expression does not have favourites. Now is not the time for knee-jerk prosecutions, but measured responses that protect lives and respect the rights of all”.
Decidedly unconvincing commentators have fallen over backwards to try and explain these staggering double standards which protect some, but not others. There is even a Charlie Hebdo linked edition of Voltaire’s Treaties on Tolerance which, amid all this “free speech” soul-searching, has become a bestseller. Many of those buying it should be reminded that Voltaire was in fact the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet, a Parisian philosopher well-known for his rabid anti-Semitism and general hatred of religion as he was for his more enlightened views. In the current climate, such ironies are easily overlooked.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.