Thank you Charlie Hebdo. What we can learn from the debate on the Paris cartoon attack


CharlieHebdo Biscuit

One of the few positive things that has come out of the tragic attack and killing of the Charlie Hebdo satire cartoonists in Paris is the depth of the debate that we’re seeing concerning freedom of speech, ethics, inequality and other issues. There are many divergent reactions and opinions out there and, alongside the inevitable vitriol, there’s some very candid reflection.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo is not just about cartoonists and killers, obviously.

This is evident in that the commentary touches upon everything from immigration issues, foreign fighters, capitalism, modernity and societal inequalities to our methods used in the war on terror. These seemingly disparate issues are being linked, disputed, disregarded, and- most importantly- debated.

Here are nine of the best English-language pieces out there on the Charlie Hebdo cartoon Paris attack (and some quotes from them) that are pushing us to think harder, deeper and perhaps even more laterally, about the killings and the entire associated problematic.  Watch out for the expletives!

Please let us know if you have other articles that you think should be ‘must-reads’. I’ll be updating this page regularly over the next few days, so do keep checking back. Click on the article heading to go to the original.

1. Charlie Hebdo is Heroic and Racist, we should embrace it and condemn it,  by Jordan Weissman, Slate
Life cannot be explained by binaries and much of the incomplex statements on the  Charlie Hebdo cartoon attack are inadequate for describing the nuances of our societies . Jordan Weissman’s short piece asks us to recognize the inherent contradictions in the immediate situation; for example that one can, at the same time, be drawing lines for protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties  and simultaneously be crossing those lines.

2. Sharpening Contradictions, By Juan Cole.
This commentary highlights the killings as a tactic by Al Qaeda to polarize Europeans – to pit Muslims in Europe against others in their societies and as an end aim to increase its recruitment pool. Interesting theory, that converges with UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon’s statement:

“This horrific attack was meant to divide. We must not fall into that trap. This is a moment for solidarity around the world.”

3. Charlie Hebdo: This Attack Was Nothing To Do With Free Speech - It Was About War, by Asghar Bhukari, Films for Action
 Don’t let the stream-of-consciousness style of this loose opinion piece put you off wading through to the end. There are a few gems in this refreshingly visceral outpouring of thoughts. Here’s one:

“This false narrative is creating extremism in white communities too (note the rise of right wing neo-facists across Europe). And of course as the bombs fall like rain — it hardens opinions and creates extremists in the Muslim world. And both of these people are expressing themselves in very ugly ways — and that’s exactly what happened here…

Twelve people are dead — because the world we are creating — is utterly polarised.”

  1. Not an article but a cartoon commentary  by Joe Sacco, Published on the Guardian online.
    Here are my  favorite frames from Joe Sacco’s nuanced and funny depiction of the context. Apologies for ruining the punchline!

Screenshot 2015-01-10 02.16.36


5. Radical Islam, Nihilistic Rage, By Kenan Malik, New York Times
The short op-ed piece deserves more thought that it initially seems. Malik looks at ‘radical Islam’ from a historical lens and from the perspective of shifting ideologies that shape the World. He doesn’t refer to the Paris killings specifically, but to the actions of Boko Haram and other groups. He points interestingly, and somewhat ironically, to the ideas of Frantz Fanon, the French-Algerian philosopher and revolutionary, who wanted to reclaim the west as part of the anti-colonial project.

“…the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage against modernity. Many strands of contemporary thought, including those embraced by “deep greens” and the far left, express aspects of such discontent. But it is radical Islam that has become the lightning rod for this fury.”

6. #Je Suis Charlie: Muslims have nothing to apologize for, by Joey Ayub, curated on Global Voices
One of my favorites. True to its title this article is non-apologetic. And quite rightly. Ayub lays out with force the position that faithful, faithless, bacon-chomping, quran-reading, johnny walker-swilling, mass-attending, mosque-going – (I could go on, and on)- Muslims, in all their iterations and all their complex identities, find themselves lumped together and referred to in a way that many don’t recognize: as a ‘Muslim community’.

 “Think of how insulting it must be to hear the word “Moderate Muslims” describe pretty much every Muslim in the world as though they were a minority in a sea of madness. Imagine, for just a moment, what it must be like to be a Muslim in the post 9/11 West.” 

7. In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism,  by Jacob Canfield, The Hooded Utilitarian
Another no holds barred opinion piece, arguing that while the cartoonists are free to express themselves, what they are expressing were racist, anti-Islamic views that spread xenophobia.

“The cartoons represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic. “The editorial staff of Hebdo consistently aimed to provoke Muslims. They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship”

8. Various, Matthew, Iglesias, Vox
The ever-erudite Matt Iglesias at VOX has interviewed, researched and written a number of thoughtful, nuanced pieces.Here are some excerpts:

“…the cartoons can appear explicitly designed to provoke. Aslan suggested that publications that print such cartoons may often be attempting to provoke an extreme response in order to make a statement about who belongs in European secular culture….. those cartoons were a deliberate attempt to poke a stick in the eye of Denmark’s Muslim community. To rouse them, to essentially prove that ‘unless you can put up with this, you don’t belong in Denmark.'”

“Blasphemous, mocking images cause pain in marginalized communities,” …“The elevation of such images to a point of high principle will increase the burdens on those minority groups. And the more those groups are mistreated, the more angry radicals we can expect to see.”

9. Chinese media slams the West’s hypocrisy in Charlie Hebdo reaction, BRICS Post
The BRICS post reported that the state-run Chinese newspaper Global Times took the opportunity, while condemning the attacks, to point a finger at the fickle west. Official condemnation by the west of terrorist attacks within Russia and China, its contended, have not been as forthcoming as the outrage towards attacks such as that of Charlie Hebdo. No mention of Russia’s underwhelming response to the downing of the Malaysia Airlines jet over Donetsk…ahem. One little nugget though that does warrant further thought was the following quote from the communist-party’s Global Times:

“As the West holds absolute dominance in global opinion, non-Western societies can scarcely get their disagreements heard by the world. The West has to consciously control its use of “soft power” that can verbally abuse those it doesn’t favor,” it added.

Some other public comments/ tweets from the web

Islamic terrorists think they are avenging the caricature of their faith. Actually, they are the caricature. (The subtitle of a Slate article on how the terrorists ‘Disgrace Islam’, by William Saletan)

This is an important commentary, making an important distinction between offending and offensive. The Charlie Hebdo satirists and cartoonists live at that razor’s edge. Freedom of speech must be defended as law and ethos, but ethics and morality with that freedom must be continually gauged and evaluated.

Fundamentalism in religion lacks such maturity and texture as well.

“Charlie Hebdo” might be on the wilder shores of satire – and deeply offensive to some – but I reminded of what Bette Midler used to say about people who can’t take a joke,

I find it repulsive to egregiously insult and demean a faithful people while hiding behind professions of high-minded principles of ‘Free Speech’. Free speech is about protecting citizens from oppression by governments, and from abuse by powerful majorities. When used as an excuse by the Charlie Hebdos of the world, the principle of free speech is itself demeaned, most especially when reasonable people do not reject their incivility & disrespect.

Personally, I believe there’s a way to criticize some person or group while still respecting the target. A big part of modern speech codes should be encouraging that distinction. 

In this specific case, I find the cartoons that have been reposted to be rather tasteless, but that in no way merits the murders. They have a right to publish them and I have a right to decline to purchase them. I will vigorously defend both of these rights.

What’s different is that the JeSuisCharlie crowd is rightly insisting that the costs of offensivefree speech should never include death: neither death by the state, nor death by an international network of gun-toting extremists.

I’d like to end with this one, not because its correct to do so, but because it pithily lays down a bottom line that we all agree upon:

Victim blaming. “If they hadn’t been so controversial…”  is no different than  “If she hadn’t worn that short skirt…”.



2 thoughts on “Thank you Charlie Hebdo. What we can learn from the debate on the Paris cartoon attack”

  1. Some interesting reads here. What about the media from non english speaking countries? Its important we know what the rest of the world is thinking too. Any insights into the debate in France?

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