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Once upon a time, there was this thing called 'Multiculturalism'. 
I write about those turkeys who've voted for Christmas.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo: crossing the Rubicon

“We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed,” declared the attackers at the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, as they executed 10 journalists and two police officers on 7th January, 2015.

Since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie in 1989, through to the Jyllands-Posten ‘Mohammed’ cartoons of 2005 and beyond, there has been a debate over freedom of expression: in particular, the right to offend. And now, with such a brazen attack in Europe, in Paris, in cold daylight, and on journalists – those at the very forefront of the battle of ideas – many will hold that this is no longer a matter for polite debate, but an epoch-defining struggle between liberty and totalitarianism; between secular and fundamentalist forces.

Following the attack, the instinctive reaction was one of solidarity, and millions around the world took to the streets and social media to declare that they, too, were Charlie:

But does the journal merit such totemic status? The official line is that Charlie Hebdo is a leftist, secular publication that lampoons religion, holding Islamists in particular in its crosshairs. Indeed, some of its covers have made a distinction between Islamists and Islam, going as far as to portray the former as anathema to the latter:

However the same cannot be said of other artwork, which, without doubt, would have sickened anyone who self-identifies as Muslim:

The secular response to this is, of course, ‘…so what?’ In a world where there are no idols left, all that is sacred is the right to ideas: to analyse and critique anything, anyone, any belief. And yes – the right to offend. Liberty is only meaningful when all bets are off; where there are no sacred cows.

Fine… So let’s see how that ideal stands up from other angles. Here are some more illustrations, the first depicting black French politician, Christiane Taubira, followed by a front cover that dovetails commentary on Boko Haram with domestic politics:

To the untrained eye these might look like ugly, racial caricatures, but others will claim that, in context, they are anything but. That with full view of the French political landscape, an understanding of the journal’s unique selling point (i.e. radical subversion), and an appreciation of satire, these are actually sophisticated statements.

Still, one wonders, is everyone getting the joke? How are these images being received, digested and assimilated, on the French Street? Is it not sophistry to defend the following depiction of a delighted Pope, on discovering that the French are ‘…as dumb as niggers’?:

Running further with the blank-cheque of ‘free speech’, here’s Insurgent, a white-supremacist magazine in the US, with their take on Black history:

I await the liberal clamour to hold this in the same, sacred space. All freedom-loving people of the world repeat after me: Je Suis Insurgent!!

And looking into the history of Europe, here’s an uncanny resemblance from the Nazi tabloid Der Sturmer, to Charlie Hebdo’s venerated expression of freedom:

Spot the difference?


Back to the present, and depictions from Israel’s summer 2014 assault on Gaza that were printed in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, before being withdrawn. The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies accused Fairfax Media of racial vilification and demanded an apology for the cartoon, which they said was “a grotesque stereotype of a Jew”: 

And In perhaps the ultimate irony, Charlie Hebdo themselves have shown that, in actuality, all bets are not off: in 2009 they dismissed one of their own cartoonists over anti-Semitism.


Here’s an interesting fact… On the same day as the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, terrorists struck in Yemen, killing 37 graduates from a police academy. As the world’s media went into a 9/11-esque meltdown over events in Paris, suggesting that this was the worst calamity to hit planet Earth since that fateful day in 2001, it was not even the worst terror attack on that Wednesday. And yet, the world stopped spinning for Charlie:

UN Council standing in silence after the Paris attack -

One wonders who else’s death might merit the same global shudder? Clearly not those of some hapless Yemenis, but more interestingly, neither did the killing of journalists in Gaza (2014), or Al Jazeera journalists being blown up by US forces in Iraq (2003).

Bien sur, everyone is equal, but some are clearly more equal than others…

Commenting in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, said: ‘…We (Europeans) have our own culture based on Christianity, Judaism & humanism...' This is a valid point. It is reasonable for the majority to expect minorities outside of this framework, to accept the dominance of this axis in the public sphere. That some proportion of Muslims do not is, without qualification, a massive problem. The reality of émigré Muslims who are happy to live under the protection of a foreign flag, benefitting from shared resources, and yet feel they can impose their values through threats and violence, presents a huge challenge to modern European states; one that they must counter. That the de facto media coverage however casts a cloud over every Muslim, is risible. The scale and ‘slant’ of popular presentation feeds the ‘clash of civilizations’ notion, with ever deeper battle lines being dug between ‘Islam and the West’. It’s a miscalculation on many levels. Further, it paralyses the ‘Muslim’ response, with all reduced to merely bleating cod apologies and running through inane defences (i.e. Islam is a religion of peace). Ironically, the same fear factor that liberals bemoan vis-à-vis discussing Islam, is being applied in reverse.

There is of course more to Charlie Hebdo than Muslim-baiting, but I am free to judge the journal by its lowest common denominator, and thus conclude that the #JeSuisCharlie sentiment is naïve. Or put another way, I too reserve the right to analyse, critique, offend – and insult. If I don’t write you a blank cheque of support, that does not turn me into Al-Baghdadi’s foot soldier. My place in this world is not simply to express solidarity and shame. I will not be pinned down and inspected on some secular Judgement Day, by the god of Western Outrage. Why..? Because I didn’t kill anyone. What happened in Paris on 7th January 2015, really had nothing to do with me.