Qui Est Charlie?

Jack Hanson on the Charlie Hebdo capitulation

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

IT'S HARD TO know what to think about the editor of Charlie Hebdo’s announcement that the newspaper will no longer feature depictions of the prophet Mohammed. All things being equal, I suppose it wouldn’t much matter to me: I was never a reader of Charlie, having found the humor a bit puerile and the politics a bit one-dimensional. But with Charlie, nothing is ordinary or, at least, not since January 7, 2015, when two men, trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen and armed with Kalashnikovs, stormed their offices, murdering twelve staff members, along with several police officers who attempted to stop them both before and after the attack. Once that occurred, my taste seemed to me irrelevant, and all that mattered was that the right to free speech be defended by anyone with the power to do so, and not only that, but that unfettered exchange be reestablished as the norm, not an occasional spectacle of defiance. To officially announce that the subject which led to all the trouble seems to send an unclear message, both about their motives and the state of free speech in the West. Is this submission, or just moving forward?     

To impugn the editors and writers of Charlie Hebdo for lack of courage is wrong both morally and factually.

To impugn the editors and writers of Charlie Hebdo for lack of courage is wrong both morally and factually. Having witnessed the violent murder of their friends and colleagues for the drawing a cartoon depicting a historical figure, these artists only one week later released a cover of the same figure, this time holding a sign which read, “Tout est pardonné” (all is forgiven). A gesture of both stern defiance and large-hearted magnanimity, this image was printed on over 7.6 million copies and in six languages, as opposed to the usual 60,000 copies exclusively in French. Thousands rallied in Paris, including multiple world leaders, and millions of profiles across social media bore the slogan “Je Suis Charlie.” For once, some of us felt safe in assuming, the dead might rest peacefully. This was murder, we thought, and it was done because people had spoken their minds.

It was all the more heart-breaking, then, when many voices in both American and international outlets shot right past the horrible fate those twelve journalists and several police officers suffered in order to accuse them of imperialism and racism. The most visible example came, maddeningly, from The New Yorker. Teju Cole’s repulsively titled “Unmournable Bodies,” takes care to run a laundry-list of Western crimes and blunders from the Inquisition to the Iraq War before even mentioning the slain staff of Charlie. He throws in the usual throat-clearing, assuring his reader that he does not condone murder, that these were people, too, that even Hitler had Eva Brann and a dog, etc. But then it’s off to the races (as it were), and Cole spends the remainder of his essay smearing both the dead and the society which allowed them to express their opinions freely. Never mind that Charlie was cited by SOS Racisme, a socialist anti-racist group, as a leader in the fight against racism. Nevermind that Charlie’s lewd attacks on the Pope, the far-Right Marine Le Pen, and Western imperialism far outweigh the handful of Mohammed cartoons (which, by the way, are their perfect right, even in the eyes of Islam: as non-Muslims, the cartoonists of Charlie were not subject to Islamic blasphemy laws). Forget all of this: Charlie is racist and an imperialist stooge.

That is the real import of the argument over free speech. It is not an abstraction to be asserted, it is a practice to be exercised. The serious case in Charlie’s favor was not that we can say whatever the hell we want. It is that we can say whatever we feel we must.

Hot on the heels of Cole’s attack, PEN decided to bestow an award upon Charlie Hebdo’s surviving staff, citing the paper’s courage in the continuing struggle for free speech. But we already decided that Charlie’s racist! several dozen writers, including Junot Diaz, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Cole himself complained, refusing to attend the annual New York City gala where the award was to be given. Assured of firm support from most of its members (including a pithy response by Salman Rushdie), PEN went ahead with the award anyway, and the entire episode began to look like just another in a never-ending series of literary scandals. Perhaps, one hoped, there would be a return to normalcy.

So why this announcement? Why now? Riss, Charlie’s editor, told the German newspaper Stern that there is no more reason to continue: "We have drawn Mohammed to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want. We've done our job. We have defended the right to caricature." But that is not why they drew Mohammed in the first place. The initial reason was the same one behind all of their cartoons: the staff of Charlie saw a topic they wished to broach, and they went after it, caution be damned. That is the real import of the argument over free speech. It is not an abstraction to be asserted, it is a practice to be exercised. The serious case in Charlie’s favor was not that we can say whatever the hell we want. It is that we can say whatever we feel we must.  

He also claims that he does not want the paper defined by its critique of Islam. However infuriating it may be, that decision was taken out of his hands in the first week of this year. Because of the actions of terrorists, Charlie Hebdo will be forever linked to the turbulence between the West and Islamic extremism. If the paper had simply stopped running cartoons of Mohammed and focused on other topics (as it has done since the “survivor’s issue”) no one would look twice. But to officially announce abstention from the topic begins to feel more like capitulation to both the violence and the smears.

All while writing this I have been thinking, “Who am I to question the motives of these folks, who have gone through hell and back for their (and my) right to speak freely?” It wouldn’t be my place, nor would it be anyone else’s, to tell the paper not to make this kind of statement.

But I can still wish they hadn’t. 

JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.