In response to the appalling attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the cry of Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie) has gone up in France, the rest of Europe and around the world.
The idea, of course, was been to express complete solidarity, to the point of total identification, with the slain journalists and their right to publish provocative and even offensive material. However, almost immediately a dissenting voice also emerged in western discourse, condemning some of the material and refusing to identify with it.
Everyone ostensibly condemns the attacks, but some have been pointing out what was supposedly objectionable about Charlie Hebdo’s content and style. Almost all of these charges end up embracing the idea, although often without using the term, that Charlie Hebdo was an Islamophobic publication.
What difference would it really make in this case? Even if it were Islamophobic, that does not justify heavily armed thugs bursting into its staff meeting and murdering a dozen people.That said, the charge is very serious. One of the problems is that the generic style that Charlie Hebdo follows is peculiarly, perhaps even uniquely, French. It is puerile, crude, vile, intentionally disgusting, and patently offensive. It is so quintessentially French that there is an untranslatable term for it: gouaille.
This doesn’t translate into other languages because no one else quite has the same tradition of mockery calculated to be disgusting. The best explanation of the tradition in the context of the attack was provided by Arthur Goldhammer on the website of Al Jazeera America.
Goldhammer explains: “The whole point of Charlie’s satire was to be tasteless and obscene, to respect no proprieties, to make its point by being untameable and incorrigible and therefore unpublishable anywhere else.”
He adds that “the essence of Charlie Hebdo was to express the inexpressible in images with the power to shock and offend,” and warns that the rush by “respectable” publications to lionise and champion Charlie Hebdo makes no sense because it is “the precise opposite of what the living Charlie was about”.
Having established that, is Charlie Hebdo in any meaningful sense Islamophobic? The question is crucial, in order to to help us come to a collective understanding of what that contested term should properly mean.
A workable definition is indispensable for those who would effectively and honourably oppose Islamophobia in any given society, and globally.
The key to a practicable definition of Islamophobia that can help identify truly objectionable speech, must be that it refers to living human beings and their fundamental rights. It cannot be about protecting people from being offended, or having their feelings hurt. Still less can it be about protecting abstract ideas, religious dogmas, or cultural norms from being questioned, critiqued or even lampooned.
The proper metric to identify genuinely bigoted speech is whether or not the expression in question is intended or likely to have the effect of promoting fear and hatred against broad categories of people based on their identity. Would such speech make it more difficult for communities to function effectively in their own society? In other words, does the speech attack the legitimate rights and interests of identity-based communities? Does it prevent them being seen as, and treated as equal by, and with regard to, other communities?
Charlie Hebdo certainly does not meet this standard. While many of the images it printed over the years were offensive to Muslims and many others, and were intended to be so, did its track record really suggest that its presence on the French scene in any way compromised, challenged or complicated the ability of the Arab and Muslim migrant communities in France to function properly in that society? Clearly, the answer is no.
Its new crop of critics don’t take the idea that it was an equal opportunities offender seriously – but they should. Many of these new critics had probably not even heard of Charlie Hebdo a week ago. And some of the rest may have flipped through an issue or two at most. But the magazine really was an equal opportunities offender and this is an absolutely crucial point to acknowledge.
Did Charlie Hebdo single out Muslims and Islam for special vitriol? I don’t think any sincere or serious reader of the magazine over the past decade or so could honestly maintain that, any more than a viewer of the American TV show South Park could make that claim about its representations of Muslims, Mormons or Scientologists, for that matter.
Charlie Hebdo did, in fact, go after everything in its path with its classically puerile gouaille style of irreverence. Like many other lampoons, it was particularly drawn to mocking religion. But it spoofed all religions equally. The fact that it did not give Islam a pass is hardly evidence of Islamophobia.
The fact is that for all of its calculated offence, Charlie Hebdo did not attack or compromise the ability of French Muslims to function successfully in their own society. It is not obnoxious and freewheeling satire but terrorist atrocities that really and devastatingly promote Islamophobia in France and around the world.