Is Charlie Hebdo Racist?

Listen to this really illuminating podcast that’s been widely shared on social media this week.

It features a discussion between John Semley, a high profile Canadian critic of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and his fellow Canadian, the cartoonist “Eiynah”, pseudonymous author of the blog Nice Mangos.

It’s fascinating to observe the dynamic between the moderately progressive Eiynah, an ex-Muslim atheist who writes a blog on Islam and sexuality, and Semley who also self-identifies as a “progressive”.

As a former Muslim, who turns a wry eye on conservative Islamic culture and its attitudes to sex, Eiynah argues for solidarity with publications, such as Charlie Hebdo, who do the same; whilst Semley, the consummate western liberal progressive, believes it to be a racist monstrosity, unworthy of support from his political kin.

Eiynah argues that Islam is not a race; after all, she considers herself to be “ex-Muslim”.

He describes Charlie Hebdo as “pudgy French intellectuals drawing Mohammed’s asshole.”

You would not think that their positions would diverge so wildly on this subject, but they do.




On Self-Censorship and Taking the Easy Way Out

suicide of the west

The other day while idly scrolling through my Facebook news feed I came across a post by a (fortunately not close) English acquaintance of mine reacting with anger to the latest Charlie Hebdo cover and calling for it to be “shut down” on the grounds that offending people’s religion is not free speech. This was a person living in a liberal society openly calling for one of the most fundamental freedoms of that society to be curtailed. While this person lacked the sophistication to cloak this sentiment in euphemism, it is disturbing how widespread these views are.

As the dust has settled over the last few weeks many have, astonishingly, sought to shift the responsibility for preventing future acts of terror, onto the very free press that was attacked. The more enlightened critics suggest that, while Charlie Hebdo undoubtedly had the ‘right’ to publish offensive material, it was ‘unkind’ to do so and alienates peaceable Muslims who we need to keep on the side of pluralism and democracy. I fear this gives ordinary Muslims far too little credit. The implication is that Muslims, however moderate, are all potential terrorists teetering on the brink of extremism, ready to be pushed over the edge if their feelings are hurt too much. We do not treat Catholics or Hindus, who take their religion just as seriously, this way so I see no reason why an exception should be made in this case. I have a Christian friend who was offended by Charlie Hebdo’s homoerotic portrayal of the Holy Trinity but this offence led to nothing more than him expressing it during a conversation about the content of the publication, it did not shake his faith nor inspire him to rail against free speech, though I doubt he will be buying a subscription. Muslims who are strong and committed in their faith have no justifiable reason to turn against the societies they live in on the basis of the free press exercising their right to criticise, and their responsibility to print newsworthy stories and images.

But perhaps I am being an idealist. It is possible to make a consequentialist argument here: that while Muslims should ideally not be pushed towards extremism by having their religion mocked, it happens anyway so doing so, whether we like it or not, is essentially stirring up trouble and not conducive to living in a peaceable pluralistic society.

But the state of affairs this results in is not pluralism, it is in fact totally counter-productive to that project. It is the decision to self-censor, based on the fear of an apparently hypersensitive and volatile minority. It seems obvious that this sentiment, once again, insults ordinary Muslims, infantilising them by assuming their inability to weather offence non-violently. We are told time and time again that it is intolerant and bigoted to question the loyalty of Muslims in Western society, to expect them to make their position clear that they do not condone such acts of terror is to suspiciously implicate them based on their faith, to assume guilt until innocence is demonstrated. I happen to agree but the corollary must be that we do not make contingency concessions just in case that trust is misplaced.

But, even more dangerously, it also empowers the extremists by appointing them the representatives of the community and the arbiters of the (now-no-longer-free) press. It sets a dangerous precedent that we are ready and willing to retreat on our principles and that violence and intimidation are a valid means of affecting policy-change. We had a taste of this during the debacle over the Danish cartoons when a number of publications and media outlets refused to reprint what was by then a highly newsworthy image for fear that they would be “inciting violence” (exact words) – taking responsibility in advance for acts of violence against themselves, an extraordinary victory for the habitual offence-seekers who will always find something to be angry about.

But what is so noble about the actions of Charlie Hebdo and the publications that republished their cartoons? Do they not play into the hands of rising right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere? What about the hypocrisy of the politicians marching in solidarity with the principle of “free speech” when they do not apply the principle consistently in their own societies? All these non-sequiturs have been thrown around in the last few weeks with the sinister effect that the term “free speech” is increasingly written in those tell-tale inverted commas. You’ve seen them before. The ones we use to imply the condescending eye-rolling sarcasm we reserve for political hypocrisy or embarrassing jingoism, for terms like “war on terror” and “freedom fries”.

Are politicians hypocrites? Very often, yes. Will the far-right try and take advantage of recent events? Like any political movement, of course they will. But these are arguments of babies and bathwater. The answer to these problems is not to abandon free speech to the dustbin of rhetorical clutter.

Back in 2012, during a debate on the motion “Free Speech must include the right to offend” the American journalist and author, Philip Gourevitch, speaking for the motion, expressed the challenge we now face rather well:

“It is not a slippery slope; it is a greased precipice off which they wish to push you”

Featured Image Credit: The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David. Source: WikiCommons

The Jihadist Enemy, Some Western Myths

islamicisation of europe cultural marxism

After the depraved attack on French civil society yesterday, I knew that I wanted to react in print, but it took me some time to gather my thoughts, and there is little I can say about the attacks themselves that hasn’t already been better expressed by the extraordinarily touching displays of solidarity from ordinary people across the world.

The West does very well when it comes to showing solidarity with victims and upholding democratic values such as, in this case (and most cases as it is expansionist theocracy’s most hated concept), free speech, but I fear Western civil societies are less sure of themselves when it comes to facing up to a real threat.

As such, I thought I would take this opportunity to debunk some persistent myths in the West about militant Islam:

Islamism is not a liberation theology: In the West, Islamism has quite successfully managed to pose as a sort of interest group representing an oppressed minority deserving of our protection and sympathy, subject as they are to prejudice, racism (taking advantage of the all-too-common fallacy of conflating of race and religion) and the injustices of globalisation and neoliberal capitalism. The branding of the movement as a kind of anti-capitalist rebellion has allowed mendacious frauds like George Galloway to jump on the bandwagon which, as Nick Cohen points out in his Book What’s Left, creates a baffling alliance between the left and the openly fascistic ideology of Islamism. The corollary to this, of course, is that it cultivates an impression among liberals that resistance to this fundamentalism and concern about Islamic influence in society is reactionary, right-wing and intolerant.

Further, I have had to have quite a few ridiculous arguments with liberal Westerners who are under the impression that the rise of militant Islam is our fault for our interference in the affairs of “Muslim countries” (surrendering their argument on a liberal basis from the outset by denominating territory on the grounds of religion). These are the sort of people who, when an embassy is burned in Libya or the diplomatic immunity of Denmark is violated, will smugly post snide comments about American imperialism on Twitter tagging “#blowback”. Of course there is historicity to the rise of these groups, but it is a non-sequitur to take the attitude that, as a result of our history we should roll over and give in to these thugs, if anything it redoubles our responsibility to stand firm against this threat. It also embodies a remarkably abject and negative attitude to the free speech they are employing in making these kind of statements, suggesting the these hard-won freedoms we enjoy are not worth defending or, worse, are not universal at least in potential.

Islamism is not some kind of wistful sigh of the oppressed; it is the most reactionary ideology in existence in the world today. It is not a result of poverty and disempowerment; it is the cause of them, it thrives on ignorance, prejudice and hatred. It actively proclaims that it loves death as we “Kuffar” love life – it must be destroyed if the love of life and freedom is to prevail over this foul death-cult.

Appeasement is not the solution: There are those who, as I already mentioned, suggest that the problem is the behaviour of Western civilisation and that the rise of Islamic terrorism is a “response” to our chequered colonial history and, as such, that the answer is to build bridges and make an effort not to upset these people. It has been quite common over the last decade that, when someone in the media criticises Islam as a religion or makes a comment on the roots of Islamism in Muslim society, the response is something along the lines of “you have just offended 1.8 billion Muslims” or “I wouldn’t advise going to war with a billion people”. Not only does this kind of statement make the elementary error of allowing the censorious or fundamentalist elements to speak for the global Muslim population (a far more offensive implication than a critique of religious doctrine), it also contains an implicit threat and an element of emotional blackmail. I would defend the right of someone to hold a worldview if there was only one of them, but the population statistic is clearly intended as a scaremongering tactic. This is the kind of attitude that cultivates the impulse to appease and capitulate. Furthermore, if all of those 1.8 billion were hateful bomb-wielding extremists (an absurd hypothesis), it would mean that even greater efforts were required to defeat them, because the alternative is not worth consideration. If you think the answer is to accommodate these people, then you better be aware of what kind of compromises will be necessary – their goal is the establishment of a global theocracy based on the most reactionary and fascist ideas. The only form of appeasement acceptable to these people would be cultural suicide on a grand scale, total capitulation and the surrender of everything that makes our civilisation a better place to live in than the squalid desert fiefdoms they are carving out for themselves.

Islamism is not a trivial threat: Immediately after the September 11 attacks we seemed pretty clear on the gravity of the situation and the savage determination of the enemy we faced. But in the years that followed, particularly after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it has become rather unfashionable to admit that terrorism poses an existential threat. I believe this is a side-effect of liberal embarrassment about Western foreign policy – if, in a middle-class London wine bar, you raise the subject of Jihadist terrorism and the need to defeat it, expect to be greeted with rolled eyes and an accusation that you sound like George Bush or some other such casuistry. How have we, as a society, become more afraid of being compared to Dick Cheney than of being blown up or slaughtered in the streets of our own cities?

Whether or not that is the reason for this attitude, there is a hesitancy to see terrorist attacks as an overarching and building threat – every attack is seen as an isolated incident by a couple of fanatics or some crazed individual with a mental illness. This also allows liberals to avoid asking any hard questions about the ideology and beliefs behind these actions, lest they have to face up to any politically incorrect realities. But it also trivialises the threat and empowers the enemy by indicating to them that we do not understand the appeal of their ideas and the psychology of Jihad. It was this attitude which was used to shrug off the butchery of Lee Rigby.

What this most recent attack highlights is that we face a far different enemy. These men are not “crazy” but frighteningly sane – the men who carried out this attack did so in a cold, calm and rehearsed manner. As Robert Fox, the Defence Correspondent for The Evening Standard pointed out, these men were organised, coordinated and well-trained. They knew how to use guns and they knew how to kill without mercy or hesitation, as we saw in their clinical execution of a helpless police officer. It is not mental illness that drives these actions but firm beliefs and convictions. Further, what we understand about this and, increasingly, previous attacks, including that on Lee Rigby, is that they were planned and coordinated and not the actions of a few psychotic vagrants. I am willing to take the enemy seriously to that extent.

The gunmen's harsh cries of “Allahu Akbar”, as they shot at police.


And finally, this may come as a surprise but…

Liberal democracy is worth fighting for: It may have become obvious by now that I am concerned about Islamic Jihad but what often concerns me even more is the attitude of its potential victims, those of us who occupy the societies it wishes to destroy. I even sometimes wonder if some Westerners secretly (or even openly) long for the West to fall. I believe this is an unfortunate negative side-effect of one of the most positive aspects of Western civilisation – the capacity for self-criticism of its societies, the very core that makes it worth defending. But this can, at times, go too far. Our capacity for critical self-reflection sometimes turns to self-hatred and shame. When the Ayatollah Khomeini took to Twitter recently to criticise America for the events in Ferguson, I was astonished to find apparently liberal commenters making the case that Iran is a more pluralistic and free society than the USA. Democratic values have become unfashionable or embarrassing to assert for fear of being accused of hypocrisy of Western imperialism (a subject we have discussed previously). If you think that everything is relative and frequently start sentences on this subject with “who are we to say” then I fear you have fallen victim to this cultural malaise.

Since when did being a liberal become synonymous with being incapable of asserting your values? Indeed “values” are meaningless unless they are assertive. Yes, I object to the treatment of women and homosexuals in Muslim countries. In fact I object to the very idea of a Muslim state, theocracy being the worst and most debased form of tyranny – if that bothers you, allow me to hedge by saying that, by exactly the same standard, I object to the existence of Christian, Jewish or any other kind of religious state. And yet for expressing my disgust at ideas that are opposed to everything liberal democracy stands for, I can be accused of having an illiberal attitude.

Western society is not perfect and injustice exists everywhere, including the countries that are, for all intents and purposes, the most ‘free’. But our freedom to criticise our own civilisation makes it worth fighting for.

Featured Image Credit: The Fall of Rome: Destruction by Thomas Cole (1836) Source: Wikicommons