Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression
(Little, Brown and Company)
US: Jan 2016
There are few in the West who haven’t heard of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical news magazine which made tragic international headlines when Islamist terrorists invaded their offices and murdered eight journalists along with two policemen on 7 January 2015. The magazine had been targeted before, its offices firebombed and its journalists recipients of death threats. The satirical pieces it published—including caricature portraits that have a unique history in French political discourse, and other art work that sparked denunciations for its ostensibly shocking or offensive nature—have been both reviled and praised.
Despite the widespread coverage of Charlie Hebdo following the attacks, many outside of France still don’t entirely understand what the magazine is all about, or why it published images of Muhammad and other religious caricatures that sparked angry protests from Muslim and other faith communities.
One of the slain journalists—Stephane Charbonnier, known by his pen-name of Charb—worked with the magazine since 1992 and was editor in chief since 2009. Two days before the attack, he finished composing Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression. The Open Letter was only published after his death, but it sheds a unique light on the principles and beliefs that drove Charb and the other Charlie Hebdo writers. The 80-page treatise is an angry and at-times rambling commentary on French politics, racism, and free speech, but it offers some interesting perspectives. It’s now been translated into English and published with a moving introduction by Adam Gopnik.
Charb opens with a tirade against use of the term Islamophobia by mainstream activists and media. His critique is that the term masks what is really at play: racism. The same racism a Muslim experiences in France, he argues, would be directed against a dark-skinned immigrant even if they converted to Catholicism: they would still be slurred as a Muslim or an immigrant in the street, and would still be denied employment and housing opportunities. And all the more if they come from poor communities, are particularly dark-skinned and if their name sounds African or Middle Eastern.
Talking about racism means talking about hatred against people, Charb argues, whereas drifting the conversation onto Islam risks losing focus of the individuals who suffer. It means, he argues, that bigots are able to mask their bigotry, for example, by hiring a few upper-class Muslims into their companies while continuing to perpetuate policies that discriminate against poor Muslim and other immigrant communities. It means that having a Muslim as partner at the tennis club becomes seen as the solution to racism in the corporate world, while companies continue to implement housing policies that leave poor immigrant neighbourhoods as slums.
Charb argues vehemently against use of the term ‘Islamophobia’. His argument is that this draws attention away from the fact that racists are not attacking Islam, they are attacking Muslims. This is an important distinction, he argues. We should not be concerned about people attacking Islam, any more than we should be concerned about people attacking Catholicism, or attacking Communism. Ideas and ideologies are meant to be attacked and picked apart.
What we should be concerned about is attacks on Muslims, on people, not ideologies or belief systems. By placing the belief system at the centre of attention, he suggests, it distracts our focus away from the fact that Muslim immigrants are being subjected to horrendous racism in France and elsewhere. Not because of what they believe, but because of who they are: immigrants, poor, not white.
Moreover, he warns, the media perpetuate the focus on Islamophobia because it’s a profitable one, perpetuating the image of a dark-skinned, bearded terrorist; perpetuating fear and the image of a stark ‘other’ represented by Muslim immigrants. He argues that shedding the label of Islamophobia is vital to acknowledging that what Muslim immigrants face is racism and that their struggle against racism is part and parcel of the struggle against racism experienced by Jews, experienced by Roma, experienced by others who are targeted by racists. When Charlie Hebdo makes fun of Islamic terrorists, he says, it does so to try to undermine the power (of fear) those terrorists aspire to use, just as it makes fun of political leaders in order to undermine their power.
It’s insulting, he says, that when Charlie Hebdo publishes such cartoons the media immediately run to Muslim religious leaders for comment. Not only does this generate the perception of a link between Islamic terrorists and the broader Muslim population in France by putting the onus on Muslim religious leaders to show themselves actively denouncing Islamic terrorism, but it also places those Muslim spiritual leaders in an impossible bind, wherein failure to do anything other than fulfill media’s expectations and denounce the cartoons would spark divisive arguments within their own communities between more secular Muslims and more fundamentalist Muslims. Moreover, the way such stories are covered tend to sideline and obscure the vibrant debates in Muslim communities about issues like freedom of speech and expression.
The Counter-argument: Identity Matters
He ignores, of course, the fact that Islamophobia—whether the term itself best reflects its intent or not—acknowledges that there is a particular type of discrimination experienced by Muslims, which differs from that experienced by African-Americans, experienced by Asians, experienced by Jews and Roma and other groups.
Charb would argue that these other forms of discrimination are based on racialization or ethnicity, not religion. Yet again—and regardless of whether one considers it useful to differentiate faith-based bigotry from racialized bigotry—Muslims do experience particular forms of discrimination based on religion, stoked in no small way in recent years by stereotypes arising from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and by terrorist attacks around the world.
Some examples from Canada illustrate the counter-argument. Although Canada has a very different legal and constitutional regime from France, Islamophobia is a fraught issue in that country, too. The vast majority of Muslims in Canada are located in the country’s largest province, Ontario, and its largest city, Toronto, has the highest concentration of Muslims in either Canada or the United States. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (a government body) defines Islamophobia as “a form of racism that includes stereotypes, bias or acts of hostility towards Muslims and the viewing of Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level.” This is really what Charb is talking about as well; acts of racism against Muslims. So what’s the big deal if one chooses to call it Islamophobia?
The Ontario branch of Canada’s national student movement, the Canadian Federation of Students, struck a special Task Force on the Needs of Muslim Students, which produced an interesting report in 2007 that highlighted some of the reasons why anti-Muslim racism needs to be addressed as a particular form of racism. It noted that Muslims are, on average the youngest of any Canadian religious group (with an average age of 28), meaning that they are disproportionately represented in the post-secondary system. Failure to accommodate the needs of Muslim students, therefore, carries a very real risk of reducing the educational attainments of Canada’s future work force.
Lack of adequate prayer facilities on campuses, coupled with fear of praying in public, have led Muslim students to seek out-of-the-way locations to use as makeshift prayer sites on campus, such as remote stairwells or unused buildings, and putting themselves in vulnerable locations leads to higher risk of harassment and assault. Failure of university schedules to accommodate Muslim religious observances increases the likelihood of Muslim students missing class or examinations, the result of which impacts their academic performance.
While staunch secularists might argue that anyone adhering to a religion is voluntarily placing themselves in such a situation and that accommodations should not be permitted for any group on the basis of a voluntary ideological choice, there are two key counter-arguments to this. The first is an aspirational one – what’s the big deal with being nice? Especially when western society has so many built-in privileges accorded to Christian observances as the result of centuries of tradition? The second is practical – do we want a country where a significant portion of the population has received a second-rate education because the country’s institutions stubbornly failed to accommodate their particular needs, especially when it would have been so easy to do so?
It verges on disingenuous to critique someone’s arguments when they have no opportunity to respond, and Charb would no doubt have had a vigorous response to such counter-arguments. But the point of presenting the counter-arguments is to underscore that these are debates that are important for civil society to have. In order for civil society to flourish there needs to be a plurality of perspectives offered. Charb and Charlie Hebdo have played a key role in that process in France, refusing to allow normative ideas to hold sway without subjecting them to scrutiny and critique. The anti-racist activists who denounce Charlie Hebdo share more in common with the magazine’s journalists than they probably realize. The radical critique offered by its passionate if irreverent journalists, and the weaknesses they expose in anti-racist activism (failure to attend to the realities of class, for example) have the potential for ultimately strengthening the broader struggle for equity.
Tackle Islamophobia, or Improve the Lives of Muslims?
Ultimately, Charb comes across as an angry and outspoken champion of tangible rights for immigrants, and he warns that attention to Islamophobia offers the French government an opportunity to pretend it’s doing something to help Muslim immigrants without actually doing anything to substantively improve their daily lives. He notes, for example, that in 2014 French Socialist President Francois Hollande inaugurated a memorial to Muslim soldiers who died for France in the First World War. This sparks outrage in Charb, who rages against the fact that it ignores the colonialism those Muslim soldiers suffered under.
(I)t’s absurd for a President of the Republic to pay homage to Muslims ‘who died for France.’ These natives—the colonized and enslaved who, for the most part, were rounded up and enlisted by force—did not die for France in their capacity as Muslims. They died in their capacity as low-cost cannon fodder. And if they did die for France, it wasn’t by choice. They died because of France; they died defending a country that had stolen their own. Hollande honored them as heroes, but they were, above all, victims. Before them, German bullets; behind them, French bayonets.
The ultimate irony, rages Charb, is that at the same time as he inaugurated a memorial to Muslim soldiers, the French president ignored his own campaign promise to extend certain voting rights to non-EU foreigners—a measure which would have actually empowered Muslim immigrants and increased their potential to enact substantive political change and bring meaningful improvements to their oppressed and marginalized communities.
No Gods, No Masters, No Sacred Symbols
Charb locates himself on the secular humanist (and atheist) position that draws ire from those who argue (with good reason) that such a position often obscures the nuanced power dynamics that differentiate people’s identity formation and experience in a complex society. Opponents of Charb’s position would argue there’s no such thing as a universal citizen; that people are and always will be treated differently for the things that make them different: some differences translate into privilege, and some into marginalization, and it’s important to acknowledge these differences. Charb, I think, would not disagree, but his is an aspirational position, not a pragmatic one. Institutionalizing difference by protecting it and setting it aside as sacred is dangerous, seems to be his warning: it lays the groundwork for persecuting and punishing difference, for picking which differences are worthy of protection and which are not, and ultimately for legitimating hierarchies in the social order.
He notes, for example, that laws which were originally used to protect religious symbols are now being extended to symbols of the state, with radicals being arrested and charged for desecrating and dishonouring not just Qurans, but copies of the French penal code. Laws against desecrating holy books have led to laws against desecrating flags.
“It’s particularly moronic to burn a book, but sanctifying symbols—be they republican, religious, or other—is not an especially sound practice either,” Charb writes.
“[A] secular republic may not decide for its citizens which symbols are sacred and which are not.”
Charb’s Open Letter doesn’t always make coherent arguments; it’s infused by a combination of angry rhetoric as well as deliberately offensive language. “(I)f my hyperbole can make those who call Charlie Hebdo a racist newspaper see how easy it is to make shameful comparisons, it will not have been in vain,” he writes. But the piece also reveals a very different side to the work of Charb and the other Charlie Hebdo cartoonists (he offers the term ‘journalistic illustrators’) than many outside of France are familiar with. It reveals the passionate anti-racism and anti-colonialism that infuses their work. They may approach anti-racism from a very different angle than mainstream anti-racists do, but it’s undeniable that their work has a unique power to unsettle normalized discourses and provoke original thinking.
One detects a tone of frustration in Charb’s Open Letter; an anger that people just don’t seem to understand what Charlie Hebdo is trying to do and why (he notes with wry amusement that the extreme right, which he clearly despises, has been as willing to sue Charlie Hebdo as to praise it).
Charb was murdered on 7 January 2015 along with nine others in the attack on Charlie Hebdo by Islamist terrorists. Tragically, he’s no longer able to defend his magazine and journalists against those who misrepresent and oppose what they do. But his Open Letter offers an important and valuable vantage into the passionate anti-racism and defiance of institutions of power that inspired their work, and which continues to inspire cartoonists, writers, and advocates of free speech and human rights the world over. As Adam Gopnik writes in his introductory tribute:
“[M]aking people, with all their flaws, fully visible while leaving generalized types alone is exactly what the caricaturist has always done for us. It’s his special form of bravery.”
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