Solidarity, Speech, and Islamophobia in the Wake of Charlie Hebdo

The Charlie Hebdo shootings are a tragedy. The idea that anyone should lose their life over speech seems remarkably antiquated hearkening back to the inquisition and being burned at the stake: A history all to familiar in the West. Yet, now it is terrorists professing Islam who have taken to violently eliminating those they disagree with in ordinary places far from any battlefield. And Muslims of every stripe are again asked to take responsibility for acts they did not commit nor agree with. Each time a person professing Islam commits an act of murder and mayhem, the demands that all Muslims condemn the acts resurface. Those who would posit a grand theory of terror using a single variable-Islam- as an explanation again take to their soapboxes. Richard Dawkins, a supposed scientist who ought to be skeptical of grand theories, Bill Maher, a supposed liberal, and, of course, some right wing conservatives from whom we have come to expect simplistic explanations all become relevant again. They should thank ISIS and Al Qaeda for they benefit from these atrocities. And Islamophobia–the hatred of Muslims and Islam–is justified as a “rational” response. Suddenly, “we are all Charlie Hebdo”–in other words proponents of rabidly racist free speech.

Even though it has been a bleak time for Muslims, there is cause for some hope. People are beginning to deconstruct the stock responses in a way that shows how unreasonable they really are. Muslims themselves are speaking out and demanding an end to the double standards. And maybe, we are all realizing that when these events happen, a rapid and brutal backlash against Muslims becomes a recruiting tool for our enemies. If we really appreciated this last point collectively, we might fashion better responses.

From the week’s discussions, here are some ideas that I think are worth thinking about:

1) Anders Breivik killed 77 people in his rage-filled, Islamophobic rampage. “We” did not ask for an apology or even get a condemnation of Islamophobia from all who share some aspect of his identity. We don’t hold all white men accountable for Timothy McVeigh or ask that Irish-descended people like Bill Maher explain their loyalty. Muslims should stop reacting to the need for reassurance.

2) We need more education not less. Right now there are too many people masquerading as experts. We have people like Brigitte Gabriel who has some personal experience which she’s elevated to expertise. We have Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others of her ilk. I was once treated badly by an Australian. This in no way makes me an expert on Australia. Nor does this one act provide evidence for the venality of all Australians. Yet we believe people who spread hate born of personal experience like it was gospel. In reality, it is a perverse kind of therapy for the deranged. Their opinion is not equal to others’ knowledge. Let’s recognize this for what it is.

3) We are not all Charlie Hebdo. Some populations are disenfranchised, marginalized, and demonized. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists fanned the flames of this marginalization. They had a right to speak, draw, and live. But we don’t have to become racists to recognize this. Nor do we have to agree with their work. If Charlie Hebdo were printing a string of anti-Jewish cartoons before World War II, I would not support them for their “anti-clericalism”. We know what that led to. Solidarity does not mean that we become people we disagree with even as we defend their right to offend us. We also have a right to push back on them through our speech.

4) Criticizing Islam in a time when hating Muslims and hateful depictions of Islam are ubiquitous is not courageous. Demonizing a group that is also relatively powerless is not courageous. It is certainly not speaking truth to power. Reprinting the cartoon is not an act of defiance but an act of reinscribing racism. A true act of defiance would be to thwart the powers in our own communities that prevent equality and justice, that sow division. If one wants to write against Islamists or other leaders, that is perfectly fine–bring on the cartoons lampooning Baghdadi or Sisi or Bibi. Stereotyping an entire religion is not even intelligent let alone brave as the Jewish holocaust should have taught us.

5) Free speech is for everyone. We need to be less hypocritical in our support of it. In the United States, critics of Israel have faced repeated attempts to silence them through intimidation, employment actions, and harassment. People translating inflammatory Islamist texts can be jailed for long periods. Teaching ethnic history (or in some places just history) has been considered racist and unacceptable. Muslims are routinely excoriated for simply being Muslim. That too is a diminishing of freedom of expression. Moreover, only some speech gets attention. Even if Muslims condemn all the violence, no one is listening because the idea that all Muslims support this kind of violence makes people feel better on a level. The simplicity of an “us v. them” explanation is attractive when emotions are high. This is why the Muslims who died in the Charlie Hebdo attack receive far less press than the gunmen.

5) On one hand, the demonization of Islam and the repeated insults to the most important person in Islamic history is not really blasphemy when it comes from non-Muslim Frenchmen who possess a particular privilege by dint of their native background, it is just racist and it recalls a long line of anti-Muslim hatred starting from before the Crusades. As a child, I remember Roget’s thesaurus containing “Muhammad” under false prophet as an antonym for prophet! On the other hand, Muslims need to do away with blasphemy as a punishable act because it is too easily used to silence needed dialogue. Blasphemy is integral to free thought and Islamic states with regressive laws have spent far too much time prosecuting freethinkers.  The  West needs to come to terms with its longstanding problem with Islam and its own brand of suppression, it is not quite the bastion of free thought or speech as it sometimes believes. Both sides are failing.

6) The cartoons should be ignored–not everything deserves a response. If someone draws a picture of a blond-haired, green-eyed woman in a compromising position and labels it “Cyra,” I would ignore it because it obviously isn’t me. Why take for real that which is not? Yes it’s a representation but it does not have to be given the importance of either truth or reality. Gods, religions and prophets do not require defense. They have survived quite well enough.

7) The more majorities oppress, regulate, and pursue their Muslim minority populations, the more radicalized some portion of those people will be. To deradicalize, you have to think about what motivates people to join these groups. If radical imams are the only channel of anger for the disenfranchised, we can expect more violence with religious integuments.

8) There will not be a Muslim holocaust in the West. Just lots of Muslims in jail and more marginalization and ghettoization resulting in greater poverty and more violence. We have traded concentration camps for other forms of repression and isolation. We can learn this from the history of subordinated populations in any number of countries. The death and destruction is being visited on Muslims in the East (pace people who will take exception to the simplistic geography). And very often, postcolonial repressive regimes are to blame for the devastation even if imperial forces are also at work.

9) The majority-Muslim nations need to rethink their approach to Islamists. We need new theories about why it is on the rise and what to do about it. Old theories are failing us. And we desperately need a revival of parties that will fight for social justice, democracy and equality through secular means and in opposition to both Islamists and neoliberals.

10) A society that demands that innocent people pay for the crimes of the guilty cannot claim to be a society in which law rules. There is no justification for harming people because they belong to a religion or a race. No one should be threatened for their identity or their ideas. When those values become hemmed in with caveats, there are bound to be problems.