If a traumatic event is one that deprives you of the mental resources needed to make sense of it, then the attack on Charlie Hebdo and subsequent happenings fit this definition perfectly. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself lurching back and forth between my immediate reaction—that, whatever its underlying causes, the attack was a horrific assault on freedom of expression—and skepticism about my own instincts: are the secularist assumptions implicit in that right not, after all, a kind of Western fundamentalism? Ultimately, however, I find it difficult not to see the shootings as an assault on free speech, and, most tragically, as an attack on a particularly vibrant and emancipated strand of French culture.
First, contrary to what many on the left (especially in the English-speaking world) have been contending, I do not think it is at all “simplistic” or “reductive” to characterize the events of last Wednesday as an attack on free speech. Two armed men specifically targeted a satirical newspaper, identified its leading cartoonists and reportedly addressed them by name, before executing them in cold blood. The reason these cartoonists were killed was because they drew cartoons. Recognizing that the assault was rooted in complex conditions of possibility doesn’t change this brute fact. To fully understand such an event, it goes without saying that we need to identify the underlying historical and sociological factors, such as institutionalized racism, Islamophobia, the marginalization of immigrant populations, American wars of aggression in the Middle East, and so on. But it also involves exercising judgment—that is, deciding which principles it is appropriate to apply in such circumstances. Freedom of expression is a principle that few people who are politically aware would seriously contest, yet its status in today’s world seems fragile at best (as Citizens United, NSA surveillance, and incidents like the Salaita Affair, to name just a few US examples, attest). The fact that the Charlie Hebdo attack is sociologically and politically comprehensible doesn’t make it any less morally abhorrent— unless that is, one is prepared to have the courage of one’s convictions, and assert that freedom of expression is not a fundamental modern right.
Second, claiming that it is “reductive” to see the attacks as directed against the freedom of expression overlooks the stated intentions of the perpetrators themselves. Those who hold this view dabble in a version of the false consciousness argument: somehow, it is they whose special powers allow them to discern what the Kouachi brothers were really doing; it is they who know how to decode the true meaning of words such as “we have avenged the prophet, we killed Charlie Hebdo.” According to Le Monde, Chérif Kouachi began taking Islam seriously in 2003 when he started attending the Adda’wa Mosque in Paris’ 19th arrondissement. There, he met and soon began following the teaching of a self-styled theologian named Farid Benyettou. The latter subscribed to the teachings of the Egyptian organization Takfir wal-Hijra (“Excommunication and Exodus”). Though an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Takfir nonetheless adhered to the views of the Brotherhood’s leading theologian, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb developed a powerful anti-colonial ideology, which contended that only reconstructed Islam, purged of all concessions to modern society, could save the world from the nihilism of Western culture.
Beliefs such of these seem to have informed the Kouachi brother’s attack on Charlie Hebdo. Again according to Le Monde, in 2013, the French police, during a search at Chérif Kouachi’s home, found among other things a book entitled Déviances et incohérences chez les prêcheurs de la decadence (“Deviance and Incoherence of the Prophets of Decadence”)— available online here—a polemic against Muslims like Tariq Ramadan who argue that Islam is compatible with democracy. This book specifically attacked the principle of “freedom of expression,” as the following quote (my translation) indicates: “Freedom of expression: this would, once again, consist in giving free rein to speech and to authorize, in the name of liberty (the vaguest and most ambiguous concept that exists), anyone to say anything…From an Islamic and hence moral and rational point of view this is obviously not acceptable. Islam encourages and incites good conduct and reprimands evil in all its forms; this is the Straight Path of Allah-azza wa jalla, the ultimate purpose of which is the quest for happiness on earth and the beyond by achieving that which pleases Allah-azza wa jalla—that is, the Good. These concepts are completely alien and even disturbing for people who are solely conditioned by the search for the egotistical satisfaction of their basest and most perverted instincts.”
Just to be clear: there is no question here of subscribing to the simplistic Islamophobic contention that such views are characteristic of Islam as a whole. Obviously they are not—indeed, the whole point of this text is to condemn as apostates Muslim scholars who hold the contrary view. But it does suggest that the Kouachi brothers moved in circles in which principles such as free expression were viewed as decadent Western ideas. Again, none of this means that we must not seek the underlying motivations for their intentions or that they should not be placed in a broader context. If, however, someone articulates an intention, and it is evident that this intention is not lightly or superficially embraced, but rooted in a worldview they are exploring, cultivating, and fashioning themselves in light of—shouldn’t the merits of this intention at least be considered? It seems patronizing to reduce the Kouachi brothers’ actions to a kind of visceral revolt, rather than taking seriously the fact that they were driven by ideological motives, however partially digested.
Some have argued that the defense of freedom of expression is a thinly veiled ethnocentrism, in which the rights of privileged white Europeans to speak are vaunted at the expense of oppressed (typically non-European) minorities. It should be possible, however, to protest an attack on free expression without standing accused of downplaying the racism and inequities that exist in Western societies. Moreover, the great irony in this attack was that Charlie Hebdo—and many of the people who were killed in the attack—were leftists who were profoundly critical of French culture, xenophobia, and European and American colonial power and its contemporary avatars. Any murder aimed at punishing free expression is despicable, but the people like Cabu and Wolinski were artists renowned for expressing the emancipatory ideas of the May ’68 uprising, with all that this meant in terms of critiquing prejudice, conservatism, nationalism, and bourgeois smugness.
Georges Wolinski—one of the cartoonists killed—founded a magazine in May ’68 called L’Enragé (“The Enraged One”) that stated in its opening issue: “We are in solidarity and will remain so with all the enraged of the Earth. We are not students, workers, or peasants, but we will bring our stone (the magazine) to all their barricades.” The cover to the left from 1968 connects the Mexico City Olympics to the Tlatelolco Massacre. Wolinski founded L’Enragé with Maurice Sinet—known as Siné and another future Charlie Hebdo collaborator—who was an outspoken anti-colonialist activist. In addition to being an outspoken opponent of French policies in Algeria, Siné actually founded a magazine called Révolution Africaine (“African Revolution”) that was financed by the Front de Libération National—the Algerian independence movement. In other words, the artists that some have described as embracing a kind of neocolonial racism had the backing of the revolutionary anticolonial organization that ultimately forced France out of Algeria.
As for Cabu (whose real name was Jean Cabut), who was also murdered last week, he covered the Ben Barka trial (the Algerian leader who disappeared in mysterious circumstances) in 1966 and expressed his anti-militarism in his early drawings. He was, in particular, famous for his stock characters known as “beaufs” (a contraction of “beau-frère,” or brother-in-law), a mocking send-up of the average Frenchman, whom he depicted as smug, boorish, sexist, and racist (and sympathetic with the National Front).
On top of it, Charlie Hebdo was relentless critical of Israel, most recently in last summer’s Gaza war. At times, this anti-Zionism crossed over into what some saw as a kind of left anti-Semitism. In 2008, Siné was fired from the paper because he made what were seen by many as anti-Semitic remarks about the marriage of Nicolas Sarkozy’s son. Yet this didn’t stop the magazine from continuing to attack Israel and to include Judaism among the religions it lampooned. Whatever one thinks of these views, Charlie Hebdo was as unremitting in its critique of Israel as it was of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Finally, the magazine was mercilessly heaped scorn on the anti-immigrant right and the Le Pen clan (see the cover to the left: “Le Pen Sees Jews Everywhere”: “And I’m even missing an eye!”) . And long after anti-clericalism subsided as a French passion, Charlie Hebdo took particular pleasure in mocking the Catholic Church and the papacy (see the cover below: “The Pope Goes to Rio”: “I’ll do anything to lure clients!”).
That said, I recognize that the free-thinking, no-holds-barred worldview embraced by the aging ’68ers of Charlie Hebdo (and their younger colleagues) is one that, at least at present, is tied to a certain degree of material comfort and integration into French society. The withering satire they forged to challenge colonialism, Charles de Gaulle, and Catholic France lost much of its purchase in a post-colonial, largely secular society in which François Hollande is what passes for a leader. The cultural revolution France has undergone since the 1960s lies presumably at the heart of the French jihadists’ revolt: it is a society that celebrates material wellbeing, while making it inaccessible to significant sectors of the population. The conclusion that Western society might be fundamentally nihilistic and corrupt is, from this standpoint, hardly an unreasonable conclusion.
Yet it remains, I think, a serious error of judgment to conflate a magazine that was home to leftist, anti-colonialist, and anti-nationalist critics of the xenophobic right with a French tradition of colonialism and racism. But there is something else that troubles me in the tendency in the US, especially among liberals and leftists, to suggest that there’s something privileged, racist, residually colonialist about the kind of humor Charlie Hebdo’s practices. One of the things that is ultimately depressing about life in the US is how deeply conformist American culture remains. We are constantly celebrating our freedom even as we remain continue to be steeped, except at the margins, in stultifying uniformity. Worse still, being American relentlessly demands that one pay homage to a kind of cloying, shallow, and ultimately meaningless optimism (which also gets bound up in American nationalism). One of the things I love and admire about France is the way it still makes room for a dazzlingly irreverent sense of humor, one that gleefully, cynically, and intelligently rejects the sort of nauseating, boy-scoutish ideology that is our official culture. At some level, this is what was under attack in the Charlie Hebdo shootings. And this is what I mourn.