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Point/Counterpoint: Charlie Hebdo, Colonialism, Islamophobia, and Censorship

Point/Counterpoint: Charlie Hebdo, Colonialism, Islamophobia, and Censorship
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Free Press Houston is an often-irreverent publication which has been known to push the limits of “good taste,” so you would expect us to be highly sympathetic toward a seemingly related publication, Charlie Hebdo. One big difference, though, is that FPH is owned and managed by first-generation Americans — our parents are immigrants and our families are either Muslim or “look Muslim” (read Sikh) — so we’re more in tune to a post-colonial point of view. We also like to think that the targets of our ridicule are our “social betters” rather than the relatively weak and powerless, because it’s alright to pick on the powerful but when you pick on the relatively powerless you are being a bully.

For our first-ever “Point/Counterpoint,” we turn to a first-time contributor and soldier, Jacob Santillan for the point and to veteran FPH contributor Nick Cooper for the counterpoint.

Charlie Hebdo, Censorship, and the Dangers of Authoritarian Sympathies

by Jacob Santillan

"Slut-shaming" Lady Liberty?

“Slut-shaming” Lady Liberty?

2015 had barely begun when, on the 7th of January, two gunmen forced their way into the headquarters of a French satirical publication and opened fire, killing twelve and wounding eleven. The gunmen were heard shouting “Allahu akbar” and “the Prophet is avenged.” The attack, for which Al Qaeda in Yemen would later claim credit, shocked the world with its motive and barbarity. Hundreds of thousands of French people turned out in marches and rallies across the country in shows of support. Leaders in the Muslim world joined millions of those from any or no faith in denouncing the vicious attacks.

But a troubling response also stood out, and should be addressed. Some leftist writers and publications joined right-wing religious conservatives and one controversial British Sunni Muslim cleric to say, more or less, that the publication, Charlie Hebdo, brought the killing upon themselves with the cartoons they published. The religious right saying that “they had it coming” isn’t the least bit surprising to me. What disappoints me, personally, is to see anyone at all from the left also say anything along the lines of “they had it coming.”

Brendan O’Neill, a British writer complains of the rise of today’s “Stepford student.” I share his concern about a generation of students so worried about their ideological and intellectual comfort that they’re willing to shut down people and ideas and discussions they don’t like. One common tactic is what’s called “no platforming,” where they petition universities to deny speaking opportunities to controversial figures.

The Charlie Hebdo murders are the ultimate example of a no platforming attempt, and censorship in one of its most extreme forms. I call it censorship because it is a successful attempt to silence people by killing those who produce what others find objectionable. The dead certainly won’t be able to produce anymore writings or cartoons  so, mission accomplished? Fortunately not, because It’s also a similarly extreme case of the Streisand effect, which states that any attempt to suppress the publication of something exacerbates its spread with a print run of at least 3 million copies of Charlie Hebdo (which normally prints roughly 60,000 copies) without any interruption.  The point of advocating for free speech is the respect of the right to present words and ideas which challenge those words and ideas which should be challenged, which should be any idea, in almost any form.

This massacre inevitably evokes comparisons with the Rushdie Affair. In 1988 British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie wrote a book called The Satanic Verses. The book, which Rushdie described as not being about Islam, but immigrant experiences of “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay” faced accusations of blasphemy. For this, he was placed under a religious order by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran calling on Muslims (at the time Rushdie was one) to kill him and his publishers…for writing a book. Many of his translators would face violent attacks, some of them fatal, for making such a book more available globally. Rushdie has since 2024 described himself a “hard-line atheist” and the order still remains in place. In 2024, he wrote a book about his experiences in a life of hiding entitled Joseph Anton, the alias he used while running for his life.

It’s important to remember the hostile response too many had at the time for, guess who? Salman Rushdie. Labor and Conservative members of the British parliament at the time villainized him by marching in favor of banning the book, or denouncing him for blasphemy and betraying everything about his upbringing. But Salman Rushdie to this day rightly laments such sentiments similarly expressed in today’s publications, and in the blogosphere as the arrival of the “‘But Brigade.’” “Murder is wrong, but…” “I’m all for free speech, but…”

Today some similarly couch their not-quite-but-maybe-one-or-two-steps-removed sympathies for the attackers, or lack thereof for the victims, in calling the publication racist. Some writers do so with no evidence, nor even a single argument in support of that claim. Others do so by quoting long-time French Communist Party supporter Stéphane Charbonnier, one of the gunned-down cartoonists, in which he simply says that he is not a Muslim.

Certainly, some of their cartoons come off as questionable at first glance. I don’t know exactly what they were trying to get at with their Boko Haram cover, for example. I don’t speak French, so some of the contexts and nuances are inaccessible to me. Some French citizens have expressed their annoyance at these accusations of racism, noting that the supposedly racist cartoons actually, ironically ridicule the attitudes and policies of the French Right. They also express irritation with Americans who arrogated the role of Grand Cultural Arbiter without taking any real interest in French politics and culture. Unfortunately, the people who produced these images are no longer alive to explain them.

The refrain we hear from those who apparently sympathize with the attackers is that “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.” That may do well and good for someone getting fired from their job for saying something stupid in public, but 22 people were made casualties because a group of people feel that people should die for drawing cartoons. Bluntly put, the term used to describe this behavior is victim-blaming.

Some are concerned that these attacks will stoke the enduring climate of Islamophobia in Europe, which has taken on a more substantive and sinister veneer with far-right, nationalist parties making substantial gains since the recession began. Parisian Mosques have been attacked in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. It would be no surprise were it the work of far-right supporters of Front Nationale (the far right political party which picked up 25% of the vote in the last election). It should be noted, too, that far-right gains come also with the specter of anti-semitism, which looms in ways not seen for decades.

But we should not let this discourage us from principled stands in favor of free speech. You don’t have to fall into the trap some censorship advocates set of being goaded into defending content of a statement while defending the right to say it. Regarding free speech, It’s been said “It’s all okay, or none of it’s okay”. I steadfastly agree with that.  Everything should be open for discussion, every subject should be on the table, and everyone should have the right to hear, or not hear what they want to (with very few exceptions, none of which easily come to mind), without others assuming the power to control what others get to see and hear because they don’t like it.  What people say should stand or fall on its own merits.


Segregated Epitaphs

By Nick Cooper

French cartoonists target Muslim extremists while ignoring their own barbaric, oppressive, not-too-distant colonial past.

French cartoonists target Muslim extremists while ignoring their own barbaric, oppressive, not-too-distant colonial past.

“Why Haven’t Muslims Confronted  Extremism?”

Muslims in the U.S. and European media are given the chance to speak up on one topic: ‘Do you support this latest attack by some Muslim/s?’ Imagine if Jews only got on tv to answer: ‘Do you support this latest attack by Israel / Israeli settlers?’ Even more insulting to Muslims is the question: ‘Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against these attacks more vehemently?’ Every group from progressive Muslim organizations in the West to the Iranian Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, denounce such murders, but their denunciations are constantly overlooked. Leave it to Rupert Murdoch to take it even one step further, tweeting, “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” Aziz Ansari famously responded, “Rups can we get a step by step guide? How can my 60 year old parents in NC help destroy terrorist groups? Plz advise.”

Taxpayers have a responsibility to speak out about about atrocities they fund, and white Americans have a responsibility to speak out about the suffering that created the legacy of benefits they’ve inherited. However, Muslims who happen to share a same holy book with assassins have no responsibility to denounce, or magically stop attacks from occurring. They have nothing to do with such attacks, and it’s oppressive to treat them as if they do.

It is important to question if the West has made any attempt to reduce fundamentalist terrorism. Žižek concludes his article on the topic by questioning the false narrative of liberal democracy and religious fundamentalism at war. For him, the two are inextricably linked, and only the radical left can present alternatives to their death dance.

Analogies to Muslim Populations in France

Even for non-French speakers, it’s clear that the cartoonists portrayed highly stereotyped terrorist Arabs. They would never run such stereotypes of Jews. Emily Lever noted that “[s]ince September 11, the paper began railing “against ‘Islamic Totalitarianism’ with rhetoric similar to George W. Bush’s speeches against ‘islamo-fascism.’ But primarily, the paper expresses its commitment to combating extremism by consistently publishing virulent caricatures of Muslims.” Charlie Hebdo’s juvenile obsession with the anus is a reminder of US Abu Ghraib soldiers’ anal humiliation and domination of Muslim men in the context of America’s Islamophobic phallic-militarism.

Like Blacks and Native Americans in the US, Muslims in France live in separate areas from whites. Also like Native Americans and Blacks in the US, they are much more unemployed than whites. There are also historical parallels — the French colonial empire oppressed large sections of northern Africa, while in the New World, whites were subjugating and killing Africans and Native Americans.

One can imagine an all-white-run satire newspaper in the U.S. that similarly mocked Blacks or Native Americans. In fact, in 2024, The Onion did, joking that a 9-year-old black actress was a “cunt”. It wasn’t liberating, liberal, or funny. However, The Onion apologized and deleted the tweet instead of doubling down like Charlie Hebdo seems to do.

We have heard constantly that Charlie Hebdo criticizes all religions and groups equally, but comparing its depictions of Jews and Muslims, it’s not even close. This same bias is built into French law — denial of the Holocaust (alone among genocides) by journalists can result in imprisonment for five years. Even if Chrlie Hebdo’s critiques were ‘equally brutal,’ good satire should be more ruthless towards those in power than the underclasses. If there is any group that should be alienated from laughing along with a satirical cartoon, it should be the most powerful, not the least.

Opposing Murder Vs. Standing in Solidarity

When people are assassinated for speech, regardless of how odious, we should demand that their assassins to be arrested and tried. We should demand freedom of the press and free speech. However, marching under the ‘I Am Charlie’ banner goes beyond simply opposing assassination and affirming free speech, because it ignores the question of why aren’t we ever marching or identifying with people like Rami Rayan, Sameh al-Aryan, Tariq Ayoub, Saeed Chmagh, and Namir Noor-Eldeen. These journalists were among many killed by attacks that our government launched or supported, so our solidarity with them should have been a much higher priority. Standing in solidarity with those killed by one’s own government and its allies means marching without government support, and it’s harder.

People who say, “I would stand with any assassinated journalist equally,” are lying to themselves. With 50 killed each year, and 72 in 2024, we only hear about a tiny fraction, and make statements of solidarity with even fewer. Certain types of victims consistently get more support and coverage than others.

Those marching for ‘I Am Charlie’ in France were ‘led’ (in what photos reveal was actually an entirely separate photo op) by an assortment of hypocritical world leaders. Most of them were complicit in an endless list of abuses against journalism and free speech (as London School of Economics student Daniel Wickham tweeted during the march). If the international corporate media were brave, it would have asked every single one of those leaders what they could possibly mean by ‘I Am Charlie’ when they have overseen governmental attacks on journalists.

Segregated Solidarity

Protests that aren’t inclusive of those who experience the most injustice only make things worse. ‘I Am Charlie,’ can’t be a slogan for all French Muslims, even for the vast majority who disapprove of the assassination of the cartoonists. They have lived under Islamophobia, and might not be ready to laugh about cartoons by white guys mocking their prophet. It is oppressive to put French Muslims in a position where if they don’t declare solidarity with those who insulted them, they risk being written off as supporting the killing. A space where they can say “I am against murder,” and also “I think Charlie demeans us,” has to be created. One can oppose every murder without standing in solidarity with every victim.

When we are ready to challenge the ongoing media narrative featuring white victims, Muslim bad guys, dangerous Black rioting, benign white rioting, and ignored non-Islamic acts of terror, we can see ‘I Am Charlie’ for what it is: a nationalist loyalty pledge. It affirms identity with the white victims of Muslim extremist violence, but not the victims of white violence, or even the Muslim victims of Muslim extremist violence. Ahmed Merabet was the Muslim cop who died trying to stop the assassins from leaving the scene of the Hebdo murders. The issues associated with standing in solidarity with a cop aside, there was a response across France to the ‘I Am Charlie’ movement around the phrase ‘I Am Ahmed.”

Everyone could have stood together in an inclusive movement declaring ‘I am Charlie and Ahmed,’ but this didn’t happen. The segregated epitaphs along with the rise in Islamophobic and anti-Jewish hate-crimes in France, and attacks on Christians in Niger, reflect that things aren’t being healed. Whites missed an opportunity to respond to tragedy with an inclusive form of solidarity.