The culture-clash interpretation of the horror in Paris transcends political divides in the West. On the right, some claim that Muslims’ beliefs are incompatible with modernity and Western values. On the left, some construe the attack as a retaliation for severe offenses, essentially suggesting that Muslims are incapable of responding rationally to such offenses and that it is therefore best not to provoke them. The latter explanation is dressed up in the language of social justice and marginalization, but is, at its core, a patronizing view of ordinary Muslims and their capacity to advocate for their rights without resorting to nihilistic violence. This outlook also promotes the idea that Muslims and other people of Middle Eastern origin are defined primarily by their religion, which in turn devalues and demeans the attempts of Arab and Middle Eastern secularists to define themselves through varying interpretations of religion or even by challenging religion and its role in public life. By seeking to present religion as a form of cultural identity that should be protected from offense and critique, Western liberals are consequently undermining the very struggles against the authority of inherited institutions through which much of the Western world’s social and political progress was achieved.
Given that I often deal with the issue of jihadism in my satire, the Charlie Hebdo attack highlighted the dangers that my colleagues and I face when we mock extremists. Still, there is a risk in framing what we do as satirists and cartoonists as a heroic battle against extremism. For one thing, this implies that only ‘worthy’ works of satire should be defended on the grounds of free speech. For freedom of speech and expression to mean something, they must be defended on their own terms, not because of their political usefulness in the fight against extremism.
This is a critical distinction given the current climate in the West, where a culture of taking offense has found fertile ground and is increasingly restricting what artists and writers are able to do and say. The British writer Kenan Malik traces the origins of this trend to 1989, when the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomenei issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie for allegedly blaspheming Islam in The Satanic Verses. In From Fatwa to Jihad, Malik argues convincingly that the response to the fatwa and similar threats has been counterproductive, coming to pose a grave threat to free speech. “Internalizing the fatwa has not just created a new culture of self-censorship, it has also helped generate the same problems to which self-censorship was supposedly a response,” he writes. “The fear of giving offence has simply made it easier to take offence.”
This dynamic, in turn, is breeding an insidious form of censorship, which is much more powerful and constraining than official censorship, and more difficult to confront. As the United Nations noted in 2014, threats to freedom of expression in North America and Western Europe are now coming more from private organizations than governments, with the principle especially contested online. We hear regularly of plays, books, and artwork—be it an anti-slavery exhibition in London accused of “complicit racism” or an irreverent Bible production in Northern Ireland branded as “blasphemous”—that are kept from the public because they could cause offense to one group or another. The slightest whiff of controversy is often enough to make publishers and curators bow to the intimidation. The demands to censor Charlie Hebdo cartoons aren’t driven by a uniquely Muslim sense of outrage.