The Dangerous Myths About Charlie Hebdo

Critics don't seem to understand that the magazine specializes in attacking ideas, not people.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

Two recent events—the spectacle of Garry Trudeau, the Doonesbury creator, attacking a group of murdered cartoonists for offending his sensibilities, and the protest organized by a group of bien-pensant writers against the PEN American Center for planning to honor those cartoonists tonight in New York—have brought the Charlie Hebdo controversy back to public consciousness. So has the failed attack Sunday in Texas on a group of anti-Islam militants staging a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest, though, unlike Charlie Hebdo, the organization that sponsored the Texas event is run by an actual anti-Muslim extremist who, I'm proud to say, is a personal nemesis of mine.

Much has already been written about both the Trudeau and PEN controversies. I particularly recommend David Frum on Trudeau, and Katha Pollitt and Matt Welch on PEN, as well as this fine op-ed by Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the president and executive director, respectively, of the PEN American Center. These represent only a handful of the many dozens of writers who have risen in defense of free speech, and of Charlie Hebdo’s right to lampoon religion.

I’m not going to rehearse the various defenses of Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish what some people consider to be blasphemous cartoons and columns. Suffice it to say that I’m a free-speech absolutist; I would have defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, and I also believe that European laws banning the expression of Holocaust denial are wrong and counterproductive. I don’t like Nazis—there’s an understatement—and I don’t like Holocaust denial; and also, as a God-botherer—to use a term of derision directed at me with annoying frequency by my late friend Christopher Hitchens—I don’t like blasphemy either. But my belief in free speech trumps my distaste for blasphemy, and in any case, my conception of God is large, and I can’t imagine He gives a shit about cartoons.

Instead of defending an idea that I wish didn’t need defending—the right of people to speak their minds without fear of murder—I wanted to focus on a number of myths surrounding Charlie Hebdo, and the terrorists who would silence it and silence anyone else who criticizes the beliefs and practices of Islam.

The first myth is that Charlie Hebdo is anti-Muslim. It is not. It is critical of Islam, as it is critical of all religions. Islam is a set of ideas, just as Christianity and Judaism are sets of ideas. In the putatively enlightened age in which we live, all ideas should be subject to testing, criticism, even excoriation.

Which brings me to this stomach-churning Charlie Hebdo cartoon:

Charlie Hebdo

Atop the cartoon are these words: "Circumcise all males on the eighth day after their birth." The man on the right says, "Why don’t we wait until he’s of age to understand?" The mohel—the ritual circumciser—responds, "We need to take advantage while we have the upper hand."

We can learn three things about Charlie Hebdo from this cartoon. The first is that it is often, at least to people whose sensibilities are shaped by American modes of humor, not funny. The second is that it has been an equal-opportunity offender. Judaism was a target of its cartoonists. And Christianity was actually targeted more frequently than Islam. (A recent study by Le Monde found that religion as a whole was a fairly rare subject of Charlie Hebdo covers.)

The third is the most important: Charlie Hebdo specializes in attacking ideas, not people. I happen to be partial to circumcision—it’s a practice of baseline importance in my faith—but I understand that many people consider it to be barbaric, or at the very least distasteful. People who are repulsed by circumcision are not necessarily anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim), but merely pro-foreskin. (In honor of Charlie Hebdo, I may devote a separate post to foreskin and mohel jokes.) Circumcision is an idea, and ideas should be tested. I don’t consider this drawing to be anti-Semitic as I understand the term—not only because it is critical of a doctrine that should be subject to analysis and criticism, but because circumcision is a practice that actually happens, as opposed to other practices falsely attributed to Jews (I'm thinking of accusations concerning matzah, deicide, and currency manipulation, among other things).

A subsidiary myth has grown up around Charlie Hebdo: that anti-Jewish hostility in its pages was forbidden. This false belief is offered as proof of the magazine’s "Islamophobic" tendencies (about the term "Islamophobia," please read my interview with the prime minister of France, Manuel Valls).

This myth arose in part because of a controversy concerning the cartoonist known as Siné, who was fired from the magazine in 2008 after implying that the son of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy would "go a long way in life" after converting to Judaism. Critics of Charlie Hebdo point to this incident as proof that Charlie Hebdo maintained a double standard when it came to Muslims: "Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column," Garry Trudeau stated in his now-infamous anti-free-speech speech at the George Polk Awards ceremony in April. "Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another."

I will put aside for now Trudeau’s dark insinuation about Jewish power—one that he embedded in a discussion concerning an extended terrorist siege that ended with the slaughter of four Jews of North African origin at a kosher supermarket—an example of Paris-style "Jewish privilege," I suppose you could say.

Siné, of course, was not ridiculing a Jewish idea. Instead, he was deploying an anti-Jewish canard—that Jews maintain a protective cabal designed to advance each other’s interests—against an individual, living person. His comment was not a theological critique, but a libelous accusation. Siné was asked by the magazine’s editor to apologize to Sarkozy’s son, but he refused and was fired. (Siné, by the way, has described himself as a Jew-hater. "Yes, I am anti-Semitic and I am not scared to admit it," he once said. "I want all Jews to live in fear, unless they are pro-Palestinian. Let them die.")

Another myth: Charlie Hebdo is interested in advancing a "narrative" of "white privilege," and therefore specializes in ridiculing powerless people.

The novelist Francine Prose, one of the writers protesting the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo, wrote recently that, "The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East."

Prose’s coldness toward the victims of violence matches Trudeau's. The 12 people killed at Charlie Hebdo were not extras in a George W. Bush-scripted imperialist narrative. They were human beings who were murdered because they offended the beliefs of theocratic fascists. It is not a narrative calumny to assert that white Europeans were killed by Muslim extremists at Charlie Hebdo’s offices on January 7. It is a sad fact. (It is also a sad fact that one of the Charlie Hebdo editorial staffers killed that day was a French citizen of Algerian extraction named Mustapha Ourrad. But I suppose acknowledging this fact would interfere with Francine Prose’s own narrative of majoritarian perfidy.)

The European whiteness of the majority of Charlie Hebdo’s murdered staff also plays into Trudeau’s criticism of the magazine. In his critique, Trudeau said, "Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. ... By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech."

Where to begin? The power dynamic between the jihadists Said and Cherif Kouachi and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was quite unequal, but it did not tilt in the direction Trudeau believes it tilted. It was not the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who murdered the Kouachi brothers. Trudeau, and the critics of the PEN American Center and Charlie Hebdo, might not realize that they are captive of another, related myth: that terrorism is a weapon of the marginalized and the weak. Terrorism is most definitely not a weapon of the weak; it is a weapon used against the weak. The cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo never stood a chance against their killers.

Trudeau also perpetuates a myth that Charlie Hebdo’s target was a powerless, disenfranchised minority. There are 1.57 billion adherents of Islam in the world. More than a quarter of all United Nations member states have Muslim majorities. Muslim-majority states control much of the world’s supply of energy. It is a stretch to argue that the Muslims of the world are powerless to make their voices heard. (In many places, of course, Muslims are disenfranchised, but these places include such Muslim-majority states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Iran.)

If Trudeau was, in fact, referring to France’s own Muslim immigrant population (a partially alienated, partially integrated, very diverse population that often suffers from prejudice and exclusion), then he should have said so, while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that France’s immigrants are not Charlie Hebdo’s targets; fundamentalist ideas are. In fact, one of Charlie Hebdo’s favorite targets is the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party, the enemy of France's Muslims.

One more myth concerns the way in which the Left understands Islamism. No fundamentalist interpretation of any religion deserves the protection and sympathy of progressives. Islamists—adherents of a politicized, radical strain of Islam—are misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-enlightenment, and possess no tolerance at all for members of religious groups whose beliefs conflict with their own. These are traits one traditionally associates with the far-right, but some on the left are happy to support Islamists—even Islamist terror groups—simply because they stand in opposition to the West. (Judith Butler, the Berkeley comparative-literature professor, famously described Hamas and Hezbollah as "social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.")

In her anti-Charlie Hebdo op-ed, Francine Prose wrote, "Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion."

I hope that someone, someday, will explain to Francine Prose the work of Voltaire and Spinoza. I also hope that Garry Trudeau will one day understand that it is an act of bravery to write in opposition to religious fundamentalism in the face of fatal violence. And I'm glad that the PEN American Center has not capitulated under pressure.