Not Charlie’s angels

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on March 22, 2019

Double standards: Did the gathering of world leaders in Paris, days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, each with distinguished track records of repression of dissent and free speech, really have a standing in advocating the virtues that supposedly championed the magazine?   -  REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Look who is ‘upholding’ the satirical weekly’s principle of equal opportunity irreverence

Satire is an effective solvent for dogma, until it gets mired in a theology of its own. That theology could often merge into background conditions and become an entrenched consensus on which codes of civility are built... Laicite or secularism is a principle deeply internalised within the French civil compact, though not always with strictly specified codes. It takes particular incidents, often deeply traumatic, to trigger that process of explication of what otherwise would be assumed but unstated.

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January 2015 was perhaps the beginning of a cycle of lethal violence, when two gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly in Paris, and with cool-headed precision and ample premeditation, murdered eight of its staff. Another nine were killed in related violence across the city, including six in a kosher supermarket catering mostly to Jewish clientele. One of the attackers at the Charlie venue loudly proclaimed that Mohammad had been avenged as he left the scene of the crime. It was seemingly just retribution for cartoons caricaturing the prophet of Islam.

Few minds were changed in the furious debate that followed... Every participant clung with a tenacity bordering on despair, to well-rehearsed scripts on free speech and its legitimate boundaries... It was not long before bigotry in a more transparent form invaded the free speech arena. A far right organisation, appropriately characterised as a “hate group” by anti-racism campaigners, assembled an event in a small town in the U.S. state of Texas, with the sole object of caricaturing Islam’s prophet. With Geert Wilders, a particularly rabid immigrant-baiting politician from the Netherlands in attendance, a prize was reserved for the most hateful portrayals. Two men, both reportedly locals with known criminal records, attempted to storm the event but were shot dead by heavily armed guards. Another round of acrimony followed. Zealots for free speech attacked the suggestion that the organisers of the hate fest should have exercised restraint and Charlie’s defenders sought, in embarrassment, to draw the distinctions that others could not quite put their finger on.

To follow the debate that Charlie triggered is to recognise the brittleness of all standards. Indeed, the effort to establish a firm benchmark for the exercise of the free speech right might be futile. Contextuality and cultural relativism are ingrained in the notion. And to seek an absolute standard independent of the disposition of power is to chase a chimera.

The theme of imminent civilisational catastrophe was played up with deliberate intent. Writing for The Atlantic, from within the premises of the European Parliament in Brussels, Jeffrey Goldberg saw a lethal hammer blow aimed at all the ideals of “peaceable integration, tolerance, free speech and openness” that the institution was built on... Atrocities from the enemies within had been accumulating, though all of them paled in comparison with the Charlie massacre, which was “the most direct attack on Western ideals by jihadists”. “We in the West believe that blasphemy is a right and not a crime,” intoned Goldberg, “satire and the right to blaspheme are directly responsible for modernity”.

Blasphemy was certainly not the flavour of the day on January 11, three days after the killings, when church bells at Notre Dame cathedral rang out a message of unswerving western resolve to meet all challenges to its values. As French President Francois Hollande, much of his cabinet and several of the city’s notables appeared in a solemn memorial for the Charlie victims at a site steeped in the history of Catholicism, church bells all over the country rang out their affirmation of the supposed values the Charlie cartoonists had died for. Days later, Paris witnessed an assembly of global leaders unprecedented in size, with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu carefully avoiding any hint of proximity with Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas, as they marched hand-in-hand with most of the European political leadership and some from Africa and the Arab world, to reaffirm their commitment to free speech as a core value.

Those moments of mawkish solemnity enclosed several curiosities. Charlie was cast as a clear and uncompromising practitioner of equal opportunity irreverence, exactly as intended by France’s official policy (of) laïcité. But then there was no dissonance involved in the commemoration of their atheistic irreverence in a cathedral of almost iconic significance within French Catholicism. Did the politicians moreover, each with distinguished track records of repression of dissent and free speech — including in the case of Netanyahu, overtly racist conduct straight out of the colonial playbook — really have a standing in advocating the virtues that Charlie supposedly championed?

Paris that day resonated with the message of intolerance and lawlessness that was sent out from the capital of the US soon after the 11 September 2001 attacks: there is no middle ground; you are either with or against us.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in New Delhi

Published on March 22, 2019

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