Charlie Hebdo, radical Islam, pusillanimous liberals and free speech

Rally in Tunisia in support of Charlie Hebdo and free speech

by Kenan Malik

“Je suis Charlie”. It’s a phrase in every newspaper, in every Twitter feed, on demonstrations in cities across Europe. The expressions of solidarity with those slain in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices are impressive. They are also too late. Had journalists and artists and political activists taken a more robust view on free speech over the past 20 years then we may never have come to this.

Instead, they have helped create a new culture of self-censorship. Partly, it is a question of fear, an unwillingness to take the kind of risks that the editors of Charlie Hebdo courted, and for which they have paid such a heavy price. But fear is only part of the explanation. There has also developed over the past two decades a moral commitment to censorship, a belief that because we live in a plural society, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offence. In the words of the British sociologist Tariq Modood, “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.”

So deep has this belief become embedded that even free speech activists have bought into it. Six years ago, Index on Censorship, one of the world’s foremost free speech organizations, published in its journal an interview with the Danish-American academic Jytte Klausen about her book on the Danish cartoon controversy. But it refused the then editor permission to publish any of the cartoons to illustrate the interview. I was at the time a board member of Index – but the only one who publicly objected. “In refusing to publish the cartoons,” I observed, “Index is not only helping strengthen the culture of censorship, it is also weakening its authority to challenge that culture.”

This time round, Index on Censorship laudably insists that “Freedom of expression is non-negotiable” and is calling “on all those who believe in the fundamental right to freedom of expression to join in publishing the cartoons or covers of Charlie Hebdo.” But the culture of self-censorship has already become deeply entrenched. Indeed Charlie Hebdo itself has equivocated. All too often the defence of free speech has come with double standards attached.

The irony is that those who most suffer from a culture of censorship are minority communities themselves. Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply-held sensibilities. “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

Yet, hardly had news begun filtering out about the Charlie Hebdo shootings, than there were those suggesting that the magazine was a ‘racist institution’ and that the cartoonists, if not deserving what they got, had nevertheless brought it on themselves through their incessant attacks on Islam. What is really racist is the idea that only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or demolish its pretensions or can handle satire and ridicule. Those who claim that it is ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ to mock the Prophet Mohammad, appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. It is here that left-wing ‘anti-racism’ joins hands with right-wing anti-Muslim bigotry.

What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Pakistani cartoonist Sabir Nazar, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, exiled to India after death threats, or the Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi, sentenced to death last year for ‘insulting the Prophet’. What happened in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was viscerally shocking; but in the non-Western world, those who stand up for their rights face such threats every day.

What nurtures the reactionaries, both within Muslim communities and outside them, is the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within minority communities. On the one hand, this allows Muslim extremists the room to operate. The more that society gives licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. And the more deadly they will become in expressing their outrage. There will always be extremists who respond as the Charlie Hebdo killers did. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious moral legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it unacceptable to give offence.

Liberal pusillanimity also helps nurture anti-Muslim sentiment. It feeds the racist idea that all Muslims are reactionary, that Muslims themselves are the problem, that Muslim immigration should be stemmed, and the Muslim communities should be more harshly policed. It creates the room for organizations such as the Front National to spread its poison. Whether there is an anti-Muslim backlash after the Charlie Hebdo killings remains to be seen, though there are reports of attacks on mosques and community centres. The fake liberals have played their role in fostering reactionary ideas about Muslims.

To ridicule religion and to defend free expression is not to attack minority communities. On the contrary: without doing both it is impossible to defend the freedoms of Muslims or of any one else. So, yes, let us challenge the Islamists and the reactionaries within Muslim communities. Let us also challenge the anti-Muslim reactionaries. But equally let us call the fake liberals to account.

Further reading:
Secular leftism, multiculturalism and the left
Race, pluralism and the meaning of difference
Multiculturalism: rationalising capitalism’s inability to make the world one


  1. “To ridicule religion and to defend free expression is not to attack minority communities. On the contrary: without doing both it is impossible to defend the freedoms of Muslims or of any one else.”

    The problem is that in France some people are more equal than others. Although I can’t stand him, Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala is now under arrest for an innocent quip. “Hate speech” laws have been used numerous times against him, all because Jews have a different relationship to the state than Muslims. The state acts on their behalf all the time, banning protests against Gaza most recently.

    As someone who has taken up the cause of the FSA in Syria for the past 4 years, I am deeply opposed to the totalitarian nature of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Muslims do need to be able to express their ideas in “civil society” in order to organize against the various dictatorships through the Middle East and North Africa but this campaign on behalf of the Charlie Hebdo agenda has nothing to do with that. The French bourgeoisie, along with its partners in Britain and the USA, desires stability above all else. This means muzzling the Palestinians, shoring up Saudi Arabia, and making life miserable for immigrants from mostly Muslim countries.

    People refer to Charlie Hebdo’s opposition to the National Front. Well, whatever articles they have written against them is undermined by their commitment to what I alluded to in my article on “Representing Mohammad”. By making the decision to publish the Danish Jutland Post cartoons, they aligned themselves with Bush’s war in Iraq, white nationalism and xenophobia. I know that it is difficult for people to understand how a group of people can operate on contradictory motives but that’s what living in a racist society can do to you.

    In doing some research on “Birth of a Nation”, a film that glorified the KKK, I discovered that James Agee – one of my heroes – wrote a glowing review in the Nation Magazine and condemned the NAACP for picketing it. People are complicated.

  2. I agree that making fun of fundamentalist Islam or caricaturing the prophet Mohammed is quite safe in France. But I guess a response to that would be, “So what?” What conclusions do we draw from that? Surely not that the attack on the magazine and the killing of its employees is somehow not so bad? The people who carried out the attack are not a force for human freedom, but the deadly enemies of emancipation, including in the Arab world and countries in which Islam holds sway.

    The New Anti-Capitalist Party in France has released several statements on the attacks. They note that they have disagreed with Charlie Hebdo on several issues but also collaborated with them on some.

    The magazine often ‘takes the piss’ out of the Catholic church, it seems to have relentlessly parodied opponents of gay marriage and various other reactionaries. While their cartoons re Islam are hardly bold, I think it’s stretching the bow a bit far to say they are part of imperialism’s assault on the Arab world.

    Moreover, the secular, emancipatory left – our left – in these countries face repression and murder from these folks continually.


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