A Guide to Charlie Hebdo Opinions

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Photo: Damien Meyer/Getty Images

Fallout from Wednesday’s terrorist attack on a French magazine is already beginning — mosques have been attacked in France, and news outlets are in the midst of a heated debate about whether to republish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons — but most of all, there has been plenty of time for commentators to weigh in. The opinions range from full-throated defenses of the magazine to denials that freedom of speech is even in question. Below, we’ve rounded up a representative sampling of what political analysts are saying about these attacks.

New York’s own Jonathan Chait took a strong stance in favor of unadulterated blasphemy on Wednesday:

The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome. The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

He was responding in part to Tony Barber’s column at the Financial Times:

Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo. […] [S]ome common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.

The language on Barber’s post was later softened. At Time, James Poniewozik sides with Chait:

[I]f you care about freedom, you don’t always have the luxury of defending monumental art. If speech rights only protected polite comments that everyone could agree with, we wouldn’t need them.

And at the New York Times, Ross Douthat mostly does, too:

I disagree slightly with Jonathan Chait’s formulation today that “one cannot defend the right [to blaspheme] without defending the practice.” If I devoted my next blog post to a scabrous, profanity-laced satire of the Buddha, I would not expect Chait or anyone else to immediately leap to my defense if the Times decided to delete the post and dismiss me from its ranks of columnists. If I ran a reactionary website that devoted itself to recycling pre-modern calumnies against Jewish law and ritual, my rights as an American would not be traduced if people picketed my offices and other journalists told me I had a moral obligation to desist. And similarly, in a cultural and political vacuum, it would be okay to think that some of the images (anti-Islamic and otherwise) that Charlie Hebdo regularly published, especially those chosen entirely for their shock value, contributed little enough to public discussion that the world would not suffer from their absence.

But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good.

David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy also thinks it’s important to resist censorship by violent means

Not only do they either practice or promote the idea of self-censorship based on the tastes or demands of thugs, but they distract from the real issue at hand. That is that there are forces afoot in the world that seek to enforce their version of political, cultural, and ideological correctness at gunpoint — or at the threat of a cyberattack or the issuance of a fatwa. Allowing these forces to gain any traction in the wake of such threats — whether through half-baked media commentary, political pronouncements, or decisions to kowtow to the bad guys, like the one Sony made to pull its movie from theaters — cedes them small, corrosive, and dangerous victories. And this — rather than death tolls or threats of violence that may grab the headlines — is the metric by which enemies of open societies measure their success.

But Matt Yglesias at Vox thinks Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are racist, and although they have a right to be published, it would be better if they weren’t:

 I want to live in a world where people can use racial slurs, I would have absolutely no problem with a world in which nobody did. Free speech is a right, but politeness is a virtue. The legal right to free speech requires that people’s right to speak freely be respected legally. That means no legal sanction for publishing racist cartoons if you choose to publish them, and it means that the law must protect you from acts of retaliatory violence. But defense of the right does not in the slightest bit entail defense of the practice. You shouldn’t publish racist cartoons! That’s not free speech, that’s politeness and common human decency.

At The Hooded Utilitarian, Jacob Canfield also doesn’t shy from calling the magazine, and murdered cartoonist Charb, racist:

Now, I understand that calling someone a ‘racist asshole’ after their murder is a callous thing to do, and I don’t do it lightly. This isn’t ambiguous, though: the editorial staff of Hebdo consistently aimed to provoke Muslims. They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong. White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.

Nabila Ramdani provides more context on Charb’s beliefs at The Guardian:

[Charlie Hebdo’s] murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, regularly expressed his disdain for this religion. Such prejudice was in fact condemned by the White House in September 2012, when a spokesman for President Obama questioned the judgment of Charlie Hebdo for publishing “images that will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory." […] The climate of intolerance across France may well have been something Charlie Hebdo was reflecting, rather than creating, but strict laws banning hate literature would certainly have made many of its past issues unpublishable in countries including the UK.

Arthur Goldhammer in Al Jazeera says that venerating the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists would betray the satirical spirit of the magazine:

Reproducing the imagery created by the murdered artists tends to sacralize them as embodiments of some abstract ideal of free speech. But many of the publications that today honor the dead as martyrs would yesterday have rejected their work as tasteless and obscene, as indeed it often was. The whole point of Charlie’s satire was to be tasteless and obscene, to respect no proprieties, to make its point by being untameable and incorrigible and therefore unpublishable anywhere else. The speech it exemplified was not free to express itself anywhere but in its pages. Its spirit was insurrectionist and anti-idealist, and its creators would be dumbfounded to find themselves memorialized as exemplars of a freedom that they always insisted was perpetually in danger and in need of a defense that only offensiveness could provide. To transform the shock of Charlie’s obscenities into veneration of its martyrdom is to turn the magazine into the kind of icon against which its irrepressible iconoclasm was directed. But as the poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote of Edgar Allan Poe, death has a way of revealing the essence of things — and the essence of Charlie Hebdo was to express the inexpressible in images with the power to shock and offend.

For the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, the response to the shooting has parallels to the Sony Pictures hacks. She raises the question of “what resources it makes sense to commit to freedom of speech”:

And as we experiment with our calculations, we reach different and unpredictable results. In the United States, “The Interview” has inadvertently become an advertisement for a new model of movie development, netting $31 million in online sales and rental fees. It’s as much a lesson about commerce as about courage. But in France, at least twelve people are dead. In the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the hack of Sony Pictures, we see the costs of making provocative art and protecting the people who make and distribute it. But we shouldn’t let these consequences blind us to the very high price we would pay for backing away from such a defense: a grayer, duller, smaller society, in which much milder challenges to orthodoxy and taste are met with ugliness and violence.

Peter Beinart of The Atlantic also compares Sony Pictures and Charlie Hebdo when considering how other outlets will act:

[B]ecause these assaults aim to intimidate movie studios and journalists, their impact cannot be measured merely by how governments respond. Historically, terrorists and dictators have often used violence to blackmail democratic governments into changing policy. Now they are using violence to blackmail editors and studio heads into doing so. Which means that journalists and media executives, rather than merely politicians, must choose either appeasement or defiance. By first refusing to disseminate The Interview, and then agreeing to, Sony pivoted from the former to the latter. With most of its staff murdered, Charlie Hebdo itself may, tragically, not have the choice. But in deciding whether to show the images that seem to have gotten Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists and editors killed, countless other magazines, newspapers, websites, and television networks will be acting as either hawks or doves.

The New Yorker’s George Packer lays blame squarely on “a form of totalitarianism called Islamism“: 

[T]he murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend—against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.

Juan Cole thinks the purpose of the slaughter was more about helping terror groups sharpen an us-versus-them narrative:

The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram).

Whereas Ezra Klein at Vox rejects broad readings into the meaning of the attacks and condemns “the bullshit narrative of a few madmen that their murders were a response to some cartoons”:

These murders can’t be explained by a close read of an editorial product, and they needn’t be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn’t need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong.

Jacobin’s Richard Seymour follows up with concerns of anti-Muslim backlash:

The argument will be that for the sake of “good taste” we need “a decent interval” before we start criticizing Charlie Hebdo. But given the scale of the ongoing anti-Muslim backlash in France, the big and frightening anti-Muslim movements in Germany, and the constant anti-Muslim scares in the UK, and given the ideological purposes to which this atrocity will be put, it is essential to get this right.

No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.

At The Guardian, Nesrine Malik fears that a vengeful wave will not take into account the lessons of the past:

It is […] important to not keep repeating the same mistakes, trying to trace the perpetrators to some certain origin. They have none. They belong to no single community or country or mosque. There is no viper’s nest that can be burned down, and with it the problem. That way lies the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan, where non-state actors such as al-Qaida were conflated with states and regimes, resulting in the killing of millions of innocents, and further fuelling a race to the bottom of hate.

Fredrik deBoer is also worried about Islamophobia, but questions even Seymour’s reference to what he calls “dead moral questions”:

To read the people writing about this attack, this is the fundamental question at hand: were these killings OK? If that were actually a moral question worth asking, then it would provoke disagreement. […] The question of the price that Muslims will pay for these attacks– that is a live question, the security and rights of the Muslim people is very much uncertain, indeed. If there is anything that this country has stood for in the last 15 years, it is its willingness to sacrifice anything to fight Muslim extremism, and in the process, innocent Muslims. 

But Philip Gourevitch isn’t so sure that concerns about censorship are irrelevant, and points to the constant battle between the pen and the gun in his post at The New Yorker:

The gun is mightier. In fact, the pen’s might depends on the might of the gun. In America, where we have the greatest degree of protection for the greatest extent of free expression of any society on earth, that freedom derives from the penmen who wrote the Constitution persuading the gunmen who defend and uphold it that this arrangement is in everyone’s best interest. It is a magnificent compact, but hardly inevitable. It has proved surprisingly solid over time, but it requires constant defense—as we are reminded by the belated emergence of the memorial slogan “Je Suis Ahmed”—after Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who was killed protecting Charlie Hebdo’s right to caricature his religion. So it appears that maybe, in the long run, the pen does prevail against butchery—but we live from day to day, and yesterday was a hellish day without consolation. It leaves us less sure, as Notre-Dame’s bells toll for the dead jesters, who will get the last laugh.

Hari Kunzru also worries that these attacks work to limit free speech in a piece for The Guardian:

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was, of course, intended to raise the price on the exercise of freedom of speech. It was intended to cast the shadow of the guillotine over every editorial conference, every pitch, every keyboard and pen. It was meant to make us think twice. This much we understand. And it’s working. It has been working since the days of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Charlie Hebdo’s brand of crude confrontational religious satire was already a rarity. It will only become more so.

This post has been updated throughout.