SHAFAQNA- TODAY’S edition of the scurrilous French weekly Charlie Hebdo, in the latest barrage in what one American commentator has wittily described as a confrontation between OMG and LOL, will almost certainly feature at least a few cartoons that offend some sensibilities.
That would be expected, given last week’s events in and around Paris. Even many of those who contend that Charlie Hebdo went too far in its caricatures would acknowledge that the brothers who last Wednesday took censorship to an intolerable extreme must not be permitted to have the last laugh.
The unprecedented slaughter during the weekly’s editorial conference, targeting the editor as well as some of France’s other best-known cartoonists, prompted a spontaneous gathering of Parisians at Place de la Republique, which was followed on Sunday by a march with an estimated 1.5 million participants at least, spearheaded by 50 or so heads of state or government, or senior official representatives, from countries across Europe and beyond.
It was a mobilisation the likes of which had not been witnessed in Paris since the end of the Second World War. It was a formidable demonstration of empathy with France and unity within the country in the face of terrorism. It’s easy to celebrate in that respect. Its significance as a celebration of free speech has been questioned though, and not without cause.
Reporters Without Borders has wondered why participants included representatives of nations whose citizens yearn in vain for even small concessions when it comes to freedom of speech. Others have raised the equally valid concern that even in countries currently going out of their way to celebrate the concept, there are curbs on freedom of expression. Holocaust denial, for instance, is a punishable crime in France.
The ideal reaction to offensive cartoons is simply to ignore them.
It could, of course, be argued that denial of verifiable facts is unconscionable, and consequently liable to legal challenge. It’s worth noting, at the same time, that Charlie Hebdo’s precursor was proscribed on the basis of its irreverence towards the recently deceased Charles de Gaulle — and the title of the rebooted version was intended as a reference not just to Charlie Brown, but to de Gaulle as well.
Times have, of course, changed. Charlie Hebdo has long lived up to the motto that nothing is sacred. And by most accounts it has been a fairly equal-opportunity offender, excoriating symbols of Christianity and Judaism alongside those of Islam. If in recent years it has focused chiefly on Islam, that could be attributed to the topicality of the subject matter.
At the same time, as any number of commentators, including a cross-section of French Muslims, have pointed out, defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to cause offence does not necessarily entail condoning its content. It would only be fair to acknowledge, though, that the circulation of its content has been enhanced manifold by the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi.
The ideal reaction to offensive cartoons is simply to ignore them. One should be disinclined to lend too much credence to the view of Charlie Hebdo as a vehicle for Islamophobia. There can be no question, on the other hand, that the massacre at its office will enhance hostility towards Muslims in Europe and elsewhere.
Some of the predictable attacks on the obvious symbols and institutions have already occurred in France, and more are likely to follow. Most French politicians have been at pains to point out, though, that most Muslims in their country have little to do with the violent tendencies of jihadism. By the same token, most French citizens are disinclined to opt for violence in retaliation.
It wouldn’t be terribly surprising, though, if more of them opted to vote for Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the next election. There are already moves afoot in France to form a coalition along the lines of Pegida in Germany — whose mobilisations have attracted the disapproval of the political and religious establishments, as well as a substantial segment of citizens.
The processes and circumstances that contributed to the radicalisation of the Kouachi brothers and their colleague-once-removed, Amedy Coulibali — who did his worst in a kosher supermarket in Paris — remain to be fully explained, but the likely mix includes growing up in an alienating milieu, the visible signs of Western military action in the Middle East, a tendency towards criminality, susceptibility to the twisted reasoning of preachers in France and Yemen, and a convoluted interpretation of the faith they were born into.
If it would be more or less delusional to argue that all those metaphorically up in arms against the outrages in Paris are unequivocally devoted to free speech, it is equally absurd to fall for the argument that the actions of the Kouachis and Coulibali had nothing to do with religion. After all, the three perpetrators appeared to be in no doubt they were somehow upholding the honour of their faith. Most Muslims would, one would like to think, be disinclined to agree.