Sunday, January 18, 2015
WHY I SAY ‘JE SUIS CHARLIE’
When eight of the highly creative people who formed part of the staff of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were murdered at their desks earlier this month—along with four other unfortunate people who were randomly killed in the attack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time—I couldn’t help identifying with them far beyond the normal anger and compassion that terrorist violence awakens in any right-minded person. My first thought was, in fact, “That could have been me.”
Nor did I think of it right away as merely another instance of Muslim fundamentalist violence. Rather, I “lived” the attack, first and foremost, as a violent assault on freedom of expression in a nation and a city that have long honored razor-sharp satire as a traditional and highly-developed art form.
Reading about the attack carried out by two fundamentalist gunmen, who claimed to be the agents of vengeance for the Prophet Muhammad and who invoked the name of Allah while slaughtering top members of a team of creatives whose only sin was the ability to think, reflect and question in a bright, audacious and humorous way, I couldn’t help recalling the first nine years out of a total of thirteen that I spent working as a journalist for what was then Argentina’s most outspoken newspaper, the English-language daily known as the Buenos Aires Herald. I refer to the years from 1974 to 1983, when I had the privilege of first standing shoulder to shoulder with and later helping lead a small team of journalists with an almost obsessive-compulsive interest in reporting what practically no one else was willing to, and in defying every kind of threat and pressure exerted in a vain attempt by the de facto government to get them to stop.
The great difference between then and now, I was thinking, was that back then we were facing an internal threat, first by a rogue populist government that suspended constitutional guarantees and took the law into its own hands even before the military coup, and then by a far rightwing dictatorial regime that overthrew the democratically elected if out-of-control administration. And we were also confronting the latent threat of violence from the urban terrorists who opposed both regimes—since our banner was that of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and egalitarian justice, principles that neither side in the civil strife of those days shared with us. The threat to Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, came from an external source, one that is seeking to impose its will via terror and destruction on the world as a whole. But then again, as it becomes wider spread, the Muslim fundamentalist threat is also turning more and more internal, as brain-washed, self-disenfranchised losers like the two fanatical brothers who carried out this heinous act become the “enemies within” in Western democracies, only too glad to offer up their stunted, pathetic lives to serve the fundamentalist designs of the crazed “evangelists” of “faith by murder”.
While in contemporary use the term fundamentalism has come to be equated with religious fanaticism (and for some people—mostly those who have never read the history of the Christian Crusades or lived in the US Bible Belt—Islamic fundamentalism), there are clear basic elements of fundamentalism in every closed society. Or in other words, in societies ruled by an elite that doesn’t admit the rights of others to their own beliefs or to their own expressions, or to their own desires beyond the dictates handed down from the pinnacle of power (even when that pinnacle is only the toad stool on which village tyrants stand). Thus any sort of totalitarian or dictatorial political philosophy is essentially fundamentalist, since all of them are based on “a cause”, even when their only real purpose is to accumulate control and power.
That was certainly the case of “my” dictators, back in the days of what was known in Argentina as the “National Reorganization Process”: In what was clearly a dichotomous message, their pitch was that they had cut short an admittedly questionable “democracy” by armed force in order to “preserve the Constitution” (parts of which they immediately suspended and the rest of which they made subject to the decisions of the military junta) and to “defend Western and Christian values” against the advances of “godless communism”. The way they planned to do that was by jailing and/or killing everybody who didn’t agree with them. In the words of one of their most boisterous exponents, General Ibérico Saint Jean, who served as military governor of Buenos Aires Province during the worst repression, “First we’ll kill all of the subversives, then we’ll kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers, and right after that the ones who remain indifferent, and, finally, we’ll kill the faint of heart.”
This bears obvious, if ostensibly opposing, similarities to the “holy war” of the Islamists, the ultimate purpose of whom is to “destroy the West” and, according to the words and deeds of the most fanatical of their ilk, to kill all of those who do not convert to their brand of Islam. In the midst of this sort of government-sponsored or extremist-imposed lawlessness and terrorism, the task of authentic democrats is to become ad hoc “authorities” themselves: moral authorities, authentic defenders of democracy and of the basic rights that go with it, which is precisely what the editor of the paper I worked for did, and what we continued to do after he was eventually forced into exile after direct threats to his family. We continued to exercise our rights as democrats even when the country’s illegitimate rulers told us we no longer possessed any such rights. We continued to defend the right to free expression the best way anyone can, by exercising it fully and boldly in the face of tyranny. And we continued to do our duty as writers, thinkers and journalists by defending human and civil rights as a whole, in demanding that other people’s rights be restored and respected, despite the risk to our own safety that doing so signified.
This is an important point to bear in mind, because it has a lot to do with why je suis Charlie, and why you should be too, if you genuinely value freedom above all else. Because whether or not you agree with Charlie Hebdo’s politics, or viewpoint, or style of expressing itself, by doing so in defiance of every kind of legal and illegal warning and threat imaginable, its artists, writers and editors were also exercising your right to freedom of expression and mine, as do a number of other defiant and creative people around the world who day by day refuse to be told what they can and cannot say or represent. Like, for instance, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who was recently sentenced by a Saudi court to ten years in prison and to fifty lashes a week for twenty weeks, for writing frankly in his Internet blog. Or like the people around the world who publicly protested that sentence against Badawi and managed to get his case reviewed by the Saudi Supreme Court, despite his already receiving the first fifty-lash flogging and languishing in jail for exercising his and our right to free expression.
This past week, I posted a controversial Charlie Hebdo cover on my Facebook wall and appended a je sui Charlie legend to it, inviting others to do the same if they were true believers in freedom of expression. Surprisingly few of my Facebook friends did this. And even fewer of the friends of those who did followed suit. One friend on whose wall I had posted it later posted the response of one of her friends on my wall, which made it clear that even if he was indeed repulsed by the Charlie Hebdo murders he wanted to make it clear that as far as he was concerned “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (he was not Charlie). Why? Because he didn’t believe in the “disrespectful way” in which the cartoonists and humorists of Charlie Hebdo treated the Islamic culture or, in fact, how the magazine disrespected everything many other people considered sacred or beyond reproach.
That is, of course, his opinion and, fortunately, his right. But sadly, I felt, he had missed the point, as had my friend, perhaps, in reposting his criticism on my wall as a kind of comment as to the possible error involved in my embracing Charlie unconditionally, even if I was shocked and disgusted by the murders. The point I feel they may have missed wasn’t whether or not I agreed completely with Charlie Hebdo’s often over-the-top satire, but whether or not I—and everyone else who gives frequent lip service to it—actually believed in its writers and artists’ right to free expression.
This past week, the US-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conditionally defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, but called for greater understanding and respect. Some Muslims clearly consider Charlie Hebdo to be anti-Islamic because of the satirical cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad that it prints....
Which brings me to a brief aside: It has been pointed out that the most fanatical of Muslims would probably consider anti-Islamic any caricatures that Charlie Hebdo or any other magazine might print of Jesus as well, since Jesus, the key figure in Christianity, is also a minor prophet of Islam. So even if non-fundamentalist Christians were to take any such images in stride, if you were to poke fun at Christianity you might still get targeted, ironically enough, by normally rabid anti-Jewish Islamists for disrespecting the image of a prophet who was known in his day as King of the Jews. I mean, with fundamentalists, you just can’t win! They’re a touchy lot who are eminently offendable and defy appeasement, so why try?
And then there’s the viewpoint of unapologetic atheists like political comedian Bill Maher, who believes that if religions are free to publicly express, espouse and promote their beliefs in God, then atheists should and do have just as much right to publicly express their view that all such beliefs are a crock. By the way, what Maher said regarding the Charlie Hebdo massacre was, and I quote: “These assholes in Paris who shot cartoonists this week, they don’t like it [being on the wrong end of a joke], and as a jokester, I just have to say, the world needs to stand as one and—to quote the immortal Dick Cheney—say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
But anyway, what the CAIR’s Executive Director Nihad Awad said about all of this was that, “Just as Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish, we have the right to peacefully challenge negative portrayals of our religious figures. The answer to speech one disagrees with should not be violence, but should instead be more speech promoting tolerance and mutual understanding.”
Fair enough, and Awad is right. The whole idea behind free speech is just that: that it is free and open to everyone, so as to permit an exchange of opinions and ideas, which are the bloodline that nurtures a free society. And to paraphrase Voltaire, it’s my right to disagree with what someone else says or to question how they express themselves, but if I’m a democrat who truly believes in free speech and individual liberties as a whole, then it’s my duty to “defend to the death their right” to say what they say and to express it however they express it.
Edgar Hopida, Communications Director for the ISNA, was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying that, “While we respect everyone's right to freedom of speech, even when it offends and disparages our religious traditions, we also have the right to address and peacefully challenge a narrative that encourages anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamophobia and xenophobia...” And up to there, I’m in complete agreement with him. But after that, his opinions wondered into the minefield of prior censorship, when he said that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “only incite already increasing anti-Muslim sentiment...” adding that, “if [free] speech or expression incites people to commit violence and harm on others then it should not be allowed in our society.” The fact is that if Mr. Hopida were allowed to decide what was and wasn’t allowed in terms of “free” speech, according to whether or not it wounded his fragile sensibilities and those of his brethren, he wouldn’t be living in the United States, but in some fundamentalist state where telling others what they can and can’t say and do is the order of the day. And as long as Charlie Hebdo is published in France, he won’t be able to get away with deciding who can say what there either.
Pope Francis, for his part, was disappointingly unhelpful as well. One has come to expect bold, out-of-the-box thinking from the Argentine pontiff, but this time his response couldn’t have been more mundane and tended to reflect his own latent fundamentalism. While he indicated that it was unacceptable, of course, to murder a group of writers and artists armed only with their pens and pencils, he tacitly justified the fundamentalist rage that ended their lives by going on to say that religious freedom and freedom of expression were fundamental human rights, but that they were not total liberties. “There is a limit,” the Pope said. “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” And then, to bring his point home he cited a colloquial example by saying that if somebody called his mother a dirty name, “they’re going to get punched in the nose.”
Whether the pontiff meant it to be or not, this last hinted that, in a way, the dead artists and writers at the French weekly were asking for what they got, which is a little like saying, I don’t think the girl next door should have gotten raped and I’m sorry it happened, but then again she did wear her skirts awfully short and her neckline awfully low. It might have been more excusable coming from someone who had never lived through a period of harsh repression, but back in the days when he was still a priest, riding the subway in Buenos Aires and carrying his lunch, Pope Francis lived through the same dictatorship that I did and should know the price paid for intimating that victims are the authors of their own fate and he should know too the value (all too often in human blood) of free expression and the uncompromising nature of its genuine defense. Overwhelming silence in the Argentina of his day cost tens of thousands of lives and ruined tens of thousands more. Even as Pope, he hasn’t earned the privilege of overlooking that.
The other point that needs to be made here is that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical criticism of Islam is aimed, not at Muslims, but at Muslim fanatics, whose modus operandi is to attack, vanquish and murder anyone who doesn’t agree with them. In fact, the French weekly’s editorial policy as a whole is aimed at poking withering satirical fun at everyone and everything that seeks to violate the natural rights of the individual to do what he or she pleases and to believe (or not believe) whatever his or her own heart and mind dictates.
The fact is that the magazine’s editorial policy is all about taking to task and “ridiculizing” everything that it feels undermines liberal thought. It is all about being stridently anti-establishment and non-conformist, about boldly representing, by its own description, left-wing, anti-racist thought and about satirically jerking the chains and punching the readily-emotional buttons of the foremost representatives of contemporary religion, politics and culture. It is not an “anti-Muslim” publication, but an anti-establishment one, taking on—with the same even-handed, poison-pen precision—the political extreme right and the established religious dictates of Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam alike. Murdered former editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier described the magazine as reflecting the viewpoint of “all components of left-wing pluralism, and even abstainers.”
The other thing worth pointing out is that, despite the fact that Charlie Hebdo has ridiculed just about every icon possible and incurred the anger of leaders and celebrities from all walks of life—and while they might get a papal punch in the beak if the dare insult Bergoglio’s mother—the only two instances of violence that the magazine has suffered (a bombing in 2011 and the mass slaughter carried out this month) were both perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists, who thus win the je suis Charlie prize for intolerance.
A voice that Voltaire (and George Washington) might well have applauded was that of writer Salman Rudshie, who, himself, long lived under death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. This past week, Rudshie said: “The French satirical tradition has always been very pointed and very harsh, and still is...The thing that I really resent is the way in which these, our dead comrades ... who died using the same implement that I use, which is a pen or pencil, have been almost immediately vilified and called racists and I don't know what else...Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela use(d) the same three-word phrase which in my mind says it all, which is, ‘Freedom is Indivisible.’ You can't slice it up. Otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hedbo...But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”
From mid-1974 through early 1983, I lived in a climate in which I became accustomed to existing, first, with the threat of death by proxy involved in being part of the support team for courageous editorialists, and, later, with direct threats to my own life and to the newspaper that I worked for, as I devoted my own efforts to expressing the paper’s political and moral line. Asked, on occasion, why I did it, when it wasn’t my country or my fight, I’ve always replied that, on the contrary, opposing tyranny and violent fundamentalism of any kind is everyone’s fight no matter where it happens, and that for writers, journalists and political humorists, it’s not a choice, but a moral and professional obligation.
Seen from that vocational viewpoint, I fully identify with the murdered staffers at Charlie Hebdo. But I also identify with and am grateful to them for defending everyone’s right to free expression by exercising theirs with such uncompromising passion and self-sacrifice. And that’s why je suis Charlie. How about you?