Charlie Hebdo is at the center of controversy — again. The latest fracas swirls around the illustration which depicts flooding in Houston and comes with the caption: “God exists. He drowned all the Neo-Nazis of Texas.”
To provide commentary on the matter, Glenn Greenwald, a consistent critic of the journal, recently released an article titled “Charlie Hebdo May Now Be Criticized Because It Mocked White Texans Rather Than Muslims.” In it he makes some fair points. Why are conservatives, alt-righters, and various personalities throwing hissy fits when they pumped their lungs full to scream “Je Suis Charlie!” only a little under three years ago? Is this reaction not a double standard — especially when it comes to, as Greenwald calls them, “free speech crusaders” supposed adherence to free speech?
But my writing here is not only to highlight what Greenwald gets right. It is rather to point out what he gets wrong. And on the Charlie Hebdo issue, he is most certainly mistaken.
The first point I’ll contest is that Charlie Hebdo publishes “racist” cartoons. It is an interpretation consistently opined by Greenwald (and others). Satire operates by exaggerating and ridiculing ideas and taking them to their furthest extents to expose and criticize their stupidity. Mine is not an original position, but what Charlie Hebdo has consistently done is apply this framework to its illustrations to exhibit the ludicrousness of extremist thought.
For those not convinced by this approach, the dilemma is exemplified by New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer. Heer writes,
“The problem with this defense is that constantly using super-racist images to satirize racism seems like a strategy with diminishing returns. After constantly publishing such racist images, isn’t it fair to ask whether this isn’t a satire on racism but simply an expression of racism?”
So it comes down to the intent which one assigns the cartoonists. Are they being racists when they illustrate caricatures of what the far-right might think of minority groups? Or are they, rather, satirizing the ideas that the far-right might have? Whether the satire has returns is another question to whether the illustrations are racist or not.
A corollary idea to this is that Charlie Hebdo was unfair or persistent in its attacks towards Muslims and Islam in the years leading up to the 2015 attack. The following investigation illuminates this debate: Jean-François Mignot and Céline Goffette, two sociologists, conducted an analysis of Charlie Hebdo’s 523 front covers published between January 2005 and January 2015, releasing their findings in Le Monde. Of the 523, 336 covers concerned politics, with covers targeting economics and social news coming in at 85, and 42 covers targeting media personalities of all types. Only 38 were on religions. But most importantly, of the 38 which satirized religion, Mignot and Goffette found only 20% of those 38 cartoons focused exclusively on Islam with more than half of Hebdo’s spotlight directed towards the Catholic Church (21 cartoons). If Hebdo was persistent with anything, it was not Islam but French politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy and, to a lesser extent, Le Pen and Francois Hollande.
Given this, what I’d like to ask Greenwald and Hebdo’s detractors is if it’s appropriate to denigrate a journal that has entertained a wide range of targets, a historic focus on far-right politicians, with religion — and Islam — only being a small part of its coverage, just because it changed its scopes once in a while. Charlie Hebdo has always billed itself as an anti-far-right and anti-racist publication. To tarnish it as racist is to not understand satire or the magazine’s history.
Yes, Islam has a tradition of aniconism — that is: the absence of material representations of the natural and supernatural world — specifically when it comes to the depiction of Prophet Mohammed. And some would argue that Hebdo inflamed the situation by being deliberately provocative. But is it fair to provide one religious group with rights which aren’t afforded to other religious groups? Couldn’t it be argued just as effectively that this special treatment would have a negative effect on public sentiment towards that group?
Moving to the spine of his article, Greenwald tells his reader,
“What was driving this love of Charlie Hebdo was approval of the content of its cartoons: specifically, glee that it was attacking, mocking, and angering Muslims, one of the most marginalized, vulnerable, and despised groups in the West.”
And, later on:
“It’s almost as if the glorification and praise for Charlie Hebdo that became morally mandatory in 2015 had nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with love of the anti-Islam content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. This new rule that one must not only defend Charlie Hebdo’s free speech rights but also honor and praise its work seems to have disappeared rather instantly, violently even, as soon as its targets stopped being Muslims and began being white Americans.”
I don’t doubt the veracity of parts of this observation. I believe that many mounted the wagon in 2015 to spread their hatred of Islam and Muslims. They took the opportunity to vent their basest feelings and to demonize a group collectively. I’ll also agree that many commentators were hypocritical in their reactions to the Mohammed cartoons and the Texas cartoons — celebrating one whilst denigrating the other.
But for many more, Greenwald’s framing of their motives was not the reason for their support of the French publication. To say that it was would be to castigate vast swathes of liberal-minded individuals for being appalled at the murder of cartoonists for drawing cartoons. Greenwald and ilk are of course free to criticize Charlie Hebdo however they please. But to paint all defenders of the publication as gleefully sharing the cartoons for their supposed bigotry would be a laughable maneuver were it not so troubling coming from someone who is considered to be a leading journalist by many. How can Greenwald be so sure that his is the reason why people chanted, tweeted, marched, and wrote “Je Suis Charlie.”
After all this time, I find it hard to believe that Greenwald cannot distinguish the main concern for those who were so distraught by the Charlie Hedbo murders. It was because people were killed for illustrations. Greenwald, who took the opportunity back in 2015 to share cartoons about Israel and Jews and lecture his audience about how free speech should not be used as a guise to share “racist cartoons,” has repeatedly missed this distinction. How difficult is it to understand that no one should be murdered for their writings and publications — no matter their acidity? And that this was what many were enraged about.
Which leads to the republication issue — one where Greenwald misjudges the situation again. He posits that just because one supports the right to express idea X one must not necessarily be forced to agree with idea X and that the sentiment to republish the cartoons was spurred by dubious motives.
There is merit to his first position. Supporting the right to express ideas does not mean one must agree with them. But on the second part Greenwald is wrong. Hateful intentions were not the only reason that many backed republication. Again, the idea that newspapers and magazines should host the cartoons was because people were murdered for creating those very cartoons and that not doing so would be seen as capitulating to a fear of retaliation. If neo-Nazis had carried out an attack on the Hebdo offices, is it really that difficult to imagine that many would be honoring and asking for the republication of the Texas illustrations?
The late Christopher Hitchens hammered out this point when he was invited onto CNN to comment on the unrest caused by Jyllands Posten, after the Danish newspaper under the guidance of Flemming Rose published cartoons of Mohammed in 2006:
“Now I know, as well as you do, that you have not done that [pixelate the images of Mohammed] in order to avoid sparing the hurt feelings of my fellow guest [his debate partner was Muslim]. You’ve done it because you’re afraid of retaliation and intimidation.”
The reporter later confirmed Hitchens’ framing by saying:
“CNN’s decision to pixelate these [Mohammed cartoons] — you’re right. [Was] partly based on fear of reprisal against our staff, but also partly based on fear of offending”
Apply this same methodology to the New York Times’ Editor-In-Chief Dean Baquet’s claim that the Times did not reprint the 2015 cartoons because it did not want to “offend religious sensibilities,” and you only get a darker understanding of the situation. Sure, “religious sensibilities” were considered when choosing whether to republish. But so was fear.
I remember speaking to my advisor many months into writing my thesis on the media representation of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and their implications for free speech and religious minorities. (Allow me to paraphrase him.) “Oh, I see,” he said, when I informed him of the history of the magazine as a purveyor of anti-racism and the small focus it had given to Muslims and Islam. “You’re telling me that Charlie Hebdo isn’t a racist publication? I thought from what I was reading and who I was speaking to that it was intent on provoking and was being racist on purpose. Some people were saying ‘they brought it on themselves by consistently going after Muslims.'”
If you’ve been taken by those who espouse Greenwald’s line of argument — that Charlie Hebdo is racist, or that it took particular glee in lambasting Muslims, or that people only defended and asked for the republication of its cartoons due to animosity towards minorities — I hope I’ve managed to sway your opinions about the publication, even a smidgen. While Greenwald is right in pointing out the hypocrisy of the right in their reactions to the Texas cartoons, he is, again, amiss on Charlie Hebdo as a whole.
Header photo: Gage Skidmore