A day of infamy for an important magazine, which has managed to deeply and resoundingly offend almost everyone since its founding in 1970. Importantly, these cartoonists did not seem to seek martyrdom, but now that they are martyrs, their cause should be rendered worthwhile by how we all process and reflect on its meaning.
There are very few unsullied things left to live for and face losing your life for, and one of them is freedom of expression. Societies don’t grow thick skins simply because time passes, but rather as an immune response to thousands of little vaccinating jabs from gangs of voyous (rogues) such as those at Charlie Hebdo.
There needs to be space and elasticity in our discourse for such artists and writers, and whatever needs doing to keep that space open, is worth doing, such as when France closed 20 of its embassies in the week that Charlie Hebdo refused to pull an issue featuring depictions of the Prophet Mohammed on its front page. France mobilised its own security forces and shut down its own diplomatic missions rather than Charlie Hebdo’s printing presses, which is as it should be.
It is important that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were often outrageous to the consensus, and it does not matter that they sometimes aimed only to attack taboos for their own sake. It does matter that Charlie Hebdo was funny, that it never stooped to confounding Islam with Islamic extremism or to suggesting that Islam was somehow incompatible with ‘French values’, and that it tended to skewer everyone in French society in turn.
Charlie Hebdo had by no means reached a Fox News-esque level of moral bankruptcy and intellectual impotence; it did not routinely and criminally misrepresent Islam and the umma, or stoke xenophobia for its own benefit. In consequence, it is vitally important that we remember that this attack is exceptional, authored by people who are an exception. All the wrong people stand to profit from its becoming normalised or turned into “1/8”.
Sadly, as France reels from its deadliest terrorist attack since 1835, there is reason to fear that this will play into the hands of the continentally resurgent far right, who beat all other French parties in last year’s European elections.
Yet there is also reason to hope that the country that first codified the Western world’s modern conception of human rights will hold itself to its own high historical standard of political imagination and analytical rigour.
The calm and deliberate statements of French public personalities so far seem to suggest that, in a place where philosophy is a compulsory school subject for all students up to Baccalauréat level, the French people will get it together to prevent thuggish anti-Islamic vigilantism – from individuals and from all levels of government.
One would have to hope that at least some of the state’s formidable resources will be deployed to protect its 2.1 million practicing Muslim citizens (Insee, 2010) from the violent attentions of self-proclaimed free speech defenders. Hopefully an #illridewithyou/#jevoyageraisavecvouscampaign will not be needed in the country with Europe’s largest Muslim population.
French Muslims don’t have it easy as an economic underclass in their officially colourblind and faithblind state, but it would be shameful for the country of Voltaire to descend into the kind of 9/11-era structural racist paranoia that makes this problem – a failure of decades of official policies – into official policy.