Friday, 4 November 2011

Charlie Hebdo

Hands up anyone who was surprised that the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were firebombed in protest at a cartoon image of the prophet Mohammed appearing on the front cover. No, I thought not. It would have been more surprising if the offices had not been firebombed, really. Because throwing Molotov cocktails in response to perceived insults to their religion or its prophet is just how we all expect angry Muslims to behave. Call it the real Islamophobia: not hatred of Islam, but literal fear of the religion and its adherents.

We all remember the Danish cartoons. Some of us are old enough to remember the Satanic Verses (I regret to say that I am). Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death in a street in old Amsterdam for Submission, an artistic response to the treatment of women under Islam produced in collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Even some works intended as compliments have attracted the ire of angry and intolerant extremists: a few years ago, the publisher of a soppy romantic novel about Mohammed's underage wife Aisha was also firebombed. So, no surprise.

It's important to remember, of course, that while many Muslims (like many Christians) are angered or pained by satirical treatments of their faith, very few actually commit acts of violence in response. Nevertheless, actions like the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo are predictable. It only takes a few violent extremists to commit acts of extreme violence, after all. Fortunately, in this case no-one was hurt. Perhaps that's a sign that their sense of humour is improving. Though I doubt it.

Some would say that if you poke a tiger with a stick and get your hand bitten, it just shows that you were foolish to poke the tiger. Sensible people don't poke tigers, even if they have a right to do so. Those who narcissistically flaunt their right to poke tigers deserve everything they get. Time magazine's Bruce Crumley has gone further - much further - suggesting that poking a tiger is not merely foolhardy but morally wrong. His sympathies are all with the tiger.

It's an argument that we've all heard before, but Crumley puts it in a particularly stark form. He suggests that Charlie Hebdo was hoping for precisely such a violent response, presumably for the publicity, because "What was the point otherwise?" He links the magazine's satire with France's recent ban on the burqa as evidence of rampant French Islamophobia. He writes that the price of the magazine's self-consciously brave defiance of extremists was "offending millions of moderate people as well". He even grumbles about "Muslim leaders in France and abroad [who] also stepped up to condemn the action".

The reaction to this has not been universally positive. James Kirchick suggests that Crumley "would make an excellent propaganda commissar in Uzbekistan or Iran". His argument was "just the latest iteration of a tired excuse for terrorism, expressed by everyone from Noam Chomsky to Ron Paul, which is that the victims of terrorism have it coming", but was especially shocking coming from a professional journalist. Nick Cohen writes that Crumley "seems to be trying to provide a defence for anyone who attacks his own company’s premises."

Both articles are excellent, and it's good that Crumley doesn't seem to have attracted much support for his views. At the same time, there's more to this than the (valuable and correct) maxim that "no-one has a right not to be offended".

Crumley's argument is twofold. Firstly, it's a standard piece of victim-blaming: the publishers knew, or ought to have known, what was likely to happen. This is philosophically problematic, because it relieves the perpetrators of full moral responsibility, but it can perhaps be pragmatically justified. Consider some parallels. If you leave your car unlocked and the keys inside, don't be surprised if a thief makes off with it. But that doesn't excuse the thief. If you walk late at night in a rough part of Mexico City, you are laying yourself open to being kidnapped. This doesn't excuse the kidnapper, but it's still a bit stupid. Or let's be more contentious. Women who drink themselves senseless leave themselves open to being sexually assaulted. Of course, this doesn't excuse rape. But still, not a good idea.

The main problem with this argument, as applied to the Charlie Hebdo case (or others like it) is that if artists don't push the boundaries of taste and offensiveness, there will be no intellectual progress. And pushing the boundaries means being undiplomatic, foolhardy even. Free speech ceases to be free when limits are placed on what can be said out of fear of causing offence or provoking a reaction. You know the drill.

Why "insult" Islam and its prophet? Because of the things that have been done, and continue to be done, in its name: not just terrorism (a relatively minor problem, though it looms large in Western imaginations) but things like the repression of women and the ill-treatment of religious minorities in many Muslim countries. Or the implementation of Sharia law itself, which was the particular target of this issue of Charlie Hebdo. The Koran and the prophet are both invoked by Islamists to justify repressive policies and regressive ideas. Islamist extremists - the sort of Muslims who firebomb publishers who offend their sensibilities - are scarcely in a position to complain about those who mock what they hold to be sacred, since they traduce their religion, and besmirch the reputation of ordinary Muslims, every day.

But what of those ordinary Muslims? This is where the second part of Crumley's argument comes in. His problem with the mockery of Charlie Hebdo and other satirists boils down to this: ordinary Muslims - the sort who don't firebomb publishers, or even take to the streets in rage - are collateral damage in all this. They don't deserve to have their religion mocked just for the sake of it, so that satirists can "make a politically noble statement by gratuitously pissing people off." Especially since France's Muslims are already "feeling stigmatized and singled out for discriminatory treatment."

This goes beyond mere victim-blaming. Crumley is accusing CH of being part of a wider Islamophobic campaign rather than, as they would claim, opposing oppressive religious domination. Or, at the very least, of not caring that their magazine offends "millions of moderate people as well".

This is doubly patronising of Muslims. It suggests that they are vulnerable and need protecting from criticism; and it suggests that they are offence-taking machines who lash out violently at the slightest provocation and, thus, that the enragés are indeed representative of Muslims as a whole. This is a classic liberal dodge. And it doesn't seem to require evidence. Where are all the millions of offended Muslims? In France there has been more Muslim criticism of the bombing than of the cartoon.

The irony is that this kind of argument is a form of Islamophobia itself, both because it demonstrates actual fear of Muslims (they might bomb us) and because it caricatures them as all the same, all equally thin-skinned and all interested in nothing beyond upholding the dignity of their holy prophet. But in fact Muslims (whether they know it or not; many do) have much more than other people to gain from a lifting of the taboo on criticising any aspect of their religion, whether Sharia law, the Koran or the personality of Mohammed. As long as such things cannot be discussed openly, Islam will continue on its present retrograde path, increasingly dominated by conservatives and those who use the religion as a vehicle of political power.

Something else: the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo was not inevitable. It was an isolated incident. It might easily not have happened. Even Geert Wilders' deliberately provocative Fitna, which caused him to be temporily banned from Britain by a timorous home secretary, attracted no more trouble than a few placards from Anjem Choudary and his mates.