I must admit that I have never really engaged with Charlie Hebdo before the killings because of the simple reason that I do not support or appreciate the cultural context of its content. So naturally when the attack happened I became conflicted and confused about how I felt about it. Yes, I condemn the killings and support freedom of expression, but at the same time I believe there should be a moral barrier between satire which aims to bully those in power, and racism which bullies those vulnerable and often powerless. And now that my emotions have cooled, I can reflect on the incident with clarity and will now proudly discuss why I am not Charlie.
When we were younger pointing a middle finger or swearing at someone we did not understand was our way of provocation, but after some time it all seems rather childish. As we get older most of us adapt more complex views of reality by showing a wider acceptance and tolerance for something that seems foreign to our beliefs. Yet, as mature adults we understand that provocateurs exist to serve a certain public role, the use of laughter and satirists exposes our inner vulnerability and arrogance, and when they are effective they help us address faults found within our society. But I believe that Charlie Hebdo does not serve a useful role in society, as its material is nothing more than a satirical representation of the far right’s idea of asylum seekers, which consequently reinforces prejudice in society without any beneficial aims.
I admire the show of unity that ‘Je suis Charlie’ represents, and of which I was initially a part of, but also appreciate those who disagree with the cartoons. I simply cannot regard those murdered as the “martyrs of free speech”. Yes, what happened was a despicable act of violence, but the force behind it was a foreign extremist disease lurking behind the face of Islam. And just like extremists exploit their Muslim brothers and sisters for the benefit of the powerful, the same can be said for Charlie Hebdo. Its satire is nothing more than a malicious campaign directed against the oppressed for the benefit of the far right. This view is supported by Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian magazine, “its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to 'attack everyone equally', the cartoons they publish are intentionally 'anti-Islam' and frequently sexist and homophobic.”
France claims to be a democratic country where people can freely express their ideas, however its double-standards when it comes to freedom of religion are clear to see. Looking at France’s complicated relationship with Islam there is an evident growth in anti-Muslim bigotry and rhetoric coming from various elements within French society. Marine Le Pen and Sarkozy’s “national dialogue” on Muslims has altogether banned face veils from being worn, while the hijab is also not allowed to be worn at public schools. This type of Western hypocrisy only adds to the growing fire of extremism and consequently works to the advantage of terrorist networks, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS. Of course terrorism is evil, but western law-abiding Muslims should not have their individuality denied because of racial stereotypes.
And what about the hypocrisy scandal that came from one of Charlie Hebdo’s offices. A cartoon artist has been fired for mocking the son of a former French President who recently converted to Judaism. The cartoon has been named anti-Semitic and racist because the person being mocked was still living. However, please tell me the difference between mocking a living person and sacred religious figures? After all, isn’t mocking people in politics, people in power, the true goal of satire? And who decides what is anti-Semitic or at what stage a cartoon crosses the barrier of Islamophobia? Yet again, western double-standards strike again. Charlie Hebdo is a bourgeois, government supported magazine which tests freedom of expression to its limits rather than making a satirical point. What is the aim of ‘Charlie satire’ if its point isn’t to bring social change, but instead to further alienate French Muslims already struggling to integrate? On this point I’m sure someone may tell me: If you find this offensive, then don’t read it. Though whether I read something or not doesn’t change the affect its having on wider society. Under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, we are granted the right to free expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive ideas without state interference, thus making the right to freedom of speech a crucial democratic value. However, free speech and free press are two entirely different matters. Unlike freedom of speech, free press isn’t an absolute value because it has a far greater influence on an individual, and therefore a greater responsibility to limit the offence it may cause. One must acknowledge the validity of such debates – whether or not we approve of the kind of cartoons that Charlie Hebdo has published in the past and will no doubt continue to do so.
Everyone is free to interpret the Hebdo massacre however they like, but will mistakes be outlined and lessons learned? It was just a few days ago that a similar attack took place in Copenhagen. One thing that I have learned is that Muslim immigrants can never be truly French because of the mere fact that they are not part of what the former President Sarkozy called “an old French tradition, that of satire”. I believe strongly in freedom of speech and I condemn the Paris killings with every fibre in my body, but we need to start making changes to prevent the cloud of xenophobia that is slowly gathering over our great continent.