Reprinted from To The Point Analyses
Part I -- The Attack and Its Immediate Context
On Wednesday 7 January 2015 two heavily armed men walked into the Paris offices of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) and methodically murdered 12 people, including the magazine's editor Stephane Charbonnier (aka Charb), four cartoonists, a columnist, a proofreader, a maintenance worker, two policemen stationed inside the building, and one outside. The killers were Muslim extremists associated with al-Qaeda, but their actions were praised by the Islamic State (ISIS) as well. Almost everyone else, including most Muslim commentators, condemned the attack for the horrible crime it certainly was.
Why Charlie Weekly? The immediate reason for the attack seems to have been the repeated satirization of the Prophet Mohammed in cartoons that were, to put it mildly, of questionable taste. Of course the magazine had satirized others as well but gave disproportionate attention to Muslims and their Prophet.
All of this was done under the cover of freedom of speech. As Charb said in an 2012 interview, "Our job is not to defend freedom of speech but without it we're dead. We can't live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat."
Part II -- Charlie Hebdo and the Question of Freedom of Speech
I think everyone with a progressive outlook can agree that freedom to criticize governments and other centers of power is an absolute necessity if we are to have a free society. But we must also recognize that the notion of unimpaired free speech is an ideal that is constantly approached and retreated from. In practice its limits tend to be culturally and politically determined. Further, when we move beyond the critique of power there are good arguments for the position that freedom of speech should be coupled with a promulgated definition of social responsibility.
It seems to me that Charb and his magazine had little concern for these issues and, by concentrating their ridicule on Muslims with occasional jabs at the Catholic Church, had accommodated themselves to France's selectively censored environment. Consider the following:
- Charlie Hebdo was founded in 1970 after its predecessor magazine, called the Hara-Kiri Hebdo, had been shut down by the French government. Why? It had insulted the memory of the then recently deceased Charles de Gaulle.
- If Charlie Hebdo had satirized the Jews in the same way it did the Muslims, its director and staff would have likely been hauled into court and charged with anti-Semitism, expressions of which are illegal in France.
- As the political Scientist Anne Norton points out, while "casting itself as the defender of free speech ... the Paris prosecutor's office is investigating [and subsequently has taken into custody] comedian Dieudonne M'bala for 'defending terrorism' after his Facebook post, 'I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.'" Coulibaly was the terrorist involved in the recent Paris violence against Jews.
Charbonnier and his fellows at Charlie Weekly were aware of the first two facts. Thus, Charb was telling the truth when he said that the magazine was not defending free speech. He knew that the Charlie Weekly approach would work only as long as its ridicule was seen as politically acceptable by both most French people and their government. Defaming national heroes or Jews was out of bounds, but ridiculing Muslims was and is acceptable, and maybe that is why they became Charlie Weekly's preferred target. That, in turn, made the magazine's staff targets of Muslim extremists.
Part III -- The Larger Context
Whatever Stephane Charbonnier's actual motives and aims, he and his fellow workers at Charlie Weekly died in the course of promoting them.
At that point their motives were co-opted by the French government in what was soon declared as a war of values. On 10 January French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared war against "radical Islam" because its practitioners had attacked "our values, which are universal."
That last claim is an example of French hubris getting in the way of reality. For better or worse, French values are definitely not universal. They are just another version of culturally determined practices which, in terms of speech, set the limits of what the powers that be find permissible. These limits may be broader than the ones promoted by Islamists but, as we have seen, they are not open-ended.
Nonetheless the illusion of universal values was used by Prime Minister Valls to rally his fellow citizens. On 11 January a reported 2 million French men and women, with some 40 world leaders (most notably half the Israeli cabinet) at their head, marched through Paris to protest the attack on Charlie Weekly. It was said to have been the largest public rally France has seen since the liberation of Paris at the end of World War II.
Most of those who attended this historic rally probably knew little or nothing of the context of the crime they protested. And, while the magazine's demeaning cartoons might have been the immediate cause of the murders, it was certainly not the only cause. Prime Minister Valls publicly declared war just a few days ago, but in truth France has been acting as if it was at war with Muslims and their values for a very long time.
During their 130-year occupancy of Algeria the French segregated most Muslims from European colonists and adopted policies that undermined the indigenous Arab lifestyle. Since then they haven't been very welcoming toward Muslim immigrants in France, insisting that they give up their traditional ways and integrate into French culture. However, as riots in 2005 suggested, very little effort has been made on the part of the French government or its people to accommodate such integration.