I finally got hold of the issue of Charlie Hebdo (see previous post), three days after it came out. The first run was sold out almost as soon as the newsstands opened on Wednesday, the second run yesterday (Friday) by mid-morning. Of the twenty cartoons, four are in particularly poor taste and that will be offensive to practicing Muslims (though one needs to buy the issue to see them, or see scanned images on a website, suggesting that one is looking for them—and with Islam-oriented websites deliberately reproducing the blasphemous images in order to stoke indignation). If it weren’t for these four cartoons there would be little for anyone to get upset about. Charlie Hebdo really didn’t need to print them in order to make sport of Islamic extremism. Close to half of Frenchmen in a poll just out deem that Charlie Hebdo should not have printed the cartoons, given the risk of increasing tensions in the Muslim world. A sharp French journalist whom I know, and who has been reporting from Tunisia since early 2011, is furious at CH for its publicity stunt, asserting that the cartoons will render much more difficult the task of secular-minded Tunisians who oppose a proposed, Islamist-inspired amendment to the new constitution that would criminalize profaning “the sacred.” If I had had a seat at CH’s editorial meeting I would have argued for taking out the four tasteless cartoons. But CH, being what it is, was not going to be dissuaded by the hypothetical impact of its cartoons among those who could take offense to them—and certainly not among elements (religious zealots) it holds in contempt. Ridicule—and puerile cartoons—are CH’s stock-in-trade (of religion, politicians, everyone and everything). It’s what it does. Normally few take notice—its weekly press run is 75,000—except when others scream about it. As a result of all the free publicity this week—of the masses of people outside France who have never seen an issue of CH in their lives (including this one)—CH is laughing all the way to the bank.
And this won’t be the last time, as the fundamental reality here is that the new technologies—of Internet, Google, YouTube—make it so that this kind of thing can propagate like wildfire. It goes without saying that no one would have ever heard of the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’—which may in fact not even exist—if it hadn’t been for the Internet. And, of course, the extremist Salafis who spread word of it (they’re the real guilty party here; it is they, and they alone, who have been fanning the flames). But if it hadn’t been the trailer of this film or Charlie Hebdo’s latest coup, it would have been something else, as North America, Europe, and the world is now awash in Islamophobic and Muslimophobic literature and images. I wonder if Muslims have any idea of the sheer quantity of blasphemous stuff that’s out there. If one looks for it, one will find it in a few clicks of the mouse. And it’s not going to go away or be eradicated. This is simply not possible. Likewise, BTW, for the toxic anti-Semitic—and anti-Christian and even anti-other Muslim—rhetoric that the Muslim world is drenched in, and that is expressed not just by extremist or marginal elements but by mainstream personalities and media outlets in those countries (e.g. Thomas Friedman, whom I normally avoid, had a useful column on this the other day). We just have to deal with it.
I’ve had exchanges with a couple of smart, normally liberal-minded friends over the past couple of days who have argued that there should be restrictions on the kind of speech CH was engaged in. This view has been echoed by certain commentators as well, with one arguing that films like ‘Innocence of Muslims’ already do not meet the free speech test in the US. In the case of the latter, I rather doubt it. I can’t imagine that a lawsuit testing this proposition wouldn’t be quickly rejected by any US district court where it was filed. As for legislation restricting blasphemous or hurtful speech, this is not on the table, certainly not in the US or France. Don’t even think about it. So when confronted with future Charlie Hebdos or grade-Z movies impugning the Prophet, Muslims will just have to turn the other cheek, to ignore it and move on.
BTW, one liberty-undermining act related to this affair was the immediate decision by the French government to ban a planned demonstration in Paris today by Muslim groups (none major) protesting Charlie Hebdo and the American film that no one has seen. This was unjustified and indefensible. Street demonstrations are a hallowed right in France and cannot be banned unless there is a manifest threat to public order, but which was not demonstrated in this case. The demo should have been allowed, with a designated parade route—logically République to Nation—and firm commitment by the organizers to maintain order. In February 2006 there was a march against the Danish cartoons by a few Muslim groups. Several thousand participated—almost all immigrants from the Maghreb (born and raised there and not in France, which was obvious)—and it passed without incident.
Two tribunes related to this affair that are well worth reading: Oliver Roy in Le Monde on not incriminating the “Arab spring,” and Hussein Ibish in The Daily Beast arguing that free speech is not a cloistered value (and taking issue with Stanley Fish).