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January 8, 2015 1:45 pm

Charlie Hebdo and the Temptation of Self-Censorship

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This depiction of the Islamic State terrorist group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was the latest cartoon by Charlie Hebdo before the Jan. 7 attack on its offices in Paris. Photo: Charlie Hebdo via Facebook. – As predictably as birds flying south for the winter, this week’s abominable terrorist attack on the headquarters of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, brought forth the usual burnt-out platitudes from those commentators who insist that Islamist violence is rooted in legitimate grievances with the West.

One of the most heinous examples of this outwardly-nuanced, inwardly-confused discourse appeared in a piece for the Financial Times by Tony Barber. By the second paragraph, Barber was sagely counseling us not to jump to conclusions about Islamist culpability—Anders Breivik, the far-right fanatic who murdered 77 mainly young Norwegians in 2011, was a Christian, after all.

(Within a few hours of the Paris atrocity, the identities of the three suspects—all Muslims, and with at least one carrying a prior conviction for terrorism—had been revealed. But had Barber bothered to check the earlier news, he would have perhaps registered those eyewitnesses who reported the assailants shouting “Allahu Akhbar” as they embarked on their killing spree.)

Then it got worse. The murder of 12 people, Barber insinuated, might have been avoided had there been “some common sense… at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.” (Here Barber is referring to the 2005 publication of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed, reprinted by Charlie Hebdo in 2011.)

Got that? In publishing the Muhammed cartoons, Charlie Hebdo wasn’t issuing a profound reminder of the willingness of other media outlets—from Yale University Press to The New York Times—to censor themselves in the face of Islamist threats. It sought merely to “provoke Muslims.” And when you provoke Muslims—and here we come to a stereotype held dear by both furrow-browed liberal journalists and right-wing bloggers—you invite the apocalypse. Ultimately, we’re to blame for that, because we knew all along that these people are savages, and still we didn’t exercise our superior European self-restraint. (Warning to anyone who wants to take that last sentence out of context: please don’t.)

I mention all this by way of an introduction to a rewarding conversation I had with Michel Gurfinkiel, one of the most astute of France’s political analysts, just hours after the attack. Though he is a conservative, Gurfinkiel intimately understands the culture of the left and its centrality to the transformation of European public attitudes over the last half-century; because of that, he made a critically important point to me that I haven’t heard anyone else make.

The assault on Charlie Hebdo was, Gurfinkiel told me, an assault on many of the symbols of France: its democracy, its secular nature, its treasuring of the freedom of speech and of expression. But it was also a poignant assault on the legacy of the soixante-huitards—the revolutionary generation of the 1960s, exemplified by the radical students who took to the streets of Paris and thereby changed, as Gurfinkiel said, “the French way of life.”

Charlie Hebdo was integral to the culture of this generation. The French establishment in large part loathed it, regarding the magazine as an outpost of the revolutionaries who could conceivably have unseated General de Gaulle during the heady days of May 1968. Many of its editorial stances—including on Israel—reflected the imperatives of a left that is now, in our own time, all too ready to engage in self-censorship.

As an example, and with great sadness in his voice, Gurfinkiel told me about George Wolinski, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who, at the age of 80, was brutally murdered in the attack. A Jew born in Tunis to a Sephardi mother and an Ashkenazi father, in the 1970s Wolinski had been a member of the French Communist Party and a trenchant opponent of Israel. When Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978, Charlie Hebdo labeled the affair a “shitty peace,” and Wolinski provided an accompanying cartoon of the two leaders sitting at a table together and breaking wind.

Now, a man who pushed freedom of speech to its limits—including in service of the Palestinian cause—lies dead, murdered by Islamists who detest the West’s ability to tolerate the grotesque and the tasteless. It is, as Gurfinkiel recognizes, a horrible irony, but it’s one that too many on the liberal left are unable or unprepared to grasp. Thus do we come to platitudes about provoking Muslims.

Fundamental to the stability of free speech is the right to offend, along with the right to be offended. The United States is in many ways the perfect examples of how that works. If a public figure makes a racist comment, or a newspaper says something offensive about Jews, we can be certain that an organization like the Anti-Defamation League will doggedly pursue the wrong-doers for a retraction or an apology. Sure, these humorless tussles can get nasty, but the norms of engagement have been firmly established over the years, and rarely, if ever, does violence or terrorism ensue.

What the Islamists are doing is preventing Western Muslims from participating in this adversarial culture of ours, which is in many ways a product of the revolutionary 1960s. There are many Muslims who peacefully object to displays like the Muhammed cartoons, but when they speak up, they are hampered by the knowledge that the armed fanatics who share their faith are willing to secure through violence what can’t be won through persuasion.

So instead of worrying about provoking Muslims, we should be confronting those within their ranks whose scorched-earth ideology is preventing Muslim advocates from making their case within the parameters of democratic and open debate. As we enter a period in which each day will bring renewed fear of another Charlie Hebdo-like atrocity, we need that debate more than ever. It is what keeps us civilized.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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  • charlie johnson

    The golfing parrot went to a church in Chicago where his preacher stood in front of the congregation with words I won’t mention here but he asked god to curse the USA.As far as I know he is still preaching. He said in an article that he is still a friend of the golfing parrot but the Jews won’t let him talk to him.Nobody went up and emptied a magazine at the preacher. But many citizen are not fond of the man. I don’t really like him myself but I think I would jump between him and a bullet just because I don’t think justice would be served by killing the man.

  • Kathleen

    I don’t think obscenity & defamation are worthy of a death sentence, but there are surely better things to die for.
    And my uneducated guess would be that cartoons equally offensive to Jews would happily be published in France, were it not against the law.Currently, the French have the freedom to offend selectively.

  • Julian Charlie Clovelley

    A very accurate assessment in my non conservative opinion.

    Underlying the1968 events was the brutalisation of French administration and society following the Nazi occupation and the decolonisation of Algeria after a period of extreme violence.

    Whilst 1968 changed France and much of Europe in minor ways, the core aim of a reduction in the class structure of society, at the very least a humanisation of capitalist economics, was not achieved, any more than most demonstrators in beautiful 1968 Paris expected it to be. So many put on their suits and played games, or drifted away.

    The 1972 Olympic massacre divided the left into two factions, those who could still see the Arab revolution as being left wing and those who feared it had lost the plot in an outpouring of extreme right wing fanatacism, inspired in part by direct Nazi influence

    So it remained with the split firmly maintained through the difficulties of orientation caused by the issue of West Bank Occupation and Settlement, in which the left commonly sided with what it saw as the UN and International Law position, condemning the Settlement policies of Israel

    The Paris massacre has reopened the issues of acceptable behaviour of 1972. Some may well awaken to anew analysis log overdue. But for the rest, often sidelined by their colleagues of 1968 it was always a case of “la lutte continue” – the struggle to build a freer, happier and more equal and secure world for us all. Poetry is still best made in the streets, symbolised by people of all backgrounds calling for universal and radical social and behavioural – and economic – change

  • To borrow a thought from Bertrand Russell: “We are born ignorant, not stupid. It’s education that makes us stupid”.

    He might have added… and it’s the media that maintains that condition.

    The news has been dominated recently by events in France. Reports say that about ten people who worked in Paris for a satirical magazine, “Charlie Hebdo”, were gunned down in their offices by a group of Muslim extremists. Apparently the magazine is well-known for satirising Mohammed (and other religious figures) and its staff have received numerous death threats in the past. Thousands of French took to the streets in support of free speech, many with placards saying “Je Suis Charlie”.
    Although the gunmen escaped from the scene of the crime, the French authorities released photographs of two brothers they said were responsible. The following day, yesterday, it was reported that the two brothers had been found. Hundreds of police immediately surrounded the location and after an hour or two the almost-inevitable happened: the brothers were gunned down.

    One other interesting little detail was reported. When the French authorities announced they were looking for the brothers they also said, presumably with equal conviction, they were looking for a third man. Within hours of that announcement the third man walked into a police station. We have not yet heard what happened to him, but presumably he has not yet been gunned down. His story is interesting because it suggests one of two things: either he is an innocent man and had nothing to do with the murders, or it’s a clever way of ensuring that a murderer is not himself murdered, and will live to have his day in court. If he was an innocent man, it makes you wonder about the accuracy of the authorities’ certainty about the guilt of the two brothers. I mean, if the authorities name three people they’re looking for, one of whom turns out to be innocent, what chance they were equally mistaken about the other two? If, on the other hand, he was not innocent and turned himself in as a good way of increasing his chances of staying alive, why did the others not do so too? It seems unlikely to me that the terrorists staged their attack as a suicide mission, knowing they were unlikely to escape from the country and would therefore eventually have to have a showdown with the police – otherwise why not have their showdown at the scene of the crime?

    The only thing that’s reasonably certain about these appalling events is that it’ll be a long time before we learn the truth – if we ever do learn it. Even then, we’re unlikely to learn the whole truth.

    Whilst it’s perfectly possible that this terrible event was just what it seems – an attack by Muslim extremists with a genuine sense of grievance about the activities of Charlie – it must also be clearly understood that things might not be quite so simple. The French authorities are, after all, vastly experienced in black operations from the days of running their own empire, and are now close allies of the new Empire, which is known to be very conversant with black operations, including the staging of false flag events.

    We can, of course, speculate with countless conspiracy theories, but certain facts are quite well understood, facts which should not be overlooked in trying to make sense of what actually happened.

    One such fact is that the Empire and its main attack dogs have been murdering innocent and defenceless Muslims in industrial quantities for decades – something which quite understandably has driven many otherwise peace-loving Muslims to become extremists. Another hard fact is that the Empire and its main attack dogs have been arming and training Muslim extremists for many years – for at least as far back as the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. This is an ancient trick of empire, called “divide and rule”, and allows empires to either control hostile territory without using too many of their own forces to do so; or, if resistance to occupation is too strong (as has recently been the case in Syria where this technique was employed), the resulting mayhem makes it very difficult for others to control and profit from the area, or for people to lead normal lives there. It’s a highly effective tool of empire, which is, of course, why it’s been used for thousands of years.

    The horrific tragedy that played out in France over the last few days cannot be condemned too strongly, but reaction to it must be carefully balanced with the far greater tragedy that has been played out for many centuries, and continues to be played out daily with no apparent end in sight: the on going tragedy of empire-building.

    • Julian Charlie Clovelley

      With respect Mr Ahmad, and hopefully speaking with a little of the wisdom one can gain with age, your last paragraph seems to contain the same justification I have heard for the use of extremist violence in all of the vicious acts of terrorism, and on any scale, including international,that have dominated my lifetime – that the misery and destruction they cause must be seen in the context of some prior offence

      You are an intelligent man – already wise enough to discuss rather than pick up a weapon, often for the lack of one. I put it to you that your last paragraph unintentionally validates the core ideology of terrorism, that its behaviour is excused by the entirely imaginary, “essential”, of carrying out revenge action

      My reaction to the present murders is balanced by an equal disgust for the firing of rockets at civilian centres, the bombing, especially in an act of suicide, of innocent people including children, and the use of extreme military force in civilian suburbs and areas. I don’t care who the perpetrator is – it is wrong, wrong ,wrong.

      Why is it the carriers of ancient religions that are the slowest to learn this most basic moral value? Do you really need the secular to tell you that the saddest tear in all this would not be the one imagined in the eye of anyone’s respected prophet, but the one imagined in the eye of G-d himself?

      The past is to be mourned, not avenged. The true horror is the combination of all our histories and more besides – not the rise to political and territorial dominance of just one version. The future is the untainted gift we can shape and share – but first we must learn to mourn as one

      Peace be with you

  • J.Wise

    A. Breivic was NOT a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.
    He was an militant atheist, as his writings and testimony shewed. He hated all religion, except the faith of atheistic evolution. Get you facts straight, please.

    • Kathleen

      Thank you for this comment.

  • art

    As goebbels said repeat the big lie often enough and loud enough and people will believe. This cowering and grovelling before the jihadists proves that violence and terror work. They are empowered also because they know that Jews will not riot and kill

  • EthanP

    I would note that the mentioned killer in Norway (I refuse to name these scum)did not target Muslims. He targeted children of fellow Norwegians whose politics he didn’t like. Typical lefty moral equivalence.