Blaming the Victim: Theo van Gogh, Charlie Hebdo, the Media and End of Free Speech
As I write, on November 2, 2020, it is 16 years to the day since Dutch-Moroccan jihadist Mohammed Bouyeri, dressed in a djellaba and carrying a knife, a machete, and a gun, shot and stabbed filmmaker-writer Theo van Gogh to death on the sun-filled streets of Amsterdam.
Less than a year later, Flemming Rose, an editor at the Danish Jyllands-Posten, received death threats from Muslim radicals in his own country for publishing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, while Muslims worldwide called for a boycott of Danish products, burned the Danish embassy in Damascus, and rioted across the globe.
And then in 2015, after satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo republished a selection of those same cartoons, a group of Muslim terrorists raided its Paris office, killing 12 illustrators and editors, and wounding 11 more.
The reason: Van Gogh, the Jyllands Posten, and Charlie Hebdo had all allegedly insulted Islam, and had mocked — dishonored, even — the prophet Mohammed. They deserved to die.
Now here we are again.
It began in late September, when an 18-year-old Pakistani man wielding a knife stabbed two people outside the former offices of Charlie Hebdo. The attack occurred as the trial for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo accomplices was beginning, and soon after Charlie Hebdo‘s new editors republished the cartoons — a timing officials believe was no coincidence.
The incident raised again the long-unresolved debate in France — and elsewhere in the West — over free speech, blasphemy, and censorship, and whether “blasphemous” speech should be permissible, even where free speech is enshrined into the law, as it is in the United States. France, like other European countries, does ban some forms of speech it deems “hate speech,” like Holocaust denial, where America does not.
For at least one teacher in a Paris suburb, the incident made for an important lesson. Challenging his students to debate the question of free expression, Samuel Paty shared one of the Mohammed cartoons with his students, creating an uproar within the school and among the parents of many Muslim students. The fury spread.
Just days later, 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Chechen immigrant who didn’t even attend the school, slit Paty’s throat and decapitated him, as he walked along a shaded street.
French officials immediately spoke out to honor the teacher and to denounce what President Emmanuel Macron called “an attempt to strike down the republic.”
But the Muslim world took a different approach.
Turkey and Qatar, for instance, demanded that Macron apologize for his defense of the cartoons, and instituted a boycott on French goods. French and other European Muslims staged protests, denouncing not only France and its secularism, but Macron himself — a popular target among European Muslims for his introduction of laws meant to combat radicalization in the Muslim community, and his defiant insistence on protecting the country from Islamism, the political and radical strain of Islam.
And still it didn’t stop. On October 29, a man crying out “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) beheaded a woman at prayer in a church in Nice before stabbing several others and killing two. Since then, six people have been taken into custody in connection with the attack — suggesting that this was not a “lone wolf” incident, but possibly the work of an Islamist terror cell.
Yet Muslim leaders have continued to blame France, attacking the country for its “provocation,” the way a domestic abuser might tell his bruised and battered wife, “look at what you made me do!”
And it hasn’t only been the Muslim world. In a shocking reversal of its stance after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the killing of Theo van Gogh, some in the West are questioning France. Editorials and cagily-penned articles in publications from The New York Times and Washington Post to the Associated Press, for instance, suggest — and at times even state outright — that Macron may have taken too harsh a stance, and that France’s constitutional secularism is too extreme, unsuited to a France where, while non-Muslims remain largely secular, a growing Muslim population is deeply wedded to the practice of its religion.
Moreover, these articles argue, it may be time for all the West to rethink its commitments to free speech and secularism in a new, multicultural era. “The hardening of France’s defense of the images has also set it apart even from the United States and other Western democracies that, faced with increasingly diverse societies, have become more cautious about speech that could be considered offensive, especially to racial, ethnic, religious or other minorities,” New York Times correspondent Norimitsu Onishi wrote on October 30. The article, which expressed concern that defense of the cartoons was “alienating” Muslims in France, further quoted far-left politician Clémentine Autain: “Some politicians are using laïcité as a way to ostracize all Muslims. … My concern is that, by doing this, a number of Muslims are being sent back into the arms of radicals.”
Others, like Washington Post correspondent James McAuley, maintain that the radicalization of French Muslims is the fault of French Islamophobia, and the alleged “alienation” felt by many inner-city Muslims. “The truth,” writes McAuley, “is that the counter-society has as much to do with France as with Islam.”
This is patent nonsense. It is also a slap in the face of Enlightenment values, of democracy, of the principles the media itself: the freedom of expression, and the integral role of free expression in the very foundations of a civilized society.
And freedom of speech is what this is really about. For all the talk about France’s “unique” commitment to secularism (a commitment that, it’s worth noting, was passionately echoed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic), secularism isn’t the issue here. What Muslim extremists are reacting to is not a matter of a right to practice their religion, or the removal of religious symbols from the public arena. Their fury is based on a deeply felt sense of dishonor, the belief — legitimate or not — that their prophet is being humiliated. And humiliation, for honor cultures such as those of fundamentalist Islam, demands violent retaliation. As I noted in my latest book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism: “in Arabic, the word for ‘shame,’ fadiha, [implies] not just ‘dishonor’ and ‘disgrace,’ but ‘outrage.'” And outrage is the match that strikes the fires of violence and murder.
But “dishonor” cannot be allowed to legitimize violence. If it were, the disgruntled employee who has just been fired should have every right to shoot his former boss, the jilted fiancé the right to burn his beloved’s face with acid. And yet, while Muslim extremists slice the throats of men and women at prayer, the Times and others busy themselves with accusations that the French have failed to integrate their Muslim population — which is to say, it is not the fault of the attackers. It is the fault of the French people. Worse, France not only “had it coming,” but their treatment of Muslims is on par, somehow, with Muslim extremists’ treatment of them.
We know these stories. If only the boy had been silent while his father was reading, he would have been spared the whipping with a belt. If only the young woman had agreed to marry her suitor, he never would have disfigured her. If Theo van Gogh had kept from speaking out against the abuse of Muslim women, he would still be alive today.
It is an argument verging on the obscene. As Brendan O’Neill so astutely noted in Spiked, “This is as morally degenerate as it would be to say that the Muslims massacred in Christchurch by the racist terrorist Brenton Tarrant brought it upon themselves by attending mosque — don’t they know that’s offensive to white-nationalist extremists?” Equally, this argument would say it was the fault of the 69 children of liberal Norwegians whose parents weren’t racist that on July 22, 2011, white supremacist Anders Breivik bloodied the island of Utoya with their bodies.
To accept any of these events as just, as true, is to adopt the values and the behaviors of extremism. And it has no place in civilized society, or in a post-Enlightenment Western world — a fact that even some Muslim rulers have confirmed. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs, recently sided with Macron in the French president’s clash with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the Mohammed cartoons.
“With his attacks on France, Erdogan manipulates a religious issue for political purposes,” a courageous Gargash told German newspaper Die Welt. “You should listen to what Macron really said in his speech: he doesn’t want the ghettoisation of Muslims in the west, and he is absolutely right.”
And Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan categorically rejected using “hate speech” as a justification for violence or terrorism, according to Gulf News.
That these men understand what some Western leaders seem not to recognize is at once heartening and disturbing — heartening to see leaders in the Arab world condemn the terrorists, and not the victims, but disturbing that more Westerners fail to understand why this response matters. In a tribute to Van Gogh written after his murder, then-Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali recalled his words even as he faced the threats against him: “As soon as such considerations dissuade you from expressing your opinion, isn’t that the end of free speech?”
Yes. Yes, it is.
Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. She is the author of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010). Her next book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books in October, 2020. Follow her at @radicalstates.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.