"Charlie Hebdo", "Muslims", and how to defend freedom of expression

Author: 
Yves Coleman

Yves Coleman is a French socialist activist, involved in publishing the journal Ni patrie, ni frontières.


"If you insult Muhammad, it is as if you insult my own mother." (An auditor, during a debate on Radio Tropic FM, September 20, 2012.)

It all began with excerpts from a stupid video posted on the Net. Then a French satirical weekly, “Charlie Hebdo”, intervened in the game. This weekly publication has always been characterized by its bad taste, rude machismo supposed to be funny and popular, and its cheap anti-racism. This typical French form of pseudo anti-racism has a peculiarity: it conveys all racist or anti-Semitic clichés under the pretext of attacking... racism. This position makes ist “humor” often perfectly acceptable to extreme right people. One example is the cover of the latest “Charlie Hebdo”: it shows a Jew with a traditional hat pushing a wheelchair in which sits a Muslim (or Muhammad?), with the subtitle "Untouchables" – which is also the title of a French film which won great popular success and was supposedly anti-racist. A first-degree understanding of this cartoon encourages the reader to think that Jews and Muslims are exempt from criticism in France, which obviously implies that:
- that Catholics (culturally dominant in France) are much more tolerant than the supporters of the other two religions of the Book
- French Jews, even if they are a small minority, form a powerful "lobby" (a thought which was also expressed by the Tropic FM “muslim” listener quoted before)
- And finally, that "Muslims" have installed a reign of terror in France through their intellectual terrorism, their physical threats or even attacks.

In fact, “Charlie Hebdo” has only jumped on the opportunity given by “The innocence of Muslims” to reinforce the "critical" current which tends to present ALL Muslims as fanatics or terrorists.

Fifteen years ago, the newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” was considered by the anti-globalization left, as a rare example of the "free press" (according to Serge Halimi, director of the Left anti-globalization monthly “Le Monde diplomatique”). When this weekly came under the leadership of a former stand-up comedian and playwriter (Philippe Val), who became a vulgar court philosopher close to Sarkozy, of course radicals and left-wing people found that publication was no more trendy. And especially because a feminist reformist, Caroline Fourest, started writing in “Charlie Hebdo”, criticizing all religions, all fundamentalisms, including Islamic fundamentalism and therefore criticizing Tariq Ramadan, an anti-globalization and extreme left icon for a while. Anti-Semitic “jokes” made by the cartoonist Sine (who had a long experience in anti-semitic remarks) allowed a false debate to take place between Sine supporters (supposed to be Left and Far Left minded) and Philippe Val supporters or “Charlie Hebdo” readers, supposed to be all sarkozysts and "Islamophobes". The terms of the debate were faked because none of the two camps really opposed BOTH anti-Semitism (including in its reactionary form of antizionism) and anti-Arab racism, even when it was concealed under a criticism of Islam. Finally, Sine was sacked of “Charlie Hebdo” and created his own satirical monthly, Val was appointed to manage a public radio, where he soon distinguished himself by firing an two antisarkozyst stand-up comedians (Didier Porte and Stephane Guillon), and “Charlie Hebdo” continued its muddy-funny comments on all kinds of subjects.

It is obvious that the new issue of “Charlie Hebdo” devoted to caricatures of Muhammad or of Muslims (the previous issue provoked the fire of its headquarters, the protection of the police and several trials for “islamophobia”) had only one main objective: to create the buzz in order to sell more copies of this weekly, taking advantage of the atmosphere created by the reactions to “The innocence of Muslims”. "Freedom of speech" had nothing to do with this provocation.

In addition, we kwow that, during the recent years, in France as well as in Europe, the extreme right hides its fascist and racist ideas under the banner of the freedom of expression, critique of the "dictatorship of political correctness", the "right-thinking", etc. So we must be conscious that freedom of expression often becomes an often adulterated commodity in certain hands.

At the same time, a tiny number of Muslims have fallen into the trap: they wanted to organize demonstrations, all banned by the socialist government.

For its part, Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the National Front, took the opportunity to claim a ban on hijabs and yarmulkes on the streets.

In short, a new false debate was launched by the media, amplified by radio and community media, where we were required to take stands: either on the side of all "Muslims", whatever their orientation was (Muslims whose religious representatives called to ignore the provocation and not to demonstrate) or “Charlie Hebdo” side supposed to be the main spokesman of the Islamophobic Left.

Yet there is a plethora of more important matters today than discussing the opportunity to publish cartoons of a prophet-warrior who died 15 centuries ago. The wave of layoffs, rising unemployment, lack of teachers in schools, repression against undocumented people, policing of all those who receive welfare, increase of productivity and of accidents, increase of suicides related to the deterioration of working conditions, harassment organized by foremen and bosses, etc.., all these topics deserve hundreds of articles, dozens of radio and TV programms, and thousands of discussions.

But the media prefer to organize false debates with their auditors or with confused Islamophile or Islamophobic intellectuals, almost never inviting atheists or rationalists to express their views, to discuss the only topic of interest for them: freedom of expression.

The opinion expressed by the listener whose quote begins this article, and many other views expressed on the Net, are perfect examples of the current ideological confusion.
Personal insults against individuals are dealt within the frame of bourgeois justice. People who are insulted can complain if they feel defamed. And there is an entire legal arsenal for this purpose. No need to add more to these laws.

You can also use a quick solution, as seemed to suggest the quoted listener (i.e., to smash the face of the person who insulted your mother or religion) but is this really the best solution?

Finally, one can imagine how it could work in another society, where in the neighborhoods, in the schools, or companies, general assemblies, committees of residents or workers would meet to resolve such disputes without going by judges and lawyers ... But this would imply that participants agree to settle their dispute by accepting a collective, non-violent solution.

Freedom of expression, contrary to what the Tropic FM listener believes, has nothing to do with a trivial personal insult. Freedom of expression depends on a fragile collection of collective rights that regulate all media, from a simple leaflet to a TV progamm, newspaper or book, but also the right to protest and organize . Collective rights which have been imposed by decades of struggle, including worker struggles.

This freedom of expression is reduced to a minimum in the Western world, not because of some protests made by fundamentalist Muslims or some Islamist attacks, but because of the mighty power of capitalists. The banking, finance and industry magnates who control the media rarely encourage freedom of expression. And ther words of workers, unemployed and exploited are almost never heard, or filtered by journalists who carefully respect the interests of their masters.

The situation is also not so much better in the so-called left parties or large unions.
It is well known how the French Communist Party defamed, denounced to the cops and bosses, punched or sent to the hospital hundreds of Trotskyist and anarchist activists for decades. When it did not murder them, as it happened under the German Occupation, under Stalinism in the Eastern bloc, or during the Spanish Civil War.

We know that the French Socialist Party gives power and freedom of speech only to individuals coming from the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie, as reflected in the media which are linked to this party, in the social composition of its MPs, Senators and Ministers, in its current implementation of austerity, in its anti-immigrant policies carried out under the previous government, its support to the police forces, French armed interventions abroad, etc.

We know that the unions muzzle speech and freedom of action of workers hostile to their bureaucracies, when they do not exclude them, plain and simple.

We also know how the small pseudo left-wing and anti-imperialist group called “The Indigenous of the Republic” with the help of some intellectuals (Said Bouamama and Pierre Tevanian) recently prevented Caroline Fourest, a secular, antiracist and reformist feminist to talk and criticize the National Front at the Communist Party “fête”, on September 16, 2012, all that in the name of anti-fascism ... and fight against Islamophobia. (To check the falsity of these two lies, one only needs to read Fourest’s book against Marine Le Pen or the one where she interviews Taslima Nasreen and have a much more moderate view than Nasreen !).

So let us be wary, too, about left or extreme left groups who want, in the labor movement, trade unions, or in the street, to impose their ideas with clubs or fists whenever it suits them. Or those who claim to defend freedom of expression, but are unable to practice it in their own unions and political organizations and their publications.

About the cartoons published in “Charlie Hebdo”, some "Muslims" wanted to have both the right to express their indignation in the street against the newspaper and also to protest against “The innocence of Muslims”. The French government has banned several demonstrations, and the few which have been organized have been spectacular failures (from one to 150 protesters, according to the cities), showing that the vast majority of "Muslims" did not fall into the trap, even if they were offended by the collective guilt they permanently suffer.

As a supporter of freedom of expression, I do not see why I should support any ban by the French State. These demonstrations should be allowed to proceed without being banned by the state, whatever one thinks of their dubious or reactionary political or religious content. And activists should also have the right to protest against these demonstrations (it is symptomatic that the only “Muslim” demonstrator sentenced to prison after the September 15 demonstration has explained he wore a telescopic club to defend himself against... Jews. A typical example of the delirious anti-Semitism inspired both by Koranic anti-Judaism, fascist anti-Semitism and extreme right anti-Zionism.).
As a rationalist atheist, I do not see why I should support those who want to introduce in France a law against blasphemy, or limit the freedom of expression with regard to the criticism all religions, including Islam.

We know that both the Organization of the Islamic Conference (which includes 57 states), the United States and the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations want France to adopt new laws against blasphemy. We know that French government is regularly criticized as “antireligious”, "Islamophobic", because of the laws against the headscarf or niqab, and that they pretend that the Church of Scientology is persecuted in France.

The French state uses secularism when it suits its interests for domestic policy issues ; it finances Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim cults, in several French departments ; it maintains Catholic churches, and its finances (religious) private instruction throughout the country. We have no reason to support the French government but we must also oppose all those who would like to impose laws restricting criticism of religions, supposedly because it offends believers, God or the prophets.

Similarly, without supporting a newspaper like “Charlie Hebdo” who is only seeking publicity at any price, I see no reason to support those who want to destroy its headquarters, or physically threaten its comics designers or journalists, or want them to be condemned by the bourgeois justice because of their bad taste blasphemies.

As an atheist, I can only oppose any law against blasphemy, any restriction to the criticism of religions, if a government, left or right, wants to impose them in France.
Meanwhile, we should also denounce anyone, including in the Left, who is critical of one religion (Islam) while remaining silent or very secretive about other religions, so he can present as progressive his anti-Arab racism, or his support to French, European or American interventions in Africa, Libya or Afghanistan.

We must denounce Iran’s trial to recover the initiative it lost since, in Tunisia and Egypt, dictators were overthrown by the people, or are highly contested. Iran where a religious foundation linked to the regime immediately took advantage of the “The innocence of Muslims” to increase the premium to murder Salman Rushdie.

We must denounce the National Frront attempt to participate to this debate in order to stir up hatred against the Arabs, whether Muslim or not, and against Jews, two elements of the National Front political patrimony.

Finally, we must denounce the obvious diversion organised by all media about these non-events. Several facist groups (including l’Oeuvre française et les Jeunesses nationalistes) organize a "ride" to Paris with buses and a "nationalist rally" on 29 September 2012, but the media have not shown any interest for this demo. Yet the themes of the meeting of 28th and demo of the 29th should alert all those socalled advocates of freedom of expression "General mobilization of all the French patriots and nationalists. After the French natives revolt in Lyon, let’s participate to the French march on the capital! Against lawless areas, against the government’s anti-national policy, against anti-white racism: We want to be masters in our fatherland! Against immigration-invasion governments hirelings, against the violation of our interests by US-Zionist and euro-globalist forces, against foreign preference: let’s struggle to give France back to the French and become masters in our homeland! " This disgusting prose is a significant example of the xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and fascistic form of anti-Zionism which flourish on the internet at every minute.

National, cultural and religious identities are being promoted by States, churches and all sorts of fascist and populist demagogues. It’s not because "Muslim" workers are particularly exposed to a vicious hateful propaganda, that they should lose their independence of mind, and critical thinking. They have a choice: either they support their exploiters and their demagogic leaders who claim to share the same faith, or they unmask all the political uses of their beliefs.

As regards atheists and non-believers, we must also stand against all left or right, populist or fascist currents who claim the heritage of the Enlightenment or human rights to better hide their reactionary or obscurantist projects!

1. The term "Muslim" is put in quotation marks in this article, because journalists, demographers, sociologists and many radical, left-wing or anti-globalization activists generally stick the religious label of Muslim on the front of all those who come from countries where Islam is the state religion, or whose families are practicing islam, or simply those whose names sound "Arab", as if there were no atheists among these so-called "Muslims" ...

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A Rational Approach

This is the sort of rational analysis that I personally appreciate and try to emulate. It marks out an approach that can be adopted and used in the real world.

Good Stuff.

John Davidson