Am I a right Charlie? Or a real Ahmed?

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Four million Frenchmen and women marched through the streets of France last weekend to protest against the murders at Charlie Hebdo. It was a devastating event, evil in the purest sense of the word – the cold-blooded murder of a bunch of mostly elderly cartoonists at an editorial meeting. It has brought France together – or so it seemed by Sunday evening – in a huge demonstration of national unity, an affirmation of ‘French values’ and an effusive demonstration in fervent support of absolute press freedom. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormous outpouring of emotion from almost all quarters of the nation for ‘liberty’ and for France.

But there’s a flicker of doubt in the back of my mind, even as I think about this tricky business of freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are (and we need to be quite honest about this) a sludge of potty-minded schoolboy squibs, insults levelled with a snigger against anyone in authority, any faith, any institution. If you like gratuitous insults, florid copulation, foul language and savage mockery of anything you may think serious or feel sacred, then Charlie Hebdo’s graphics are your thing. If you don’t, or indeed if you like your jokes funny, they really aren’t; and while this week’s 3,000,000 copies will no doubt sell like hot cakes, they are unlikely to find much actual readership beyond eleven-year old boys with some growing-up still to do. (Though as we are constantly reminded, savage scatological lampooning is a French Revolutionary Tradition, and therefore in some sense a Good Thing that may be enjoyed today by adult eleven year-olds, too).

So Charlie Hebdo and the awful, savage slaughter of its editorial team pose the question of press freedom in a very pure form. Are we so strongly committed to the right to publish offensive drivel that we are, as Voltaire allegedly claimed to be, prepared to die for the right to publish it of a magazine that makes Fat Slags look sophisticated? This is a question that relates to the world outside the Charlie Hebdo office as well as to those who worked there, because those who drew for and published the magazine had made a decision on their own behalves and knew the risk that they were taking in repeatedly choosing the Prophet Mohammed as their butt. Others were not consulted.

It ought not – of course – to have been a risk, but they knew quite well that it was, and the Charlie Hebdo office was guarded by armed police in recognition of that fact. The editor, ‘Charb,’ was clear, discussing radical Muslim threats to him and the magazine, saying rather magnificently that he’d rather die standing than spend his life on his knees. “Yet in spite of you, there is one crown I bear away with me … one thing without stain, unspotted from the world in spite of doom mine own … and that is … my white plume,” as Rostand’s Cyrano puts it.

Now that’s his prerogative, and although at the time he was probably being mostly rhetorical, he knew he was genuinely at risk and pressed ebulliently and aggressively on. It is hard not to admire this quixotic sang froid. His death and those of his colleagues are a tragedy; but a tragedy foretold and not, I would wistfully suggest, as much of a tragedy as the death of the young policeman Ahmed Merebet who was shot in cold blood by one of the Kouachi thugs as he responded to the call for help from the Charlie Hebdo office. Charb dared the shadowy terrorists to react to his barbs, to come and get him. Ahmed on the other hand did exactly what Voltaire claimed to be prepared to do, to die for the right of someone else to publish material that he personally must have found nasty at best, and profoundly offensive at worst. And just as the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie gathered record numbers of posts on Twitter, the alternative #JeSuisAhmed assembled many of the more thoughtful. A Muslim French policeman, doing a job of which he was clearly very proud and at which he was very good, placed before the muzzle of an assassin’s assault rifle by the determination of a group of cartoonists to insult the beliefs of his co-religionists.

Freedom of speech and freedom to publish are very slippery concepts, and in no human society are they – or have they ever been – absolutes. Pretending otherwise is dishonest. And exercising a perfectly real ‘right’ with the specific purpose of seriously upsetting people, just because you can, is ethically contemptible. It is no more than bullying – not the satirizing of the strong by the weak that constitutes France’s, and England’s prouder traditions. If you know too that the people you are upsetting are liable to retaliate violently, your choice to publish has consequences for other people that are very hard to justify. Publishing and brandishing the cartoons in support of the dead cartoonists is quite understandable, a show of defiance, but it too has consequences: it may be a small thing, but the refusal of the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Salaheddin Mezouar, to march in Paris was because, despite his sympathy and support, he could not march beneath cartoons lampooning the Prophet. Now we hear that there will be a cartoon of the Prophet on the cover of three million Charlies this week: this seems gratuitously to risk alienating ordinary, civic Muslims in another act of – this time state-sponsored – bullying.

It is tempting to echo the splendidly defiant and unambiguous words of the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, addressed to the terrorists in France: “It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom,” he said. “But if you do not like freedom, in Heaven’s name pack your bag and leave … There may be a place in the world where you can be yourself. Be honest with yourself and do not go and kill innocent journalists. And if you do not like it here because humourists you do not like make a newspaper, may I then say you can fuck off.”

Tempting, but wrong, because wannabe terrorists will not take the blindest bit of notice, and those involved this week have already packed their bags and left – for Paradise and Raqqa. As for the rest of the Muslim population of Europe, they probably do not want – or need – such stark binary choices put to them. Binary choices are the problem, not the solution – there are too many bearded Svengalis putting binary choices from the other side for more to be a good idea. What has happened to nuance, to subtlety? To the pragmatist’s ability to smooth over differences and find mutually acceptable reticences? How can French Muslims be expected to “like freedom” when one of its most vaunted privileges is being abominably rude to them in ways that are carefully calculated to hurt, and to remind them of their relative powerlessness? This kind of graphic bullying works best with the weak and the unpopular, as Charlie Hebdo itself illustrates so clearly: they dish it out to Muslims and claim absolute freedom of expression, but in 2009 Charlie fired a cartoonist called Maurice Sinet for lampooning the Jewish connections of Sarkozy’s less weak, less powerless, son. As our own Private Eye might have said, “Shome mishtake surely? – Ed.”

But freedom of speech is only the superficial battleground here, the epiphenomenon. There is a bigger game being played out, and that is the driving of wedges between ‘France’ and its Muslims, the deliberate cultivation of alienation. It is the game that guerillas and insurrectionists play all over post-colonial world, the same game that Iraq’s jihadis played when they started the systematic targeting of Shi’ites and Shi’ite shrines a decade ago. It is the deliberate provoking of repression, animosity and violence with the aim of polarization and ultimately war, and it is very dangerous. Into this already lethal game Marine Le Pen steps with deliberation when she decries Islam and calls for the restoration of the death penalty. The death penalty, of course, for Muslims – since it is in response to what the right sees very clearly as ‘Muslim’ violence. Pegida, Geert Wilders and even Britain’s own Abu Faraj al-Ukipji in his beery way are all pouring petrol on the same fire.

So France’s enormous outpouring of emotion, shaped by a will to empathy, is certainly very moving, and may perhaps turn out to be important. But it isn’t universal. In the Place de la Republique on Sunday there are reports of groups singing repeatedly the chorus of the Marseillaise which ends “Qu’un sang impur, abreuve nos sillons” (May impure blood run in our furrows), to raucous cheers and equally raucous boos. More importantly, the Front National was not invited to the party, is not part of such consensus as there is, and stands tall and dark in the background like one of Goya’s giants, with more than a quarter of the popular vote in its pocket.

It isn’t a very popular view right now, but I find it hard to escape from the feeling that we are all largely missing the point. Those who value the future of France, Europe and Britain too need to be looking at root causes, not epiphenomena. The Kouachi brothers were orphaned early and brought up in a state orphanage. Amédy Coulibaly was one of seventeen children of poor Senegalese (or perhaps Malian) immigrants, brought up in poverty and soon delinquent and imprisoned. His wife, Hayet Boumedienne, was thrown out of home very young for objecting to her father’s remarriage too soon after her mother’s death, and serially fostered, quickly becoming delinquent herself. All three men were radicalized in prison (where some 70% of all prisoners are thought to be Muslims – thought because the only way of counting them in laique France is to count the halal meal orders): prison appears to be France’s very own factory of jihadists. These are marginal, brutally damaged people – and they have become very evil people under great pressure. They are the lost souls of the bleak concrete suburbs, hopeless, despised and insecure. But their adherence to the ideology of the jihad in all its intellectual and theological poverty is not to do with Islam per se (pace Rupert Murdoch) but with the awful need for a port in a storm, a simple and all-too available explanatory ideology, an undemanding solace and a casuistic justification to underwrite their inchoate passion for revenge. Fanon, in other words, not Ibn Taymiyyah.

Solutions must start with providing altogether different ports in which young men and women, migrants to Europe or children of migrants, can find shelter, and from which they can start new voyages in life. This means different education, different opportunities, different aspirations. The shining example of all this is the same Ahmed Merebet, a child of the 93ième who had worked his way up from the bottom, starting and running a cleaning business before becoming a policeman: he didn’t come from a broken family, as his funeral so poignantly demonstrated. He worked hard, seized opportunities and loved his job. There’s an awful symmetry about the two trajectories that crossed on the pavement of rue Nicolas Appert last week – the successful Muslim Frenchman casually murdered by (as his brother put it) “men pretending to be Muslims.” That’s why je suis Ahmed.

Paul Mason wrote on Monday in the Guardian, “Islamist terror cannot be stopped by the security and intelligence services alone. It has to be fought culturally and economically. But the only cultural response that is going to beat them is one that doesn’t play their game. It has to be based on the core values of European democracies – and this is true whether or not we like the Eurozone or even the EU as institutions. Where to start? Eradicate the slums, remove religious bigots from all educational contact with children and give kids brought up in obscurantist faiths an education that insists the prejudices of their parents may be mistaken. And find the young people jobs.”

Let us fight terrorism culturally and economically. And find the young people jobs.

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8 thoughts on “Am I a right Charlie? Or a real Ahmed?

  1. Thanks Martin for a very considered piece at a time when there is too much rhetoric, too much posturing, too many easy recipes and too many hidden agendas carefully nurtured. Why should someone who has no future care about anyone else’s future…

  2. There have been many of them but this is definitely the best article I’ve read in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings.

  3. Thanks for a very thoughtful piece. Indeed, there is immense work to be done to assure at least a modicum of equality of opportunity for immigrants, and for impoverished people more widely, as Paul Mason suggests.

    And we might all find willful insults, particularly those often as puerile as meted by Charlie Hebdo, painful.

    Yet we must ask who should make accommodation to whose beliefs to what degree. Should France’s sometimes irresponsibly exercised freedom of expression be curbed to satisfy perceived blasphemy against any faith? Or other insults? And who can be willing to allow blasphemy’s boundaries to be defined by adherents to a global caliphate that claims universal [and in this case, murderous] jurisdiction for its highly radical and grossly restrictive views.

    And with one statement I must profoundly disagree. To argue that Ahmed Merebat was “placed before the muzzle of an assassin’s assault rifle by the determination of a group of cartoonists to insult the beliefs of his co-religionists,” is terribly wrong. This is blaming the victims, not the assassins. Merebat was “placed before the muzzle of an assassin’s assault rifle” by no one other than the assassins themselves. One might equally and wrongly state that a policewomen murdered by a rapist she cornered was “placed there by her ‘co-gender’ victim who chose to wear a short skirt.”

    Blasphemy… immodesty… the question of “accommodation” is vexing. The Mayor of Rotterdam might have been rather blunt in his Dutch way, but he did cut to a heart of the problem: whose values will prevail? In Holland, centuries ago, another groups of religious extremists, the Anabaptists, were viciously suppressed after visiting bloody mayhem on Amsterdam’s streets. The only thing the burghers of Amsterdam could not tolerate, it is said, was intolerance…

    1. Of course all that you say is perfectly reasonable (and thank you for kind words). But I think there is a very important ethical decision that takes one from the right to do something to doing it. We need always to think of the consequences of actions – and in this case what I said was not that Charlie Hebdo killed the policeman (clearly the gunman did that) but that Charlie Hebdo put him at the gun’s muzzle. This in my view they clearly did by their decision, regardless of the consequences for themselves (fair enough) and others (ethically much more questionable), to mock the beliefs of Muslims. Of course the blame belongs to the killers. But irresponsible excercise of a right for its own sake is highly questionable. I find the thin-skinned and often carefully cultivated over-sensitivity of Muslims regrettable and often ridiculous. But it’s there, and it’s an inescapable element in the background to difficult decisions that have to be made. It shouldn’t have to be, but it is – and the French (in this case) have to learn how to digest the consequences of their own history, which doesn’t always simplify!

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful response, with which I largely concur. Exercising the outer limits of our rights is neither always necessary nor prudent… nor, most simply, perhaps, kind. To do so to be merely provocative might indeed be unethical in many situations. Yet there is a key dilemma that must be plainly addressed: if no mockery of Islamic beliefs or Christian beliefs or Hindu beliefs, et.al., is tolerated, what will be permitted? There are Christian fundamentalists in the USA who still seek a ban of the teachings of the good Mr Darwin. This is not to oversimplify, I hope; but I do wish to be able to call ridiculous what others might hold sublime. Or not. It is fine for [we] reasonable people to draw our own moral and ethical boundaries that encourage tolerance, but sectarian [and other] zealots are scarce known for constraint in imposing their limits on others. As you say, we must learn to digest the consequences of history; I fear that a diet of increasing self-censorship to placate those willing to visit violence upon those who displease them will prove a bitter pill to many freedoms.

    1. I agree. We should not ever be intimidated into silence. But we need to choose better how we break that silence: puerile and malicious cartoons aren’t good enough. Let’s defend and support intelligent criticism – the financial guarantees given by the French government to underwrite CH’s future are a terrible precedent, associating France with – as I say – bullying and crude malice. For sure Muslims need to toughen up, though never underestimate the extent to which outrage is artificially fanned. I like, in this context, Rupert Brooke’s comment to the Provost of King’s when reprimanded for playing croquet on a Sunday morning: “Sir, I deplore a faith so weak that it can be disturbed by the click of croquet balls on the walk to chapel.”

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