Charlie Hebdo and western liberalism

Islam has been unfairly criticised and ridiculed in the west for centuries.

People gather to mourn for the victims near the French embassy in Berlin [Reuters]

Another horrific tragedy has struck a western capital in the violent murder of French journalists and cartoonists at a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The culprits appear to have done so in response to the magazine’s publication of cartoons deemed offensive to Muslims, though they were also thought to have been radicalised by the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

French society – and indeed, the global reaction – has been united in its condemnation of the attack and French authorities mobilised the full strength of the state’s law enforcement agencies to track down the assailants, who were killed after a standoff with police on Friday.

As with most incidents of violence involving Muslims, however, the ensuing public discussion has revolved largely around resolute vows to uphold a fundamental value of western civilisation – the freedom of expression – and degenerated into recriminations about Islam’s purported assault on that very freedom. As a result, the natural expressions of grief and sympathy on behalf of the victims have taken on the added quality of high-minded liberal support for the content of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, irrespective of the publication’s history of racism towards Muslims and people of colour.

Hegemonic narrative

It is only by uncritically adopting the hegemonic narrative of western liberalism that one could reach the conclusion that the biggest threats to freedom of expression in the world today are Islam and North Korea. To frame these events without accounting for the broader context and power relationships at work inhibits any sensible understanding of the deep conflicts plaguing our world at present.

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By positing western liberal claims to freedom against Islam’s supposedly intolerant attitude towards irreverent or serious critiques of it would be to ignore completely the history underlying the current tensions.

The reality is that for as long as there have been liberal ideals staking their claim to the various freedoms western societies have come to sacralise, there have also been societies suffering from exploitation and subjugation at the hands of those professing these lofty principles.

Even as they were establishing the very foundations of modern liberal societies, from the tenets of freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion to the basis for democratic forms of governance, Enlightenment thinkers were nearly universal in their expression of support for a world built on racial hierarchies and the expansion of new European empires that depended largely on the use of violence to control colonial subjects. That these philosophers developed their racist outlooks towards Jews, Muslims, and blacks on the basis of “reason” and “rationality” makes such views more abhorrent than those derived from pre-modern modes of thought.

Whether it is the racist expressions of Enlightenment philosophers or the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, these provocative views cannot be separated from the broader political projects at work. At the same time that western liberalism gave rise to modern states committed to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, it also saw to the continuation of slavery, the colonisation and subjugation of large segments of Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, and global economic exploitation and environmental degradation.

The indignities of ’empire’

Within Europe, western liberal ideals, whose proponents had never concealed their racist and exclusionary outlooks, could not avert the rise of a fascist movement in the mid-20th century that pursued the extermination of millions of people. Even after the devastation of World War II, European appetites for destruction were seemingly unsatiated, as the next two decades were marked by struggles for independence from European powers by colonised peoples in the global south.

They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.

by - Voltaire, 18th century French philosopher

Faced with the prospect of supporting the freedom of the Algerian people, many French liberal intellectuals instead offered enthusiastic support for the brutal suppression of the Algerian struggle in a war that featured the widespread use of torture and the death of over 150,000 Algerians.

“They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.”

Writing on European Jews, this quote comes not from a propagandist in Nazi Germany, but rather from Voltaire, the 18th century French philosopher whose name has been invoked frequently in recent days as a historic champion of the freedom of expression.

Voltaire’s views on Islam were no more tempered, as he authored an entire play dedicated to mocking its Prophet Muhammad as “the founder of a false and barbarous sect” and “a sublime and hearty charlatan”.

While one can defend the right of satirists, government officials, and philosophers to espouse such beliefs – the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie became a popular means of expressing solidarity with the magazine in the hours after the attack – in the face of this history, it should become clear that in the case of cultural production, context always matters. Destructive policies cannot be pursued successfully without the vocabulary and imagery of racism and hatred of the other.

Pervasive Islamophobia

One cannot attempt to comprehend the actions of mass murderer Anders Breivik or the recent report on the US government’s torture of Muslim prisoners solely against the backdrop of western liberal ideals. However, when one considers the rise of a pervasive Islamophobic atmosphere as seen in prominent discourses across the US and Europe, one can understand the reason such violence becomes possible and, indeed, normalised.

The significance of the question of what can be deemed appropriate speech goes far beyond its propensity to offend Muslim minorities, to its potential to have corrosive effects on the broader society. In the same way that western governments take great care to prevent the spread of ideas and messages they consider culpable for radicalising Muslims (all pretensions about freedom of expression be damned), they should consider the role that anti-Muslim cultural production plays in facilitating their own abuses of human rights, and radicalising their own citizens, as seen in the wave of anti-Muslim terrorism that has witnessed a marked rise in the past decade.

Commenting on the recent string of Islamophobic statements by Bill Maher and Sam Harris, religion scholar Karen Armstrong noted, “this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps”. The current permissibility of dehumanising expressions against Muslims has a legacy in the anti-Semitic tropes of a century earlier. Both stem from the same noxious logic of exclusion.

The current permissibility of dehumanising expressions against Muslims has a legacy in the anti-Semitic tropes of a century earlier. Both stem from the same noxious logic of exclusion.

In fact, western countries have had no qualms about setting aside their liberal values to offer full-fledged support to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that, incidentally, create the repressive climate that has been proven to give rise to militant extremism. Nor have western societies proved unwilling to abandon claims about support for free speech when the question of social cohesion arises.

France banned rallies in solidarity with Gaza during last summer’s war and the state has consistently prosecuted writers, comics, and even cartoonists whose work was deemed to risk “disruption to the social order”. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls commented on the state’s robust record of prosecuting artists saying: “Faced with this creativity of hate, should we do nothing? Certainly not.”

In 2008, Charlie Hebdo fired an artist and writer for a column that the editors found to be anti-Semitic.

At this juncture, western Muslims remain excluded from national dialogues regarding the question of social cohesion. The historical continuity of racial discrimination, coupled with a ramped up pursuit of strategic objectives across a number of Muslim countries during the last two decades have seen to it that an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility has permeated the public sphere in the US and revived the legacy of intolerance in Europe.

To understand and counteract the violent behaviour of extremists, these tragic events should be examined in light of this context, rather than through the lens of free speech. From Voltaire and the Enlightenment to the present, modern western discourses are replete with critiques of Islam.

By contrast, the abhorrent violence by some Muslims is a recent phenomenon, and one that must be confronted by addressing the failure of western liberalism to live up to its stated ideals, not by reflexively continuing to sing its praises.

Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt.