Remembering Charlie Hebdo (and Defending Offensive Jokes)

The front cover of the Charlie Hebdo edition marking a year since it was attacked by Islamic terrorists was criticised by the Vatican – because it offends all faiths.
Two years ago, two gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine known for unashamedly lampooning religions, politicians, and famous figures, and demanded, “Where is Charb? Where is Charb?” referring to Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor-in-chief.

By Malhar Mali | Church and State

After spotting the bespectacled man, they opened fire — killing the 12 cartoonists, writers, and editors in the meeting and leaving an additional policeman dead outside. The cause for the attack? Charlie Hebdo had a history of publishing cartoons of the Islamic Prophet, Mohammad, even incurring a firebombing in 2011 for their depictions of the Muslim holy figure. Grainy video footage later emerged of one of the attackers shouting: “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have killed Charlie Hebdo.”

In the following days, condemnation for the massacre and support for Charlie Hebdo poured out from all parts of the Western world, including a 3.7 million person march in support of free speech which featured the likes of David Cameron, Benjamin Netanyahu, Angela Merkel, and Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. #JeSuisCharlie trended on Twitter.

But then came the opposition: mainly stating that this wasn’t a free-speech issue — and while the murders were horrific, we should not celebrate such a racist magazine.

Mehdi Hassan complained in an article for The New Statesman that free speech fundamentalists showed hypocrisy and that “None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech,” and then went onto ask, “Has your publication, for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No? How about caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the twin towers? I didn’t think so (and I am glad it hasn’t).” I can’t be sure if Hassan understands what a false equivalency is, but is he comparing the caricaturing of Mohammed with satirizing the slaughter of 5–6 million people? Or an orchestrated terrorist attack? Cartoons, which, in my opinion would have been fine to draw (I’ll address the point about offense later).

Glenn Greenwald apparently did not see this distinction either and lectured his audience at The Intercept about how free speech should not be used as a guise to share “racist cartoons.” Greenwald continuously conflated criticism of Islam with bigotry towards Muslims. He deflected the conversation to Jews and Judaism and republished cartoons criticizing Jews, writing:

“Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. If forced, they can point to rare and isolated cases where they uttered some criticism of Judaism or Jews, but the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews.”

I know Greenwald’s piece is two years old, but it’s astounding that he could not see that the majority of the terrorist attacks in the world come from the adherents of a particular religion and that criticism should be appropriately rationed in response. If Greenwald wants to publish cartoons mocking Jews and Israel — fine with me. It’s his right.

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