Charlie Hebdo and the Erosion of the Liberal Left

Many news outlets chose to censor or not show Charlie Hebedo covers in the wake of the January 7th attack, as is the case with the example above.

Since the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo that resulted in the brutal murder of twelve people, one thing is certain: attacks of this kind are almost guaranteed to continue. For those who seek to impose their worldview onto others, nothing is as effective as violence, and while their religious imagery may be sacrosanct, the lives of those they oppose are readily dispensable.

We can also be certain that due to this attack, bigotry against Muslims, or those appearing to be Muslims, will escalate. So long as Islamic fundamentalists continue to gain followers and commit violent crimes with increasing frequency, so will peaceful Muslims bear the brunt of Western rage.

Within hours of the shooting, articles went up expressing solidarity with the newspaper, and the handle #JeSuisCharlie went viral. The immediate show of support for the newspaper and the cartoonists was heartening and in sharp contrast to the response to the fatwa that called for the death of Salman Rushdie when he published his novel The Satanic Verses almost twenty-six years ago. Rushdie was slammed by the media as well as the British intellectual class for “provoking” the hostilities against him. Members of Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a former U.S. president, and even the Vatican condemned him for his writings. It was nothing short of a betrayal of free speech and liberal values, by those who called themselves liberals.

Since then, the violence has continued and now occurs with an alarming frequency. Despite the early show of support, condemnations of Charlie Hebdo began within days. Many prominent left-wing writers went out of their way to insist that while of course freedom of expression is important, we have to acknowledge that many cartoons published by the paper were problematic, or even downright racist. They wrote to make clear that while they stand with Charlie, they are not Charlie, nor will they ever be. They made clear that if they were the editors or cartoonists, they would never have chosen to create or publish such offensive images.

Let us be clear: the content of the speech is irrelevant to this debate, as is the level of offense it instigates.

It is the most obscene, vitriolic, oppositional speech that needs our protection and safeguarding—the most contested speech is often that which flies in the face of societal standards for acceptable behavior. The fact that your average journalist/opinion-maker who upholds free speech doesn’t always agree with the content of the speech they defend isn’t even worth mentioning, since it isn’t at all surprising. We cannot shake off the feeling that the insistence isn’t meant to simply clarify but to put as much distance as possible between themselves and those who have courted the offense of Islamists.

It is understandable why they would want to do so, however. In the past, we have defended the right of Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher to speak, and we have been accused by their detractors (Muslims and liberals alike) of supporting every position they hold and labeled “bigots” by association. The very fact that it is necessary to clarify that you do not agree with the content of the speech when defending the free speech rights of others is indicative of a rot deep within the heart of the Western left.

Unsurprisingly, religious leaders seem to feel this is a good time to call for censorship of certain kinds of speech—speech deemed “irresponsible” or “hateful.” It seems that they are happy to have Muslims make their point for them: that there is such a thing as speech that goes “too far,” that those who provoke by speech are only paid their due when they are attacked, and it is our responsibility as a society to curb the violence as well as the speech to the fullest extent possible.

It is surprising, however, that while there are cartoonists around the world, including the Middle East, who have expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, some Western writers (on varying sides of the political spectrum) have also chosen to blame the victim instead. Worse still, there is a disturbing tendency on the Left to paint the attack as a cowardly but understandable response to oppression and persecution of Muslim people by the West, a claim often repeated by Muslim apologists. Not only is this view narrow in scope (extremist, literalist versions of Islam have a history as old as the religion itself, waxing and waning in the Middle East long before Western intervention), it also overlooks the violence inflicted on hundreds of thousands of people in Muslim-majority countries by the same extremists for much the same reasons stretching back a millenia into the past.

The people who attempt to justify this violence are those we should be afraid of, as much as we are of any religious fanatic. These are the people who do not understand what a world without freedom of expression looks like and how that freedom is the bedrock of all other civil liberties. These are people with short memories of the horrors of the Inquisition and do not remember the damaging effect the ascendancy of dogma over freethought has had on all areas of human progress.

In many Muslim-majority countries, a massacre of this kind for reasons of religious offense would be newsworthy only because of the surprisingly long amount of time the cartoonists lived since the publication of their pictures. Islamic fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon in the West, but it is not new to the East. It is noteworthy only in that for the first time Islamists are daring to treat citizens of Western countries in much the same way as they would treat the citizens of countries in which they hold real power.

It is not racist to demand that Muslims in the West, like their fellow countrymen, respect the laws and traditions of the land, and encourage other Muslims to do the same. It is racist to presume, however, that Muslims are fundamentally incapable of adopting liberalism along with their faith.* Christians and Jews have managed to do so to a remarkable degree, even while their scriptures incite violence and their past remains bloody. Indeed, there are progressive voices originating from within the Muslim world, such as the Quilliam Foundation’s Maajid Nawaz, author Irshad Manji, and social activist Pervez Hoodbhoy, and we must stand shoulder to shoulder with those looking to bring positive change.

We must also recognize that these shootings are ultimately not about Islam vs. the West, as the political Right would have you believe, nor are they about extremists vs. the rest of us, as many on the political Left cast the issue. This is about liberal tolerance vs. authoritarian censorship, and in that sense, it’s a fight freethinkers have fought before.

*Authors’ clarification (1/16/15): We do not believe Islam is a race, nor do we think criticism of the religion is racist. Islam, as an ideology, can be toxic and resistant to change—but that does not mean Muslims need to be. The point we were trying to make was that there are those who believe that Muslims, as a “people,” are somehow inherently incapable of reform or adopting liberalism, and not only do we wholeheartedly disagree with that, we also believe it to be motivated more strongly by racist/bigoted attitudes than anything else. Human beings throughout history have believed in some horrible ideas, but a history of belief in something horrible does not preclude a future which abandons it.