Why the Charlie Hebdo attack goes far beyond religion and free speech

Debates about Islam and free speech only go so far. This was a political blow aimed at multicultural democracy

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 10, 2015 4:30PM (EST)

An injured person is transported to an ambulance after a shooting at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Jan. 7, 2015.                (AP/Thibault Camus)
An injured person is transported to an ambulance after a shooting at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Jan. 7, 2015. (AP/Thibault Camus)

We can blame religion in general, and we can blame Islam. (We can hem and haw around, Bill Maher-style, and say that we’re not blaming absolutely all Muslims but only some of them, perhaps most. Or we can go full Fox News and blame the whole damn religion.) We can blame free speech carried to irresponsible and obnoxious extremes, and we can blame the pantywaist spinelessness of liberalism. We can blame the cultural arrogance, racism and Islamophobia of French society, and we can turn around and blame its overly lax immigration policies, the residue of colonial guilt. But with the two principal suspects in the Charlie Hebdo attack now dead and the relentless cycle of punditry churning onward to third-level meta-analysis, I think we’re in danger of overlooking the obvious, or to use Joan Didion’s memorable phrase about the journalist’s task, failing to observe the observable.

What happened in Paris this week was a political act. Terrorism is always a political act, or nearly always. Its goals lie in the here-and-now or at least the near future, not in the hereafter. Did that guy we’ve all seen in that terrible videotape, shooting that cop in the head on the sidewalk, look as if he believed there was a bevy of virgins waiting for him in Paradise? I don't believe this attack was driven by religious faith on any fundamental level, and to define it as an assault on freedom of speech is far too narrow. Its true target was multicultural democracy in general and the specific version, both more fragile and more successful, found in France in particular.

If anything, this attack testifies to the power the French model still holds, even in an era of sustained political crisis, social conflict and economic stagnation. Amid its evident difficulties, France remains a peaceful, prosperous and culturally vibrant nation with a relatively well integrated and increasingly secular Muslim minority. (As has been widely reported, one of the police officers killed on Wednesday was a Muslim.) That model of democracy -- or perhaps we should say that possibility -- is exactly what came under attack from the Charlie Hebdo gunmen. Their aim was to pry open that model at a tender spot, expose its contradictions and undermine its stability.

Debates about the role of religion in modern society, and the outer limits of free speech, are undeniably seductive. I am liable to get drawn into them at any moment. But when we allow our discussion about a political act, which took place in the familiar context of a Western liberal democracy and whose origins are not especially mysterious, to get sidetracked into grand pronouncements about abstract moral and philosophical categories, we are deliberately clouding the issue and not talking about the things we should be talking about.

For the record, since this has become a point of contention: I personally would not have published the famous Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. I wouldn’t have published a whole bunch of the things Charlie published, which strike me as juvenile and in poor taste. But I’m not the editor of a French satirical weekly whose mission is to jam its thumb into the eye of propriety, and to continually test how far it can go in mocking the sanctimonious and self-important attitudes of others. If anyone gave me that job, I would fire myself immediately. I see no contradiction between personally finding Charlie Hebdo distasteful and saying that the editors and cartoonists who died this week must be remembered as heroes of free speech, and that the attack was a direct attempt to undermine a fragile, frayed and embattled core value of the Enlightenment.

If we’re not going to defend the most obnoxious varieties of free speech from those who would silence it in the most literal sense – and there are plenty of examples more obnoxious than Charlie Hebdo – then we don’t deserve to have free speech at all. We’re all getting used to the enormously altered climate of public discourse in the Internet age, which has given voices and platforms to all sorts of people, and groups of people, who didn’t have them before. It’s the best of times and the worst of times: Social media can rouse righteous anger against powerful people whose bad conduct has been sheltered by their celebrity, and it can also unleash overheated censorious assaults against accused thought-criminals, whether found on the right or the left or at no identifiable juncture. Any mistimed joke, drunken tweet or idiotic offhand remark, if dragged into the public eye, can spark the Cultural Revolution cycle of recrimination, humiliation and abasement.

But let me haul this back to politics, since I am arguing that we must understand the legacy of Charlie Hebdo in terms of the political context we can see and somewhat understand, not as some bogus Samuel Huntington “clash of civilizations,” with its ensuing and endless debate about which side is more evil. Murdering a bunch of people for publishing a magazine is reprehensible, no matter how dumb their content was, and in fairness I have not heard anyone directly say otherwise. But those who suggest that maybe Charlie’s cartoonists went too far, maybe we need to observe some standards of decency and tact, and maybe those Frogs kinda, sorta had it coming are reprehensible too. I have to agree with Jonathan Chait (which hurts, a little) that “liberals” who tiptoe into that zone need to ask themselves what they think they mean by the term and what they actually stand for.

We can have a society where people get to say whatever they want and ask the most difficult and annoying questions – and then take the heat for it, to be sure (in a non-lethal manner). Or we can have a society where certain topics are off limits, viewed as sacrosanct, discussed in polite or reverential terms or not at all. That is the kind of society variously imagined by Islamic fundamentalists, by the smooth-world capitalists of the Financial Times, by the thought-police of left-wing piety or right-wing patriotism, and by Bush administration officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Ari Fleischer, who famously warned that “all Americans … need to watch what they say.” (The target of Fleischer’s 2001 barb, amusingly enough, was Bill Maher, who had observed that whatever you wanted to say about the 9/11 attackers and their deeds, the overused adjective “cowardly” did not fit.)

It would be reductive to say that all those people are on the “same side,” since they have strikingly different visions of the future and incompatible notions of what’s open for debate and what isn’t. But they all agree that an orderly and harmonious human society requires some degree of unfreedom, some submission to authority, whether internal or external, moral or juridical or religious. That’s a truism of political philosophy, to be sure, but the question any form of government faces is how large the zone of unfreedom will become.

Many countries, including most of the Arab and Muslim world, feature glaringly obvious zones of unfreedom, along with insurgent movements devoted to expanding them even further. But we don’t have enormous reasons to feel complacent; in the age of Edward Snowden, the national-security superstate we largely can't see and the corporate campaign to control the Internet, the incessant and invisible metastasis of the unfreedom zone is a central issue in Western society as well.

That leads us toward the true political brilliance of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Whether by design or by circumstance, the gunmen targeted an exposed and highly vulnerable node of democracy, a publication at the outer edges of acceptable public discourse, one that – once we get past the initial shock and the high-minded statements of principle – not everybody is ultimately eager to defend. Charlie Hebdo did not give a crap about a harmonious and orderly society, and didn’t even want one. It refused to submit to any authority, least of all the authority represented by good taste and sober judgment.

After the hashtag solidarity fades and the dead have been buried, the trauma will endure, and the symbolic decapitation of the most outrageous force in French journalism is likely to have the desired chilling effect. There will be more anti-Islamic hostility among the white French majority, more votes for Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front, and quite likely more bitterness and self-isolation among the Muslim community as well. Editors will have second and third thoughts about every cartoon and every provocative opinion piece. Subtly or more than subtly, the zone of unfreedom will be nourished and will grow.

To borrow a venerable Marxist expression employed this week in a brief but important post by Juan Cole, the Charlie attackers sought to “sharpen the contradictions” within Western society, specifically the contradictions between what we claim to believe and how we actually behave. But I’m not claiming that their primary goal was to expose Western hypocrisy on the supposedly cherished principle of freedom of expression; from their point of view, that was most likely a happy but incidental result. Cole observes the most immediately observable factor, I think, in rejecting any suggestion that this attack was fundamentally motivated by religion: “This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims,” in hopes of driving the recruitment efforts of militant groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

This political campaign to polarize French society into warring camps is essentially no different, Cole observes, from the strategy of sectarian violence pursued by ISIS in Iraq. Sunni militants launched an extended series of attacks against Shiite communities and holy sites in hopes of inciting Shiite reprisals, thereby driving more and more of the Sunni community to the ISIS cause. Western critics of Islam who depict the religion as a monolithic conspiracy of murderous violence directed at infidels rarely seem to notice that the victims of Islamic extremism are overwhelmingly Muslims themselves. Within the last two weeks, more than 60 people, all of them Arab and Muslim, have been killed in terrorist bombings in Yemen. Those attacks were almost certainly carried out by the local al-Qaida affiliate, which sees the current Yemeni government as overly subservient to the West. I understand why those people blown apart by fanatical co-religionists do not seem as newsworthy as the 12 who died in Paris. But how then do we respond to the larger charge that our conduct over the last 13 years makes clear that we don’t think Arab lives matter quite as much as ours?

In France as in Iraq and Yemen, the goal of these attacks is to destabilize the existing society and nurture the growth of an apocalyptic, insurrectionist political movement that preys upon disaffected, disenfranchised and alienated young men. Anything that temporarily increases the power of anti-Muslim leaders like Le Pen, and increases the alienation of young Muslims in France, feeds the goals of this organization. There are specific cultural and historical reasons why Islam has produced these kinds of apocalyptic, idealistic and ultra-violent movements in recent decades, and Cole (among others) has written about those extensively. But when Westerners start talking about Islam as a uniquely or inherently violent faith that is fundamentally different from other religions -- even in the relatively cautious language used by Maher or Sam Harris -- they stumble into the trap laid for them by the fundamentalists, who tell their followers that Muslims are uniquely hated and uniquely persecuted by the West.

We don’t know much about the Charlie Hebdo attackers yet, but this case may bear some resemblance to the Boston Marathon bombing, in which young men who felt deprived of opportunity in a climate of economic decay turned to zealotry and extremism. In both instances, I suspect it’s more productive to look to the internal failures of Western society – failures of education, opportunity, employment and hope -- rather than pursuing endless, fruitless and self-destructive campaigns against distant enemies. Those enemies can never be finally defeated, but the right policies at home might render them irrelevant. France now stands on the razor’s edge, and the situation is unmistakably dangerous: Le Pen will surely ramp up her angry rhetoric, a disproportionate number of the country’s 5 million-plus Muslim citizens are poor or unemployed, and it is believed that 1,000 to 2,000 French Muslims have recently returned from fighting with ISIS in the Middle East.

But there is another France too, a diverse and cosmopolitan society where European, African and Arab influences mix, clash and collide. That is the nation where most people in the white majority are Roman Catholic in name only (or not at all), and where most Muslims also profess little interest in religion. It’s the country of the multicultural but Muslim-identified Marseille hip-hop group IAM, of sex-scandal-implicated soccer superstar Karim Benzema, of movie icons like Jamel Debbouze, Tahar Rahim and Roschdy Zem (all French-born sons of Muslim immigrants) and of celebrated directors like Rachid Bouchareb and Abdellatif Kechiche, who drew international headlines with an adults-only film about a passionate love affair between two white women that quite likely could have been made nowhere else in the world. That is the France that came under vicious political attack this week. Its crisis will shape the future of the West.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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