We must talk about Islam: A faith that affects everyone should be susceptible to critique by all

A new documentary gets the Charlie Hebdo aftermath wrong: Freedom of expression is at stake for us all

Published August 2, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

     (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)
(Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

Eight months after it suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks in French history, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo continues to provoke wrongheaded, confused and even cowardly analysis that disregards the facts and betrays a failure to understand – or a refusal to recognize -- the stakes we in the West all have in what the publication stands for: freedom of expression.

Lest we forget those facts: on Jan. 7, the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi burst into the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, and, shouting “Allahu akbar!” systematically gunned down staff members and others present.  After doing so, they announced “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!  We have killed Charlie Hebdo!”  Their motive: the cartoonists had satirized, on many occasions, the Prophet Muhammad, whose depiction Islam forbids.  Put succinctly: inspired by their religion, the Kouachi brothers murdered cartoonists for drawing cartoons.  They murdered for Islam.

Now for the latest broadside against reason (and the magazine’s few, grief-stricken survivors) -- a documentary produced by journalist Max Blumenthal and a British videographer, James Kleinfeld, called “Je ne suis pas Charlie.”  The title is meant to refute the popular slogan (Je suis Charlie, or I am Charlie) adopted by the almost 4 million French citizens, who, to defend free speech, marched peacefully across France a few days after the massacre.  (Disclosure: I have friends among Charlie Hebdo’s staff.)

“Je ne suis pas Charlie” purportedly aims to explain why not all French citizens – and in particular, many in the country’s Muslim minority – approve of the slogan.  But the documentary does something else: it delivers a strongly biased narrative of events in France after the crime that exculpates Islam, de facto inculpates the victims in their own deaths, and will surely comfort and encourage future potential assassins contemplating the execution of similar atrocities.  As Blumenthal and Kleinfeld have it, the Kouachi brothers’ crime also occurred as the inevitable, if regrettable, outcome of France’s colonial history and the marginalized status of the country’s Muslim community.

“Je ne suis pas Charlie” contains such an abundance of errors and unsubstantiated assertions that it confronts its critics with a crisis of plenty.  For starters, it gets simple, easily verifiable facts wrong: 12 people, including six staff members and a police officer, died in the shooting, not “13 staff members;” the Islamist terrorist Amedy Coulibaly took hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris not “later that day,” but two days after the assault on Charlie Hebdo; Coulibay was inspired not by Al Qaida in Yemen, but by ISIS; the “Je suis Charlie” march took place not on January 8, but on January 11th; that day, not “tens of thousands” marched through Paris, but as many as 1.6 million; and “laïcité (roughly, “secularism,” but more on that below) is not only a “traditional French value” but the constitutionally enshrined law of the land.

The film turns on the semantically fraudulent bunk concept of “Islamophobia” – that is, that criticizing Islam amounts to a form of racism.  Proclaiming a message for the entirety of mankind, Islam, obviously, is not a race, but a religion, and one with followers of all skin colors on every continent.  It is, thus, a faith that potentially concerns everyone and should be susceptible to critique by all.

It is vital to understand one thing: freedom of speech means nothing if we are not at liberty to express ourselves about the most contentious issue of all, religion, be it Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. “Islamophobia” and “Islamophobic” are bludgeoning terms of political jargon wielded to suppress free speech and render Islam off-limits for anything but accolades, or, at least, neutral acceptance.  Those who denounce “Islamophobia” are pursuing an agenda, seeking to carve out a critique-free haven for their ideology, or else serving, at times unwittingly, as the “useful idiots” of such people and some pretty unsavory regimes.

Blumenthal (the film’s narrator) and some of the French, including French Muslims, he interviews use the terms “Islamophobic” and “racist” copiously and interchangeably.  One woman in a Muslim headscarf tells him that the more Islamic one’s clothes look, “the more people are racist toward you.”  Another confusedly, and in utter seriousness, declares that Muslim women in traditional Islamic dress “wear the stigma of their race as their clothing.”  A graduate student at the university Sciences Po declares that a “teacher who wants to exclude teenage girls” – in high school, presumably – “because they’re wearing the veil, it’s not because they fear or are scared, it’s just because they are Islamophobic,” right after having declared them “racist.”

The (manifestly nonsensical) conclusion these speakers leave us with: “race” can be put on or taken off, just like a hat.  Or a headscarf.

Blumenthal never mentions the 2004 French law prohibiting all conspicuous religious symbols (the wearing of Christian crosses as well as Islamic headscarves) in public schools.  Teachers “excluding” students in Islamic dress are following the law, whether they approve of it or not.  The legislation, passed after much controversy, is meant to prevent confessional divisions and discord from arising in public schools, where students should view one another as equal citizens of the French republic, not as Muslims, Catholics, or whatever.  Be as religious as you want to be, but don’t introduce your faith into a public environment where it can incite strife.  It also protects those unwilling to wear the headscarf by providing them a space in which they may not legally do so.

The film does not explain how French laïcité differs from American-style “secularism,” without an understanding of which the issues surrounding Islam in France are incomprehensible.  The French Revolution of the late eighteenth century was, of course, atheistic, but laïcité as it is now understood came into being with the 1905 law separating church and state that eliminated Catholicism’s influence in public schools and forbade the government from funding religions.

Laïcité is key to the French concept of citizenship: regardless of their faith (or the lack of it), all French citizens, legally speaking, stand equal before the law, a once-revolutionary idea in a Europe that had suffered catastrophic sectarian warfare.  Laïcité also, and more broadly, discourages communautarisme -- the formation of ethnic or religious communities that could harm the comity among citizens the constitution seeks to ensure.  Laïcité benefits French Muslims most of all.  As a religious minority, they are the ones with, theoretically, something to fear from the Christian majority.  The presence of laïcité in the constitution, though, means French Catholics or Protestants cannot pass laws favoring Christianity over Islam – or any laws at all regarding religion.

“Two months after the rallies, France is a changed nation,” declares Blumenthal. “Celebrations of free speech have been replaced by police crackdowns on those accused of defending terrorism,” and “mainstream politicians” are using laïcité to “justify sweeping restrictions on Muslims in public spaces.”

The Charlie Hebdo massacre did not “change” France, but somewhat boosted support (which was already growing) for Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, the National Front.  The National Front performed worse, though, not better, than expected in regional elections in March, winning not a single département.  The soldiers the film shows on patrol in Parisian streets have been a feature of life in the capital for years.  The French “Patriot Act” the National Assembly passed in May continues to spark debate about possible abuse, but has not resulted in mass incarcerations.  And all the public conversation about Islam has actually led to higher, not lower, approval ratings for Muslims in France.  There is no new, post-Charlie-Hebdo anti-Muslim climate of oppression, even if after the massacre there was an increase in attacks on mosques.

“Police crackdowns?”  If Blumenthal indeed understands the differences between free-speech laws in France and the United States, he does not tell us anything about them or the controversial prosecutions to which they have led for many years.  Indeed, he never mentions (if he even knew) that Charlie Hebdo has itself confronted judicial persecution deriving from these same restrictive laws and, for instance, had prevailed in court when sued for “insulting Muslims” by the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of French Islamic Organizations.

What of the “sweeping restrictions on Muslims in public places?”  Strangely, such “sweeping restrictions” have escaped the notice of the media, both French and foreign.  And for good reason: there have been none.  Late in the film, an interviewee speaks of fearing “deportations” (of Muslims) – a baseless statement.  It should be pointed out that the Kouachi brothers and Coulibay were French citizens, not foreign intruders liable to expulsion.  The same goes for most Muslims in France.

Blumenthal portrays a Muslim community under siege, not just from the police, but from “racist invective from mainstream pundits in prime-time media.”  The pundits instanced are something other than “mainstream,” to put it mildly, and the video clips, cherry-picked from among some of the most extreme (and emotional) declarations made in the aftermath of the attacks.  In an interview about his film, Blumenthal contends that “half the French government” is “preaching racism or bigotry,” and that the French authorities are using laïcité as a “weapon” against Muslims.  Declarations of this sort reflect either ignorance of what has been going on in France since January, or an agenda -- specifically, the agenda of those crying Islamophobia! to silence critical discussion of the faith.

The distortions owe much to his biased selection of interviewees, none of whose strong political affiliations (all well-known in France) does he identify for American viewers.  One of Blumenthal’s interviewees, for instance, is Alain Gresh, an editor at the far-left publication Le Monde diplomatique and a longtime purveyor of “Islamophobia” alerts; predictably, he labels Charlie Hebdo Islamophobic.  Another is Houria Bouteldja, the divisive founder of a party denounced for promoting communautarisme and even racism against French whites.  She embarrasses herself by declaring that Muslims are living as “hostages” in France, warns us that the government “has its sights set on the Muslims,” and, trampling over history, geography, and demographics too obvious to point out here, accuses the French republic of “choosing” as its “legitimate social group” the “figure of the Christian, white, European person.”  The few folks Blumenthal shows expressing support for Charlie Hebdo speak early in the film and are quickly forgotten.

The inescapable conclusion unsuspecting viewers draw from this tour de force of “analysis”: France is heading for fascism, even civil war; and Charlie Hebdo is playing its part in an unjust assault by the morally corrupt French majority against a hapless Muslim minority.  The real issues at hand – how Muslims in Europe are to adjust to the profoundly secular societies in which they now live, how Europeans are to react to large, relatively new populations in their midst professing values that clash with their own – are never addressed.  The film never asks, in fact, whether conflict and widespread fear are inevitable when some people prove by their actions their willingness to kill for dogmas found in ancient texts.

Yet the most telling moment comes when Blumenthal asks, while the camera pans selections of the magazine’s cartoons (without any explication or the context provided by captions he neither shows clearly nor translates), “Is it possible for a Muslim to identify with a publication that demonized the Prophet Muhammad, in almost pornographic fashion?”

There you have it: for Blumenthal, Charlie Hebdo deserved it.  The implicit message: Cartoonists (and the rest of us) had better respect Islam, or else . . . or else, well, all bets are off.  Whatever violence ensues is inevitable, the result of almost “natural” forces beyond our control.

Progressive and liberal to the core, the artists of Charlie Hebdo were certainly not asking anyone to “identify” with their work.  Those who disliked it were free not to look.  Blumenthal never even interviews Charlie Hebdo’s survivors to get their perspective, never delves into the raunchy French tradition of irreligious satire (of which Charlie Hebdo is the heir) that extends all the way back to the French Revolution and even before, and certainly, based on what we see in the film, never bothered to try to understand the satire Charlie was publishing.  If he had, he would have learned that the magazine drew the Prophet Muhammad only as news events dictated (and far less frequently than it did, say, the Pope or various politicians), and satirized the Islamist fundamentalists exploiting their faith for political reasons.  It never attacked France’s Muslim community.  Charlie Hebdo has always “punched up” not “punched down.”


(For an inside look into the editorial process behind the magazine’s Islam coverage, readers of French should check out the highly informative account provided in “Eloge du Blasphème” by former Charlie Hebdo staffer Caroline Fourest.)

Let’s step away from Blumenthal’s awful artifact of journalistic malpractice and return to the facts.  Islamist terrorists assassinated cartoonists in Paris for drawing cartoons they deemed blasphemous.  Western societies are now dealing with a conflict between free speech and faith-based intolerance that will intensify as immigration and the Internet break down our borders.  We cannot, must not, cravenly shy away from this conflict, proposing convoluted counter-narratives that effectively exculpate assassins and promote or condone the self-imposition of the faith-mandated restrictions such assassins (and their useful idiots) would impose on us all in the name of “respect” for religion.

We need to muster up the courage to face the facts -- and speak frankly about them.

We either defend free speech or we lose it.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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