A magazine that most people outside France had never heard of before Jan. 7 now has legions of followers and fans around the world. The dominant narrative that has emerged from the horrific massacre of 10 staffers of Charlie Hebdo (plus police officers and hostages) is that the very foundation of freedom itself was attacked last week in Paris, and that the best way to fight Islamic fundamentalism is to uphold the ethos of Charlie Hebdo’s irreverence and satire. After all, in seeing their own values embodied in Charlie Hebdo, holders of “Je Suis Charlie” signs seem to be positioning themselves on the “right” side of freedom and democracy.
It is tempting to join in and poke fun at religion as an expression of freedom and free speech. I am an atheist. I don’t think highly of any religious views, myths or traditions. But the response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre has revealed an overwhelming set of double standards. Scratching even a tiny bit of the surface of one hypocritical notion after another leads to uncomfortable and undeniable conclusions: that it is OK to insult one and only one religion and its 1.6 billion adherents, and that we must uphold at all costs the freedom of anti-Muslim speech alone.
Within hours of the attacks, French President Francois Hollande made a public address, calling the massacre “an attack on freedom.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel pronounced it “an attack on freedom of speech and the press, core elements of our free democratic culture.”
But less than a year ago, a French court upheld a ban on the niqab, the full face covering worn by some Muslim women. There are millions of Muslims in Europe, with France being home to the largest group of 5 million. The ban, which has exceptions carved out for non-Muslims (such as wearers of motorcycle helmets), has inspired similar bans in other European countries and cities. Although some people protested against this attack on freedom of religion and dress, there were no major marches or solemn public addresses by heads of state denouncing the violation of people’s liberties. Instead the ban was seen as upholding French values.
The niqab ban is only one example of the myriad ways in which the freedoms of French Muslims are threatened. Muslims are disproportionately represented in French prisons and there is persistent poverty, unemployment and discrimination.
Although Charlie Hebdo has been upheld as a bastion of free speech for skewering all things sacred, it too has double standards. In 2009, the magazine fired then-80-year-old cartoonist Maurice Sinet who later faced charges of “inciting racial hatred” and promoting anti-Semitism by insinuating that someone’s conversion to Judaism would contribute to his success in life. Strangely, the magazine did not apply similar standards to its depiction of the prophet Muhammad in degrading positions. This spread in a 2012 issue shows the prophet naked. Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his disapproval of the images, saying, “I am against provocations.”
French politicians, who in the wake of the massacre have celebrated Charlie Hebdo’s right to lampoon everything, have often drawn the line, like the magazine, at anti-Semitism. In fact, France and other European nations have strict laws curbing hate speech of the anti-Semitic variety. Black French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who makes light of the Holocaust, was banned from performing his offensive brand of comedy just a year ago because “a ‘serious risk’ of ‘grave attacks’ to fundamental French values could not be dismissed.” In recent days, he, along with 54 others, have been arrested for hate speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. So, while anti-Jewish racism is antithetical to French values, anti-Muslim racism seems perfectly in line with said values.
When a Muslim group in France took Charlie Hebdo to court a year ago—over a headline that read “The Koran is shit—it doesn’t stop bullets”—in a suit filed in the once German town of Alsace-Moselle, the magazine’s editor relied on that particular town’s peculiar laws to protect him. Alsace-Moselle retains a historical set of laws banning religious blasphemy against Christianity and Judaism, but not Islam. Stephane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial director who was killed in the Jan. 7 shooting, was confident of the suit’s outcome, saying at the time, “We know in advance that the trial will not go through because Islam is not in the code.”
Islamophobia is global too. Eager to jump on the bandwagon, writer Richard Dawkins and media mogul Rupert Murdoch resorted to a familiar refrain within days of the Paris attacks, blaming the actions of a handful of extremist Muslims on all Muslims. According to Dawkins, “No, all religions are not equally violent. Some have never been violent, some gave it up centuries ago. One religion conspicuously didn’t.” Dawkins must have missed this convenient list of America’s 10 Worst Terror Attacks by Christian Fundamentalists and Far Right Extremists, which includes vicious and deadly assaults on abortion clinics, as well as the 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Murdoch expressed a similar seemingly racist view, tweeting, “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” American actor Aziz Ansari had perhaps the best response: “Rups can we get a step by step guide? How can my 60 year old parents in NC help destroy terrorist groups? Plz advise.”
Strangely, neither Dawkins nor Murdoch count the actions of Muslims like Ahmed Merabet, the police officer killed by the attackers of Charlie Hebdo, or Lassana Bathily, who saved the lives of at least six hostages in the related standoff at the kosher grocery store, as being representative of all Muslims. Because of course, that would interrupt their prevailing narrative of Muslims as uniformly evil.
Muslims have bent over backward to express their outrage over the killings, despite many in the global community feeling persecuted by Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire. Even before the massacre, French Muslims were organizing against fundamentalist violence. A major march in September in France drew in to the streets hundreds of people in the Muslim community to protest against the violent actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS. Organizers proudly dubbed the gathering “Not in My Name.”
Most Muslims recognize not only that extremist groups are unrepresentative of them, but that they are often the victims of the same groups. ISIS has shown little mercy for Muslims, killing them in greater numbers than non-Muslims, just as the Taliban has done in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Boko Haram has done in Nigeria. The armed attackers in France had no compunction about killing other Muslims, such as Merabet. In fact, the vast majority of Muslims have much more to fear from fundamentalist groups than do non-Muslims. And, now, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French Muslims face an even more dangerous future at the hands of non-Muslims bent on revenge, as this map of small-scale reprisals shows.
Fundamentalist governments such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also target Muslim dissidents while receiving support from and doing business with Western governments such as the United States and France. Within days of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Saudi Arabia’s government sentenced human rights activist and blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam,” the same crime of which Charlie Hebdo’s attackers accused the magazine. Additionally, it has been the predominantly Muslim populations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen that have borne the greatest brunt of death and destruction from Western wars in just the past decade.
It is within this political and historical context of persecution of Muslims all over the world by extremist individuals and groups, fundamentalist Western-backed states and Western wars that Charlie Hebdo published its shameful cartoons and paid dearly for it. If we claim to value freedom, we must uphold it for all people, including Muslims, and for all religions, including Islam. Otherwise, we are simply giving in to the same type of virulent and racist hatred that motivates extremists.