First of all, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirizing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad shouldn’t be seen as sufficient cause for three Muslim gunmen to kill twelve people this morning at the magazine’s headquarters. The true motives and reasons reside within the murderers’ opaque minds.
The massacre will likely create a chilling effect across the region, if not the world, as journalists and satirists will now think twice before publishing something so inflammatory. This amounts to an infringement on the freedom of speech, the guardianship of which is now being depicted as something Charlie Hebdo existed to promote.
The narrative, dumbed down for all of us by the media, which largely regurgitated political rhetoric, was that a left-wing magazine exercised its right to free expression and paid for it unjustly because some backward Muslims got offended.
To explain is not to condone, but the dominant media narrative didn’t want to explain this massacre in any sociopolitical (or historical) context—that is, in the context of the “War on Terror.” A bit of harmless lampooning was all the cartoons amounted to, we’re told, without being noted that since the inception of post-9/11 geopolitics (and before it, in fact), the West has been creating extremists by the thousands. Seen through the eyes of these terrorists, the cartoons are not so much fun after all, and warrant violent repisal.
The missing element here is pragmatism, which reminds us that pouring fuel onto fire makes the flames go higher. France’s Muslim community is largely disempowered and on the receiving end of a lot of prejudice. Cartoon depictions meant to insult the most sacred figure in their lives is likely to be seen as a way of kicking them while they’re down. This is a generalization, and the right to offend is indeed real, but no one seems to be interested in seeing this situation (or these cartoons) through Muslims eyes—or the eyes of poor, immigrant French Muslims. The right to offend is enshrined, but what about the right to be offended?
Sadder still is that Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that has focused first and foremost on discovering some of the most inventive and ridiculous ways to offend, so long as Islam is concerned, is now portrayed as the saintly, Marianne-esque champion of free speech.
There’s much talk about the “good work” they do when it comes to lampooning politicians of all stripes, etc. and I don’t doubt that, but so far as Islam is concerned, the cartoons they’ve produced are essentially racist on several levels, and quite inaccurate content-wise (satire or not).
Their editorial priorities were protected by free speech, and not animated by some sort of urge to promote global free expression. These two different things have become conflated, and the commemoration of the dead has become an exercise in falsely-placed santimony.
This isn’t just a free speech issue. It’s a problem of political violence in the post-9/11 context, committed by Muslims who are likely ideologically and politically motivated by realities that go far beyond some cartoons. The massacre’s implications also extend well into the future, as right wing populists have already seized the opportunity to exploit a political moment/opening. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen, already quite popular if you trust last year’s polls, has already tied the killings to immigration, furthering her own political rhetoric/agenda.
All signs point to further division that can only be reversed if the assumptions underpinning the War on Terror paradigm is systematically questioned, and people are willing to take on the perspective of others.