Free Speech – Charlie Hebdo: leftwing ‘anti-racism’ joins hands with rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry
Kenan Malik is writing on Charlie Hebdo and free speech:
The irony is that those who most suffer from a culture of censorship are minority communities themselves. Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
Yet, hardly had news begun filtering out about the Charlie Hebdo shootings, than there were those suggesting that the magazine was a ‘racist institution’ and that the cartoonists, if not deserving what they got, had nevertheless brought it on themselves through their incessant attacks on Islam. What is really racist is the idea only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or demolish its pretensions or can handle satire and ridicule. Those who claim that it is ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ to mock the Prophet Mohammad, appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. It is here that leftwing ‘anti-racism’ joins hands with rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.
What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hudreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Pakistani cartoonist Sabir Nazar, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, exiled to India after death threats, or the Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi, sentenced to death last year for ‘insulting the Prophet’. What happened in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was viscerally shocking; but in the non-Western world, those who stand up for their rights face such threats every day.
What nurtures the reactionaries, both within Muslim communities and outside it, is the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within minority communities.
Barnaby Raine responds:
No. You don’t have to be a theocrat to worry about a magazine that caricatures and denigrates Muslims and their religious symbolism in a period when that othering is a prominent mechanism by which imperial violence is justified, you just have to be vaguely progressive. Some Muslims may not mind the cartoons. I do mind, not as a “nice white liberal” desperate to appease some alien community, but as a left-winger who opposes the politics implicit in and fuelled by mocking the marginalised.
On a more general note, the above article seems to mirror the French left’s racially charged language of secularism in drawing political dividing lines at an ideal rather than a material level. To be on the left is not a purely ideal position based on identifying the ‘best ideas’ and siding with them, it is above all a material position, it entails siding with the oppressed in any given power relation. The right takes the other side. Marching alongside the representatives of a state that bans Muslim women from dressing as they choose, bans pro-Palestine demonstrations and has banned Muslims from protesting against Charlie Hebdo in the past, and mobilising the idea of “free speech” in the defence of that state and in the defence of a magazine that mocks Muslims while the ‘War on Terror’ stigmatises them should all be considered fairly simply right-wing. This article even berates Charlie Hebdo for firing a cartoonist responsible for anti-Semitic caricatures. That is either naive in imagining that speech-acts occur in a vacuum rather than potentially involving material consequences, or it is reactionary for being aware of those consequences — steps towards the legitimisation of anti-Semitism, in that case — and not caring. Similar CH cartoons about Muslims have been much more common and have not resulted in firings, unsurprisingly given the surrounding political context. So express outrage at the murder of 12 journalists, of course. But is it really necessary to paint them as progressive heroes, when their social function was anything but that?
We’d add one thing: Free speech not buts..