Dear Mehdi Hasan,
We once discussed over my cup of coffee and your muffin secularism and free speech. In that spirit, I hope to discuss your article directed to a liberal pundit “As a Muslim, I’m fed up with the hypocrisy of the free speech fundamentalists.”
You do not have to like Charlie Hebdo – you can find it offensive, distasteful, disturbing and the wrong way to do satire in the 21 st Century. The freedom for you to express that and make the case should not for an instant suggest that you believe the cartoonists were responsible for their own demise or that their murder was deserved.
I am glad you mention the “Us and them” divide. As I explained to you, one reason I do not like religion is fundamentalists use it easily to make that very divide. That it is not just a case of believer V non-believer but within a faith you are either for or against God – with their claim that fanatical devotion is the path of the faithful. I reject that false binary approach as reflective of true religion. The truth of religion is for the conscience of the believer alone, not theirs to use as a yardstick or milestone on others.
Notice I am not calling you a fundamentalist. Am I a free speech fundamentalist when I argued on the Huffington Post that Anjem Choudary deserved free speech, that free speech made clear extremist views and where his fundamentalism differs from most muslims in Britain like yourself? I wanted Robert Spencer here in the UK so he could be challenged, and questions put to him. When you go to work in Washington I hope you get the chance to grill him for his promotion of genocide deniers over Srebrenica. Free speech shows us what people think and say – denying does not make their ideas go away.
You write about Brian Klug’s thought experiment:
Imagine, he writes, if a man had joined the “unity rally” in Paris on 11 January “wearing a badge that said ‘Je suis Chérif’” – the first name of one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen. Suppose, Klug adds, he carried a placard with a cartoon mocking the murdered journalists. “How would the crowd have reacted? . . . Would they have seen this lone individual as a hero, standing up for liberty and freedom of speech? Or would they have been profoundly offended?” Do you disagree with Klug’s conclusion that the man “would have been lucky to get away with his life”
It reminded me of Sam Harris saying if someone went into a mosque with a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed would that person be lucky to experience the religion of peace? It is rather a cheap trick to try and play, using supposed emotions and prejudices to give the answer. The thought experiment itself tries to reinforce that “them and us” narrative you warn earlier against. This is the trick of the charlatan magician not worthy of you or Sam to employ.
The danger is not in allowing distasteful views being expressed but thinking that by suppressing them they will disappear. To suggest that the people marching in Paris do not know this is quite breathtaking. Muslims and Jews were the victims of these terrorists, as were Liberals, leftists and atheists. Their aim was to create a “us and them” divide – their victims should do the opposite. The march was about solidarity not just free speech. Not that you comment on this aspect of what the protest meant for many people.
Anyway, you mention a particular cartoon of Christiane Taubira, a black politician, as a monkey. Which I am grateful for because this is where the misunderstanding of Charlie Hebdo comes in. The context and satire is aimed at lampooning the far right by parodying them to leave no doubt supporting Le Pen means supporting racism. Lack of knowledge of French politics makes all this lost in translation. As this site mentions:
“RACIST BLUE UNION”
The font chosen (serif) is reminiscent of traditional right-wing political posters. Left-wing and communist posters in France usually use a sans-serif font. This is the first hint that the cartoon is mocking a right-wing element.
The blue and red flame logo on the bottom-left is the logo of the Front National, a far-right political party in France.
The person depicted is Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, drawn as a monkey. This is referencing various occasions of far-right activists depicting Taubira as a monkey (online sharing of photoshops, sound imitations, calling out, etc.).
The title is a play on words of Marine Le Pen’s slogan “Rassemblement Bleu Marine” (Navy blue Union).
The cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebook-shared a photoshop of Justice Taubira, drawn as a monkey, and then said on French television the she should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government” [Le Monde] (she was later sentenced to 9 months of prison). The cartoon is styled as a political poster, calling on all far-right “Marine” racists to unify, under this racist imagery they have chosen. Ultimately, the cartoon is criticising the the far-right’s appeal to racism to gain supporters.
Understanding the context shows the cartoon is more than a black politician depicted as a monkey. It is showing that supporting Le Pen is to endorse racism. A very different context to how the tweet portrays that you link in the NewStatesman. Insinuating that the dead cartoonists are racists is a sign of ignorance of the very principles of Charlie Hebdo and the French anti-racist, anti-colonial left they identified with.
You mention cartoonist Sine being fired for alleged anti-semitic remarks. You fail to mention the remark was on:
“L’affaire Sine” followed the engagement of Mr Sarkozy, 22, to Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of an electronic goods chain. Commenting on an unfounded rumour that the president’s son planned to convert to Judaism, Sine quipped: “He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad.” [Daily Telegraph]
Sine won 40,000 in Euros for wrongful dismissal over the incident. Or that despite legal challenge he was never found guilty of anti-semitism. Rather useful points to mention, unless you are mud spreading as wide as you can to show why you despise the magazine. Without understanding it. Bit like an atheist telling you what Islam is I suspect.
As a liberal pundit you suggest I would turn a blind eye to anti-muslim sentiment. I never have and never will. Before Charlie Hebdo I wrote “Islamism and Anti-Muslim Hate – We Must Tackle Both.” It is not the liberal pundits but the conservative religious right that are the concern when it comes to ant-muslim bigotry. You know this is a concern of us “liberals” when you retweeted my post drawing that attention to a jihadist parody account Dawkins had endorsed.
Was I incensed at the lip service to freedom of expression by some heads of state that arrest journalists, and outspoken atheists like me, being at the Paris march? Darn straight I was:
Or how do I feel about anyone that would burn a poppy? As I wrote I could not give a damn what such people think.
As a liberal pundit you have asked me to justify myself as such. I would never ask you to justify yourself as a Muslim. I would ask you as a human being.
That approach is the start of breaking down a divide. Maybe it takes more than one cup of coffee and a muffin to see that.
Kind regards, and best wishes for working stateside.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog