Je Suis Charlie (Until Je Get Scared)

Je Suis Charlie (Until Je Get Scared)

The New York Times tweeted today that the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which found itself the victim of a gruesome massacre, “long tested the limits of satire.” I did not know that there were limits to satire or that the Gray Lady, which often unintentionally engages in the art form, had managed to uncover them. The implication here is one that will surely become as tediously explicit in the hours and days ahead as it is familiar: If you “provoke” Muslims by mocking their religion, then you’ve only yourself to blame for what happens next.

As the British left-wing columnist Nick Cohen points out in You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, his brilliant book on free speech and the lengths to which liberal democracies will go to nullify or diminish this right, those who fancy themselves the most progressive when it comes to, say, mocking Jesus Christ or George W. Bush or Tony Blair will suffer no crisis of intellect or conscience in deferring to reactionary lunatics on what are the acceptable bounds of humor and good taste for dealing with the Prophet Mohammed.

Some in the media are admirably honest about why they go mum in this regard. Stephen Pollard, the editor of London’s Jewish Chronicle, today explained that his newspaper will not run any of Charlie Hebdo’s notorious cartoons in its coverage of the terrorist attack on the French weekly: “Get real, folks. A Jewish newspaper like mine that published such cartoons would be at the front of the queue for Islamists to murder,” Pollard wrote on Twitter. I don’t blame him and nor should you. As he further put it, he doesn’t feel entitled to take the lives of his staff into his own hands to “make a point.” Media organizations throughout the world are now dealing with much the same problem, albeit without like-minded candor. (Britain’s Daily Telegraph, for instance, which has no problem pursuing Islamist politicians at home or exhibiting the war crimes of jihadis in Syria and Iraq, today blurred one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.)

But now contrast Pollard’s justification with how Bruce Crumley, Time magazine’s then-Paris bureau chief, characterized the work of satirists after Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed in 2011 for the ostensible “offense” of putting Mohammed in the editor’s chair for a single issue: “[N]ot only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?”

Openly beg. I wonder if Crumley will write that the 10 Charlie Hebdo employees gunned down today by men claiming (evidently in perfect French) to have “avenged the Prophet Muhammad” got what they deserved or were perhaps laïcité’s answer to suicide bombers. The Financial Times’ Tony Barber calls the satirical newspaper a “bastion of the French tradition of hard-hitting satire” in a sentence right before one in which he calls it a bastion of “baiting and needling Muslims.” Well, which is it? Hard-hitting satire or rank bigotry? This is by no means the only logical pretzel Barbers wanders into in essentially blaming the magazine for its own misfortune. He of course doesn’t “condone” murder or the curtailment of free speech, only “common sense” in editorial standards — because without curtailing free speech, one may invite murder. Got that?

All of Charlie Hebdo’s staff, I think it’s safe to assume, knew what they were doing in deriding fanaticism. And they were proud of it. This deserves our respect. Indeed, if the tragedy in Paris right now can be at all leavened by black comedy, then the privilege belongs to none other than the paper’s full-time editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, or “Charb,” the cartoon signature by which he was more commonly known. His last graphic installment featured a moronic-looking muhajid saying, “No attacks in France yet; wait! There’s until the end of January to wish Happy New Year.”

I suppose commentators will blame Charb posthumously for predicting his own death. Though he does nicely sow “division” between secularism and the worldview espoused by al Qaeda or the Islamic State, an organization which has done its part for the common good by raping Yazidi women, executing Kurds, murdering Sunni tribesmen, and calling for the extermination of all Shiites. But at least the Islamic State’s victims never drew a naughty picture.

As it happens, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, was one of the latest foils of Charb’s “Islamophobic” weekly, which may have actually taken a page out of the playbook of many practicing and committed Muslims who have mercilessly mocked and lampooned the “caliph” and what he claims to be his own purified version of the Islamic faith. And here I note a strange phenomenon on Facebook and Twitter for which Crumley and his ilk will have trouble accounting: Why are so many Muslims posting the “Je Suis Charlie” image that has become a token of solidarity with the slain?

Some outlets are have suggested a link between Charlie Hebdo’s latest cover art and today’s events. The cover shows a wizened caricature of the French author Michel Houellebecq, predicting an Islamic future for France, with the caption, “In 2022, I will do Ramadan.” This happens to be the subject of Houellebecq’s just-released novel Submission. So even a derisory image of another French provocateur, one who has written and said unflattering things about Islam, might be enough to precipitate violence? No doubt critiques and furious denunciations of Houellebecq’s new book are forthcoming, too. But could it be that plenty of pious observers to today’s atrocity in Paris, on whose behalf Western commentators now claim to speak, have a sense of proportion and priority in what they choose to condemn on any given day? Are they somehow deficiently or inauthentically pious for not being “baited” into writing nonsense like Crumley or Barber?

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