Many thoughtful writers, concerned critics, and even some serious illustrators have sought to contextualize the massacre

Salil Tripathi


A week after the horrendous assassinations of some of the staff at the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, a few axioms need to be stated clearly: that freedom of expression is fundamental; that religion is an idea; that nothing, no idea, is sacred; that ideas don’t have rights, people do. People may feel offended by something others say, but their emotional response is just that—a response—and not a right. Those who are offended have the right to respond with arguments, by pointing out the flaws in the others’ arguments, or by choosing to disengage, by shutting the copy of the magazine, by not buying it or by picketing against it.

But many thoughtful writers, concerned critics, learned academics, and even some serious illustrators have sought to contextualize the massacre. They remind us that Charlie Hebdo is offensive (so what?); that it is racist (it isn’t, but so what if it is?); that it focuses on Muslims, not others (not true); that it sacked an employee for writing something nasty about Jews (as if victims have to be perfect); or that it “afflicts the afflicted”, (that is, it ridicules a vulnerable minority in France, and not the power elite—and that’s not true either).

That comes perilously close to victim-blaming, such as telling a woman that she was raped because she asked for it—by staying out late, by drinking alcohol, by using the cellphone, by wearing jeans or a short skirt. Just as such contextualization is irrelevant—she was assaulted—so it is with Charlie Hebdo. People were killed. And those who were killed hadn’t physically hurt anyone, nor forced anyone to see their cartoons. Whether France is perfect is also irrelevant. No society is. France views secularism through laws that aim to keep faith out of the public sphere. It may mean that the state is imposing a particular type of homogeneity, but the French have chosen it that way. That may result in resentment and disaffection in the banlieue, the outer suburbs of Paris where many minorities, including multi-generational immigrants, live.

But if French secularism seems arrogant and top-down, so are the keepers of the faith—the imams, who say that only their faith has all the answers. A cacophonous culture which punctures hypocrisies (think Rabelais, Molière, or Voltaire) or explores laughter (Baudelaire); where an exiled American-born publisher Sylvia Beach brings out James Joyce’s Ulysses because the English-speaking world dare not since they consider it obscene; where Thomas Paine writes The Rights of Man—is not going to concede to those who wish to remake the country into something quite different merely because their clergy wants it so.

And what sort of clergy? The most preposterous claim of those who wish to contextualize is that Charlie Hebdo gratuitously and deliberately insults the weak and the marginalized. Look at those cartoons again, accessible on dozens of websites: the target is not necessarily the believer; it is usually the gatekeeper. He is the unelected man (for it is usually men) who claims direct communication with the divine, and becomes the primary arbiter and the sole spokesman insisting that the cartoons insult their faith and represent the most important problem his people face—not the lack of good schools, job opportunities, access to healthcare, nor non-discrimination laws. The gatekeepers assert; the interpreters echo—but must we accept? That is deeply patronizing to Muslims. There are many brave Muslims who defy these gatekeepers.

My good friend Karima Bennoune is an international law expert and academic who has written an outstanding book—Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here—that recounts, page after page, stories of courageous Muslim women and men who challenge fundamentalists, who speak with only certainties, and with what W.B. Yeats calls “passionate intensity”. Many of them have suffered—some killed, a few assaulted or threatened, and yet they defy the gatekeepers.

Those who wish to circumscribe freedoms (because the gatekeepers call for it) are insulting Bennoune and many like her, whose bravery she has chronicled. Feisty cartoonists from Qatar, Egypt, and Lebanon have expressed solidarity with the fallen artists of Charlie Hebdo. There is anguish in the blogs of some Arab writers. Many Muslims joined the march in Paris. It is offensive to think that Muslims have reacted to the cartoons only with violence.

This story won’t end soon—it began when Galileo was asked to recant what he saw in the sky; it continued through inquisitions; it led to the persecution and death of Osip Mandelstam; it resurfaced when an Ayatollah declared the fatwa on Salman Rushdie; it hounded Taslima Nasreen and M.F. Husain from their homes, jailed Hamza Kashgari, flogged Riaf Badawi, killed Narayan Dabholkar, and made Perumal Murugan surrender, when he said Tuesday that “the novelist Perumal Murugan had died”. Je ne suis pas seulement Charlie Hebdo; je suis lui, elle, eux tous. I am not only Charlie Hebdo; I am him and her and all of them. Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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