The editors and cartoonists murdered in Wednesday’s attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo are now martyrs for the cause of free speech. Threatened with death for publishing drawings of the prophet Mohammed meant to mock Islamic radicals, they refused to censor themselves, and so were gunned down. They died bravely for an ideal we all treasure.
But their work featuring Mohammed could be sophomoric and racist. Not all of it; a cover image of the prophet about to be beheaded by a witless ISIS thug was trenchant commentary on how little Islamic radicalism has to do with the religion itself. But often, the cartoonists simply rendered Islam’s founder as a hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said’s nightmares, seemingly for no purpose beyond antagonizing Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, believe that depicting Mohammed at all is blasphemous.
This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia. France is the place, remember, where the concept of free expression has failed to stop politicians from banning headscarves and burqas. Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to “a white power mag.” As Jacob Canfield wrote in an eloquent post at the Hooded Utilitarian, “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire.”
So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t.
Much of the debate following the massacre has focused on the binary question of whether it’s ever acceptable for Americans and Europeans to offend Muslim traditions. Should we defend depictions of Mohammed on free speech grounds? Or should we discourage them altogether? Jonathan Chait says the answer is obvious. “The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism,” he writes at New York magazine. “One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat concurs. If an act of blasphemy can land you on a hit list, he argues, it should be “welcomed and defended” as a defense of liberal values against thuggery.
But it’s wrong to approach this issue as an either-or question, to blaspheme or not blaspheme. Free speech allows us to say hateful, idiotic things without being punished by the government. But embracing that right means that we need to acknowledge when work is hateful or idiotic, and can’t be defended on its own terms. We need to recognize, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias argues today, that standing up for magazines like Charlie Hebdo is a “regrettable” necessity, in part because it provides cover for anti-Muslim backlash. “Blasphemous, mocking images cause pain in marginalized communities,” he writes. “The elevation of such images to a point of high principle will increase the burdens on those minority groups.” And the more those groups are mistreated, the more angry radicals we can expect to see.
So what should we do? We have to condemn obvious racism as loudly as we defend the right to engage in it. We have to point out when an “edgy” cartoon is just a crappy Islamophobic jab. We shouldn’t pretend that every magazine cover with a picture of Mohammed is a second coming of The Satanic Verses. Making those distinctions isn’t going to placate the sorts of militants who are already apt to tote a machine gun into a magazine office. But it is a way to show good faith to the rest of a marginalized community, to show that free speech isn’t just about mocking their religion.
It’s hard to talk about these things today, when so many families, a country, and a profession are rightfully in mourning. But it’s also necessary. At the moment, Google has offered almost $300,000 to Charlie Hebdo, so it can continue publishing. The Guardian Media Group has chipped in $150,000 of its own. And France’s government has pledged more than 1 million euros. It’s a powerful gesture in favor of free expression. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of expression a government should want to pay for.