It is okay to criticise the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine. To do so does not mean we cannot — and must not — at the same time condemn the act of murder and terrorism conducted by brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi.
It also does not mean that we agree with or believe in the terrorists’ way of thinking. Clearly the proper response to a slight or offense — about one’s religion or otherwise — is not and never will be murder. That is beyond debate. To explain the motivations of terrorists is not to condone or justify their actions. It is a necessary measure that will allow us to manage the threat posed by terrorism inspired by the ideologies of groups like al-Qaeda.
As the terrorists said themselves, they believed they were defending their religion and its messenger against a publication that repeatedly slighted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
In its cartoons, Charlie Hebdo not only depicts the Prophet — an act that most Muslims believe should be prohibited — but also portrays Islam as a violent and oppressive religion, while also denigrating Muslims to savage, bearded, turban-wearing men.
In the terrorists’ own twisted logic, publishing these cartoons transformed the artists from civilians to legitimate targets of their violent actions. None of the artists deserved to die for what they did — obviously — but it is possible to understand why their cartoons upset people in the Muslim community — whether “moderate” or “radical”.
In 2012, even the French police understood that publishing such cartoons could have negative ramifications, requesting that the magazine reconsider publishing a representation of the Prophet Muhammad. It is not that Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff does not have the right to publish such images, but that it is bad taste to do so. It is not a brave act to insult the beliefs of a historically marginalised religious community, it is actually quite offensive. Furthermore, while the magazine does indeed satirise all of the so-called “big three” world religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — it is only the Prophet Muhammad who has made appearances in Charlie Hebdo naked. Islam — as well as Judaism — are the most common targets of Charlie Hebdo in their most controversial publications. The magazine chooses to focus its negative imagery on minority religions within France, those with the weakest voice and longest history of institutionalised marginalisation.
For exercising its right to print such cartoons, Charlie Hebdo has received an outpouring of international support, mainly through the social media campaign #JeSuisCharlie. We should support the right free speech, there is no doubt about that; however, we do not have to defend Charlie Hebdo for how it chose to exercise that right.
Printing such content only contributes to the widespread appeal among Islamist terrorists that the West is engaged in a war against Islam — both ideologically in the “war of ideas” that attempts to paint Muslims with a broad brush and physically, in the case of France with its military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali.
This is not to say that Charlie Hebdo caused the attack to take place. Blame rests solely in the hands of the perpetrators and those who supported them. However, it must be stressed that attacks like those in Paris — just like Sydney and Ottawa — do not happen in a vacuum. If we do not believe that the foreign policies of Western countries in the Middle East do not contribute to fueling the ideology of these radical groups, we are failing to understand part of the rationality used by perpetrators of these terrorist attacks.
One of the Kouachi brothers said it himself in an interview with French network BFMTV, France is the one “killing the children of Muslims in Irak [sic], in Syria, in Afghanistan. That’s you. Not us. We have honor [sic] codes in Islam.”
This line of thinking cannot be accepted and it should be clear that neither France, nor any other Western country recently suffering an attack by extremists, bears any specific blame for the attacks perpetrated against them, there needs to be a wider discussion on the contexts in which these acts have taken place. Aside from foreign policy, the domestic factors shaping these extremists’ decisions to attack must also be examined. What the editors at Charlie Hebdo — and others decrying Islam as a whole — must understand is how isolating, humiliating and discriminatory their own actions can be for Muslims living in the West. This isolation and discrimination has also contributed to these attacks.
Far from liberalising society, instances of hate speech — which many have accused Charlie Hebdo of engaging in — serves to polarise it. Mixed with the institutional segregation of Muslims in society, this polarisation can often lead to radicalisation. Let us not forget that the recent attacks in Ottawa, Paris, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Sydney were all perpetrated by citizens of their respective countries — so-called “homegrown terrorists”.
Root causes of Islamist terrorism are still root causes, even if they go against the beliefs of the majority of the world’s Muslims and non-Muslims. For those who prescribe to the ideologies of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, there is only one logical end to slights against their beliefs. To fail to understand this and instead actively fuel the perception that their beliefs are under attack will continue to have deadly consequences.
At the same time as we condemn the attacks in Paris and mourn the victims of this violence, we must also ask important questions about free speech, its limits and common sense, as well as whether or not #JeSuisCharlie represents the 5-10% of French society that identifies as Muslim. Solidarity with the victims does not have to mean acceptance of Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons and it should not censor discussion of what constitutes hate speech.
Kevin Moore holds an MSc in Arab World Studies from the University of Edinburgh.Follow @kevinjm89