It is one year since the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, and one year since much of the free world proclaimed itself to “be Charlie.” It is also a year since it became obvious that almost no one really was Charlie and that, if people had been, then the people shot for being Charlie might still be alive to publish Charlie. As it was, after the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy the staff of one small-circulation secularist French magazine were just about the only people in the world willing to treat Islam in the same way satirists and cartoonists across the world treat every other religion. Left out so far in front of a culture which prides itself on fearlessness and bravery, while being rife with fear and self-censorship, it made what happened in Paris a year ago seem almost inevitable.
Perhaps it is for that reason that the first reaction to the killings seemed not only over-compensating but slightly guilt-tinged in its posthumous solidarity. In any case, it wasn’t long before a backlash to this occurred. At first it came only from Islamist pundits who insisted that although the cartoonists might not have deserved death, they did in some sense “have it coming to them.” Naturally the smarter Islamists sensed that excusing murder for the crime of “blasphemy” is still not presently the fastest way to the Western heart. So they lobbed an even more untrue and toxic claim into the mix: Charlie Hebdo, they said, was “racist.”
If this charge had only stayed around among the Islamists it might have been more easily brushed aside. But last year’s decision by PEN American Center to give an award to Charlie Hebdo saw this deliberately disingenuous and diverting smear echoed from the most prolix heights of American publishing. Joyce Carol Oates, among others, publicly fretted about PEN’s giving an award to a magazine that had — in her unusually brief depiction — published “cartoons depicting black women as monkeys.” Perhaps we shouldn’t blame Oates for not reading French, but it ought to count against her that she should repeat a lie that demonstrates her to be quite that ignorant of France and its culture. If she had exercised just a portion of the effort her own prose demands from its readers, then she might have learned that the dead people she was smearing never did publish a racist caricature depicting a black woman as a monkey (let alone “black women,” plural, as “monkeys”). Rather, they published one cartoon attacking France’s National Front because some of that party’s supporters had grossly caricatured a black French minister in this way. You don’t need to know much French or French politics to get this. You just need to know more than Ms. Oates did before she sowed these wild smears across the world’s media.
Now, one year after the attacks, the publisher Little, Brown has published a short tract that reads like a great rebuke to Ms. Oates and Co. from beyond the grave. The late editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier — or “Charb,” as he was known – was leading the editorial meeting on that January morning when the new blasphemy police arrived. Of all the victims shot both inside and outside the magazine’s offices, Charb was the one whom the killers called for by name. Several years before — after his offices had been firebombed — he had told an interviewer, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.” He died standing. Unknown to his killers, just two days earlier Charb had finished the short book now published as “Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression.”
#share#Coming in at a mere 80 pages (about the length of a Joyce Carol Oates parenthesis), the book is short enough to be read by Charlie Hebdo’s critics. If only one had any confidence that they would bother. It is a shame that they will not, because the book consists of a bracing blast of French secularist anti-clericalism for a century that still doesn’t realize that it needs it. The book attacks the idea that criticism of any religion should be the cause of legal suits, let alone physical intimidation. It lambastes the idea that criticism of a religion should ever be elided with racism. And it warns about giving silencing rights to any group simply because they express the loudest outrage. After all, as Charb warns, “If the next day a vegetarian terrorists threatens to kill anyone who dares assert that our taste buds delight in meat, we will be required to respect the carrot just as we are required to respect the brotherhood of prophets of the three monotheistic religions.”
Charb’s book consists of a bracing blast of French secularist anti-clericalism for a century that still doesn’t realize that it needs it.
The cartoonist has a neat way of skewering the people who spent years trying to take him and his left-wing anti-racist colleagues to court in France and who perennially found ways to excuse the men of violence and their actions. As Charb realized, the twin problems for those who believe in free speech have become not just those who are willing to kill in the name of their hyper-sensitive god but the pusillanimous dolts who spend the aftermath of any such attack thinking up excuses that the killers never asked for. Again and again, Charb preempts what would turn out to be the first claims of his first posthumous abusers, countering their arguments so successfully from the other side of the grave because he heard them so often on this side. So he says of one group of his magazine’s critics, “It’s not the struggle against racism these folks are really interested in; it’s the promotion of Islam.” Elsewhere he gives an example of how the fear of reprisal is shutting down French art: “Self-censorship is becoming a major art form in France.”
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Toward the short book’s end, Charb wonders what will happen when everybody else cottons on to the idea of vilifying as racist anyone who offends your feelings. Where will the Muslims stand with the Jews? Where will everybody stand with the Christians? And what will the atheists do? He could see already that at this rate, years of sincere and insincere offense-claims would constitute our collective future. The conclusion of Charb’s short manifesto is, like Charlie Hebdo under his cruelly curtailed editorship, a plea for everybody in France to be treated equally under the law, without fear or favor. It is also an attack on those who seek to protect Islam and an explanation of why those who believe that Muslims are somehow hard-wired to be violent and so seek to protect them from even the mildest criticism are the real racists of our time.
At the very end he points out that there is a secular, freethinking way out of all of this. After all, atheists won’t be coming up with an “atheophobia” charge any time soon. And he explains why all those Islamists and their excusers could take a lesson from that example. Indeed, at the very end he suggests a solution. “I dare you simply to laugh at those you consider your enemies, laugh your heart out.” Charb did — right up to the end, and not least among the insults to his memory is what an ever-diminishing huddle of people seem to want to share the joke.