Charlie Hebdo waves the white flag
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, a period clotted with jingoistic language, one phrase hardened into cliche faster than any other: if we don’t go shopping, forge ahead with baseball’s World Series, maintain an uninterrupted broadcast schedule for the Late Show With David Letterman and Saturday Night Live, or if we alter our lives in any significant way, then the terrorists have won.
That cliched bit of ‘keep calm and carry on’ sanctimony quickly devolved into a cliched joke, with the terrorists mocked endlessly alongside platitudes about Al Qaeda hating us for our freedom and admonitions that we only stuff our mouths full of “freedom fries.”
But let us briefly reanimate that expression and acknowledge that in one important battle — the battle over free speech — the terrorists have indeed won. And let’s also acknowledge that it was psychopathic violence, not a sense of propriety and consideration for those down and out in Paris and Clichy-sous-Bois, that helped achieve this victory.
Last week, in an interview with German newsweekly Stern, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau waved a white flag, stained with the blood of 12 murdered colleagues and comrades, when announcing that he would no longer draw cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. It was clear that Charlie Hebdo — of which Riss owns 40 percent — was also done with Muhammad mockery. This comes just a few months after cartoonist Renald “Luz” Luzier said that drawing Muhammad “no longer interested” him. He quit Charlie Hebdo not long after. The editor of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was more forthcoming about why he too was done with the prophet. As the newspaper that kicked off the “Muhammad cartoon crisis” in 2005, Jyllands-Posten would not be republishing anything from Charlie Hebdo, he stated bluntly, because the staff feared a repeat of the the massacre in Paris.
This is an entirely understandable surrender to violence, though disappointingly one that is cloaked in euphemism.
Let’s be perfectly clear: this is an entirely understandable surrender to violence, though disappointingly one that is cloaked in euphemism. While Islam was far down on the list of Charlie Hebdo’s satire targets, Sourisseau told Stern that he wants to prevent people from thinking his magazine “was possessed by Islam.” And it was time to move on, he said, because “we’ve done our job [and] we have defended the right to caricature.”
Now the blunt attacks on Islamism — never on Muslims — regularly offered by the magazine’s murdered editor Stéphane Charbonnier have been replaced with the platitudes of its critics. “The mistakes you could blame Islam for can be found in other religions,” Sourisseau told Stern. I suspect he knows that this isn’t exactly true, especially in the era of the Islamic State. After all, the Charlie Hebdo offices weren’t bombed and sprayed with bullets by dyspeptic papists, and neither Riss or Luz have suggested that they’ll no longer draw Jesus. But this is the line we must all take now — even left-wing, French secular humanists — to insulate ourselves from charges of bigotry.
The relentless campaign against Charlie Hebdo by those accusing it of “racism” or “punching down” has had an effect. Because once deployed, as the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo discovered, the racism charge sticks to the accused’s skin like napalm. And no one is immune — even murdered cartoonists — because there are no penalties for filing a false report. So if they expected unmitigated solidarité after their staff was machine gunned (while planning their participation, it should be noted, in an anti-racism event), they were surely disappointed when non-Francophone writers who hadn’t previously heard of Charlie exploded with denunciations of its racist intent. The most profane mainstream examples compared staffers with raping colonialists and genocidal Nazis.
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