The Assassin’s Veto: Blasphemy and Charlie Hebdo


When an editorial dismisses as “xenophobes” those who blame terrorism on immigration, and is then taken as conclusive proof of racism, you know something has gone terribly wrong. Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine whose offices were attacked last year by gunmen offended by its cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, has once again been denounced for “Islamophobia” and racism. The alleged offense came in an editorial that challenged the role of religion in society, and that is assumed by its critics to say that all Muslims are complicit in terrorism. Nowhere in the French original by the cartoonist Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, nor in its rather more awkward English translation, does it say that. Rather, it is an anguished defense of French secularism, tinged by bitterness in a man who was shot in the shoulder while watching his colleagues die. Far from attacking all Muslims — an assertion that assumes all Muslims are the same — it takes aim at the growing power of religious conservativism. It calls out society’s failure to question this for fear of being branded an “Islamophobe.” It blames our silence for creating an atmosphere of fear without which terrorism cannot succeed. That silence has left the field open to the far right and produced a fractured, anxious society more inclined to react emotionally than rationally to acts of terrorism. Unwittingly proving the point made in the editorial, Charlie Hebdo’s critics have loudly condemned it for “Islamophobia” and racism, silencing the issues it raised with a willful or ignorant distortion of what it said. It is a grotesque parody that could be ignored if the stakes were not so high.

Go back to the January 2015 attacks in Paris by Islamist gunmen in which 12 people died at the Charlie Hebdo offices and another five were killed in related shootings. The Charlie Hebdo staff were not killed for racism. They were murdered for the assumed crime of blasphemy. Before the attacks, Charlie Hebdo was a niche magazine catering to a certain section of the French left, lampooning the government and the far right, mocking all sources of power including religion, and championing the cause of anti-racism. Of course, those with deeply held religious views would have found some of their cartoons offensive. But they had the choice not to see them. To read Charlie Hebdo, you had to go out of your way to buy the magazine. The cartoons were not plastered on billboards across Paris. Nor, as sometimes erroneously assumed, was the publication popular with the anti-immigrant right. On the contrary, the right is one of its main targets. That critics, especially in the English-speaking world, have so conclusively convicted Charlie Hebdo for racism (in doing so, heaping ire on journalists who are already facing death threats) tells you little about the magazine itself. It does, however, tell you much about the insidious of power of the very notion of blasphemy. Rather than confront the fact that the Charlie Hebdo staff were massacred for blasphemy, the magazine has been tried and convicted for a different crime — that of racism. Such is the transformation of their role as victims of a crime to victimizers, that the latest denunciation in Vice Magazine said they had become “smug satirists” who, among others, are “terrorizing” Muslims across Europe. (Muslims are rightly worried about an increase in anti-Muslim bigotry; but the arrow directed at Charlie Hebdo is shot from a different bow.)

I will return to the editorial lower down, but first get one thing straight: Europe is not being overrun by marauding cartoonists. People are being murdered for blasphemy. Nor is this about privileged white Westerners versus oppressed minorities. The most recent high-profile murder of a Muslim in Britain was not carried out by a smug satirist. Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah, from the minority Ahmadi community and originally from Pakistan, was beaten to death last month by a Muslim offended by posts he put online proclaiming his faith. Ahmadis have been excommunicated in Pakistan and banned from describing themselves as Muslims. Shah’s killer, Tanveer Ahmed, gave the same reason for murdering Shah as the gunmen who massacred the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. He said he had shown disrespect to the Prophet Mohammed. In Pakistan, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard in 2011 for speaking up for a Christian woman sentenced to hang for blasphemy. After his killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged this year his supporters besieged Islamabad to protest. For them Qadri was a hero who had defended the honor of the prophet. Perhaps they should have been shooed away by a posse of cartoonists. In Bangladesh, law student Mohammad Nazim this month became the latest secular activist and blogger to be murdered for writing against militant Islam.

It really should not be so difficult to recognize the difference between victim and attacker in any of these examples. The real power still resides with the men with guns, not those doing the dying. But since Charlie Hebdo’s critics seem to have difficulty grasping this, it is necessary to go through some of the shovelfuls of mud flung at it. For a start, it is held responsible for every sin of French racism right back to the Algerian war of independence from France, and indeed even as long ago as 1948. That is as absurd as accusing President Barack Obama of supporting the murder of black activists during in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Charlie Hebdo occupies a particular space in French secularism, a system that many outside France regard with outright distaste or incomprehension. But every country is a product of its history and culture and unless we all want to be ground down into a standardized global model in which no one can say anything that anyone would find offensive, we should assume they will be influenced by national peculiarities not easily visible to outsiders. Americans attached to the U.S. arrangement that upholds religious freedom are particularly prone to condemning the French model. But seen from the other side of the Atlantic, the United States can seem just as alien. Without the European welfare state, with its support for gun-ownership and unrestricted capitalism, it gives the impression, rightly or wrongly, of being not so much a society in the European sense, but a collection of individuals driven by identity politics and consumerism. Indian secularism is more accommodating than the French version, but limited by the country’s economic divisions. You would not, for example, see the Muslim son of the dhobi sitting next to the daughter of the laundryman’s Hindu boss in a state school, something that is at least theoretically encouraged by the French state school system. In France, anti-clericalism goes back to the French Revolution. Its secularism, or laïcité, actively aims to keep religion out of public life, including in its state schools. Compared to the United States or India, France has done rather better in providing decent and free state schools to everyone, albeit with increasing difficulty, including in poorer urban areas.

Then there is the recent past. The 20th-century Cold War history of the continental European secular left, of which Charlie Hebdo is a remnant, is alien to many Americans. Back then, opposing religion and American capitalism were often one and the same. The United States supported the Catholic Church as a bulwark against Communism, endorsing the same religious conservatism that it backed elsewhere, notably in Islamist militants fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. American critics outraged over Charlie Hebdo have much in common with their 20th-century right-wing counterparts who tried to stop left-wing Italian playwright Dario Fo from performing in the United States. His work mercilessly mocking the Catholic Church with vulgar and irreverent humor was also denounced as blasphemous. The continuity in the attitudes of an American audience to the “blasphemous” cartoons in Charlie Hebdo is not surprising. What has been saddening is that it has been so relentless. It champions a moral, religious and cultural conservatism that nowadays is more associated with Islam, but was once more closely linked with the anti-gay, anti-women, repressive views handed down by the Christian church. To suggest that anyone opposing this conservatism is racist or Islamophobic not only flies in the face of history, but maligns the many Muslims who support progressive causes.

Charlie Hebdo’s content does not travel well and much gets lost in translation. Many inside France don’t like it either, but you don’t expect people to appreciate every magazine and newspaper of every style across the political spectrum. If you’re in Washington, as many War on the Rocks readers are, just ask for people’s opinions of The Nation and The Weekly Standard at your next happy hour. But since Charlie Hebdo cartoonists drew attention to themselves by being murdered, it is now subject to international scrutiny. As a result, its meaning is not just lost but inverted. A drawing of drowned Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lampooning European consumerism and its rejection of refugees was assumed to be mocking the child. Its current cover declares that “Je Suis Panama” in a send-up of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag. If its critics stick to their usual literal interpretations, one assumes it is only a matter of time before they accuse it of defending tax havens.

The recent editorial that caused so much anger is certainly provocative. But it makes far more sense if you read it in the context of a debate between two men, both French speakers, both with very different concepts of the role of religion in society. It starts with Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan saying that society needs to compromise with religion. The editorial responds to Ramadan by saying, no, don’t compromise. French secularism is in retreat and must be defended. In the debate on the role of Islam in society, it says, Ramadan sets himself up as judge and jury. According to Ramadan, laïcité must “adapt to the new role of religion in western democracies, and must also accept all traditions brought in by people born of immigration.” Ramadan is not a neutral player here in the sense of being an innocent bystander. He represents a strand of thinking that is at the other end of the spectrum from Charlie Hebdo. To his detractors, among them many secular Muslims, he is seen as guilty of double-speak, saying one thing to a Western audience and another in the Islamic world while promoting an Islamist agenda. The grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and son of a man who introduced the ideas of Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami Islamist political party, to the Arab world, Ramadan is a controversial figure. (This long 2007 profile of Ramadan in The New Republic is a useful start.) Whether or not you agree with the stance taken by the Charlie Hebdo editorial, it is troublesome that Ramadan should have been given a free pass while the counter-argument is slammed. Ramadan might or might not be right. But neither the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Jamaat-e-Islami would have been given such a free pass in Egypt or Pakistan, where criticism is harder to silence with accusations of racism or Islamophobia.

Ramadan’s role, according to the editorial, is to dissuade people from questioning Islam for fear of being branded “Islamophobes.” It warns against acquiescence to his views since “terrorism is not possible without a generalised silence being established in advance.” The arguments that follow are sad and resigned rather than venomous. How do European societies deal with the rise of religious views that had largely disappeared in the 20th century? The editorial describes an imaginary Muslim who takes over the local boulangerie and no longer sells ham sandwiches. He is perfectly genial. He has absolutely no link to terrorism. Where is the line drawn between accommodation and complaining? When does it reach a point that it matters to people to be denied a ham sandwich when it is so obviously absurd to balk at a single bakery? The reference is one that carries greater resonance inside France than outside. The boulangerie is an institution in France, the baguette and “sandwich jambon-fromage” an essential part of it. The baker is particularly pious. He has a long beard and the mark on the forehead of a man who prays five times a day. He is certainly not typical of “all Muslims” — many Muslims would note the prayer marks and consider him as different from them for his overt display of piety. People will adapt, the editorial says. What of the veiled woman? She is a devoted mother who does no harm to anyone. The question of the veil is a vexed one, particularly in France which has resisted the presence of religious symbols in the public sphere and where French feminists worry about pressure on women to cover up. Many Muslim women also refuse to wear the veil. People will get used to it, the editorial says. The editorial does not explicitly say the disappearance of ham from the boulangerie or the veiled woman is a problem. The point is about the reluctance to articulate any discomfort. “Let’s keep quiet,” it says; “let’s not grumble.” “We will make do.”

Is the writer of the editorial really trying to blame these imaginary individuals for terrorism as the critics so stridently assert? This is not Donald Trump speaking. It is a section of the French left. In the French original, the tone comes across as more poignant than aggressive. That is perhaps because of the despairing headline “Qu’est ce que je fous la?” (WTF I am doing here), which seems less strident than the English “How Did We End Up Here?” It is not just a language issue. The cultural references, the assumptions about conversations already had, about points already made, make no sense from far away. If you had read Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission,” you might interpret the editorial differently. As in all cultures, France is self-referential. It is fair to point out this can be a problem when outsiders are trying to interpret. What is not fair is to forget that Charlie Hebdo is scrutinized internationally because its staff was murdered for blasphemy.

And because we all have different histories, we will read the editorial in different ways. Personally, I am reminded of Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” in the way the actors in the editorial are described. These are imaginary characters playing out their role in a tragic farce, driven by invisible compulsions. Even the gunman in a taxi on his way to attack the Brussels airport is portrayed as passive rather than active. These players are a reflection of a society where everyone is complicit in maintaining a silence in which the compulsions driving them cannot be articulated:

From the baker who prevents you from eating what you like to the woman who prevents you from saying you would prefer her without a veil, you feel guilty for having such thoughts. From that moment, the undermining work of terrorism begins.

I don’t expect everyone to read it the same way and certainly not to have the same cultural reference points. I only ask you to pause for thought.

Some years ago, one of the popular laments by Pakistanis on Twitter was “Wake Up Pakistan.” They fretted the state was ceding too much ground to religious conservatives and Islamist militants. Their warnings went unheeded. Similarly, in the editorial you come away with the sense all the characters are sleepwalking into tragedy. The outraged critics who filter it through the prism of racism do exactly what the editorial said they would do. They silence the debate by crying “Islamophobe.” They endorse or ignore Ramadan’s views and attack only the other side.

You don’t need to like Charlie Hebdo. But you should asking why anyone should compromise with the most regressive forces in Islam represented by the men who killed cartoonists for blasphemy. It does a terrible disservice to Muslims to suggest they are all the same, with “all Muslims” on one side and Charlie Hebdo on the other. Only a few decades ago, Muslim countries were far less culturally conservative and far less influenced by the politicization of religion. There is nothing permanent about today’s situation and nor is it intrinsic to Islam. Historically, Islam spread worldwide in part because of its openness to other cultures. Islamic scholarship contributed to the European Enlightenment. It is that openness to debate that should be encouraged; not those who want to shout down Charlie Hebdo.

To return to the Glasgow shopkeeper, the forces that killed him were set in motion long before he died. In 1974, Pakistan decided Ahmadis were heretical and declared them non-Muslims. The theological debate on Ahmadi beliefs had been running for years, but the impetus for the 1974 decision was political and driven by the Jamaat-e-Islami. Ahmadis have since become among the most persecuted minorities in Pakistan. Many fled for safety to the United Kingdom, only to continue to face harassment by those Muslims who claimed to find their views offensive. Leaflets were distributed in Britain declaring them “wajb-ul-qatl,” or worthy of death. Two years ago the Ahmadiyya community took out an advertisement in a regional newspaper. When a group of Muslims complained about it, the Luton newspaper apologized for causing offense and dissociated itself from the content of the advertisement. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which claims to fight sectarianism and discrimination, refuses to acknowledge Ahmadis’ own insistence that they are Muslims. They do, however, include among their affiliates the Khatme Nubuwwat, an organization at the forefront of Ahmadi persecution.

Britain ignored this problem until Tanveer Ahmed drove from the northern town of Bradford to Glasgow to beat Asad Shah to death. “If I had not done this,” Ahmed said in a statement this month, “others would have. …” Shah’s last message, posted on Facebook hours before he died, ought to put paid to the notion that killing for blasphemy is linked to racism: “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.”


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has reported on Pakistan and India since 2000. She is the author of “Heights of Madness”, a book on the Siachen war. Her second book, “Defeat is an Orphan, How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War”, will be published in July. She can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.