The fallout of the Charlie Hebdo killings and the brief flowering of support for free speech that followed, remembered five years on.
Five years ago yesterday (yes, we’re terrible at anniversaries), eleven people were shot dead at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamist fanatics who were upset because of a few cartoons featuring their prophet. The killings caused widespread, but short-lived outrage – it didn’t take long before the blame was shifted back onto the magazine, the leftist publication rebranded racist and the killers somehow excused by large parts of the liberal left – one of the most furious defences of the right to kill people for mocking religious beliefs came from a gender-fluid burlesque performer who seemed curiously supportive of an ideology that would have them strung up or decapitated for their sexuality.
At the time of the killings, we published two articles on our old website Strange Things Are Happening – one by the late Charlie Allbright, the other by Nigel Wingrove. They offer an alternative, sometimes conflicting personal takes on the massacre and the hand-wringing hypocrisy that followed it, and it seems as good a time as any to republish them now.
CALL YOURSELF A CHARLIE? by Charlie Allbright
Yup, I did it. I can’t remember when I heard the news but I sure as hell gobbled it up soon afterwards. Two things really stuck out to me when I heard the reports of the situation in France last week whereby some people were killed for being arseholes. The things that filled my head were that this was about cartoons, it was about the French and it was about Islam. I’ll be honest about each of these from the outset: political cartoons will always be Viz’s Millie Tant in my mind’s eye (bite my baggage), a group of people who pretend not to get uppity but actually really do (which I quite like), and a faith that irritates the fuck out of me for its refusal to drag its arse out of the middle ages, leaving its adherent shifting uncomfortably in their seats when religion comes up in class. (And no, I don’t think Islam or its supposed practices should be banned because hey, if people are daft enough to hold to a belief socialisation that suppresses them, that’s their choice.)
I normally avoid talking about politics with people as I know it’s very rare I will agree with them. I’m a smorgasbord of leftie identities with a real dislike of much modern leftist ‘ideology’ because I believe it encourages people to be victims, which isn’t good if you’re in a society where you’re not a self-sufficient unit (and unless you somehow miraculously produce your own food out of your arse, none of us are). The few forays I had into talking politics without preaching to the converted have ended by dissolving into bitter friendly fire by direct message or outright trolling in comment threads. I even (quietly) went to JeSuisCharlie demonstrations on my own as I couldn’t talk to my other half without us disagreeing on the issue. It was Hebdo daggers at dawn as duplicates for old arguments. Everything we don’t agree on became boiled down into this one issue and we stopped talking about it because we didn’t want to bayonette each other in our determination to land the best rhetorical jab, thus (temporarily) winning the war.
Our disagreement concerns how far the freedom of speech extends. My other half reckons that while we should support it, we should also not be cocks about it. Or, to use an example from Question Time (it’s tragic this is what I took from that flagship), “just because you can fart in the lift, doesn’t mean you should”. Me? I reckon that freedom of speech should be absolute. Yep, even including incitement to murder. If I tell you to go and kill someone and you’re fool enough to do it, then frankly you deserve locking up (JeSuisCharlieM..).
So far, so firebrand….
But I saw an Index on Censorship article today. This publication often irritates me for its (I often feel faux) right-onness, as it is a bit of a tie-club. Their article proclaimed “If you said ‘I believe in free expression, but…’ at any point in the past week, then this is for you. If you declared yourself to be “Charlie”, but have ever called for an offensive image to be removed from public viewing, then this is for you. If you “liked” a post this week affirming the importance of free speech, but have ever signed a petition calling for a speaker to be banned, then this is for you.”
The key words in the rest of the article, for me at least, are “If you genuinely believe in the value of free speech – that all ideas and opinions must be heard – then that necessarily extends to the offensive and the vile. You don’t have to agree with someone, or condone what they are saying, or the manner in which it is said, but you do need to allow them to say it.”. ‘Say it’ just emphasizes the person talking, perhaps in a room on their own. ‘Heard’ implies someone listening in that place and at that time. If not you, then whom? The difference is subtle, but I think it’s definitely there. I propose no answer, only aggravation and an honest to God query.
Nothing gets my alarm bells clanging more than the phenomena of ‘calling out’, the type of language the Index’s article’s phraseology style is now most associated with. Calling out (as in, “I’m calling you out on your bullshit”) is to be said with an African American-caricature head wiggle with one finger-up, showing how down, real and undeniable you are, regardless of its historical context. It is to point out in the showiest way possible how someone else is in the wrong and you, by virtue of that, are the righteous (and will take that microphone, thank you very much). I looked at the Index article’s header, posted by a friend, expecting to nod sagely. Then I realised I couldn’t. I did once ask for an image to be removed from view. The image was a BDSM representation of a woman on a news feed and I asked if future adult images could be put under cuts or headings in future as I sometimes check my feed at work for research purposes. I have no problem (I repeat) I have no problem with the display of the image. I like nudity, even if the contributor’s obviously virgin/whore complex irked me by being as clear as see-through titty pasties. What bugged me was that I had been forced to view the image in a content that I couldn’t deal with at that time because it was inappropriate for me to do so. It was on a group you had to join and the very vast majority of the content on that group is innocuous – nothing my boss won’t just give me another funny look for. I suggested to the admins that contributors could be asked to consider putting simple ‘adult content below’ headings on such posts to warn people if images could get them sacked so they could stop scrolling the fuck down at the very least – and I was promptly accused of being a wet-end feminist.
Shit? Did my requesting this mean I was (according to the venerable Index) a hypocrite? I had fulfilled their blustering, indignant criteria actually from private view even though I didn’t want the image taken down. I just wanted to be warned it was coming up so I could avoid it or frankly, save it for later. Was I imposing censorship because I had chosen to go to the site in the first place? My thinking is still ‘no’ as I didn’t want the image to be removed outright, though I did want to be able to choose whether or not to see it. I couldn’t just take it off my feed temporarily as you need admin/housekeeping approval to see that site, and no, it is not a porn site.
While flagellating myself (nothing a liberal loves to do more) and writing this piece initially as a small reply to the thread I saw the Index article on, I paused. I didn’t dare press send. I’ve already had a major dust-up with a colleague over Charlie Hebdo and frankly don’t need additional aggro at work if my reply is somehow seen. I didn’t press send because I realised I don’t have the time to placate pissed off friends. I paused because I didn’t want to see further comments disagreeing with me, to which I’d feel duty-bound to honour with a considered and timely reply (I really don’t mind changing my opinion if I’m wrong). I wanted the right to be able to walk the fuck away from any potential people – apologists, atheists and aggressors who wanted to impose their freedom of speech on me publicly when I wasn’t able to deal with it despite me being totally down with their right to do so. I know a number of us stopped looking at boards and feeds that said what we didn’t want to see because we couldn’t take it any more. I’m not shooting arrows here – I did it too. It’s as much as I wouldn’t take the idea of explaining on the hop to my boss why I was looking at that girl’s tits without a suitably academic reason. Is there any difference between a message in a magazine that is produced for you and others by a journalist that you don’t have to read but can (if you can find a copy) and a reply on a message board written partly again to you but also for the benefit of anyone else on that thread? Is not wanting to see, even temporarily, still censorship, because you weren’t there to be counted? Try putting JeSuisCharlie related content on your social media now. A lot of people have moved on. You’ll be a hand clapping in a forest, maybe with a faint return if you’re lucky.
Nous ne sommes pas Charlie, I suspect.
It’s hard to remember.
JE SUIS NOTHING by Nigel Wingrove
In 2014, following the brutal abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno by militant Islamist movement Boko Haram, (‘Western education is forbidden’), President Obama’s wife Michelle posted a photograph of herself on Twitter holding up a sign which read #BringBackOurGirls. Within hours hundreds of thousands of celebrities and ’concerned’ people worldwide reposted the same hashtag and achieved absolutely nothing, except perhaps a sanctimonious glow of having done the right thing. Indeed following this decisive action by America’s First Lady, the European Union followed the Twitter assault on Boko Haram with one of their own, passing a resolution “calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the abducted schoolgirls”. Boko Haram, of course, ignored both, and in the meantime have gone from strength to strength, recently murdering some 2000 people around the town of Baga. The schoolgirls are, surprisingly, nowhere to be seen…
While Boko Haram were busy raping schoolgirls and massacring villagers and anybody else who doesn’t adhere to their brand of Wahhabi and Salafi inspired jihadism, another group of happy-go-lucky head-hacking rapists were getting ready to party. The new gang had the catchy name of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant or ISIL – or ISIS or plain old IS, depending on who you ask – for short and this time the party was in Syria and Iraq where there were thousands of defenceless Yazidis Christians and other minority groups that these new Islamists on-the-chopping-block could amuse themselves with.
The rise of Islamic State on a tide of blood, rape, heads, genocide and atrocity videos has had the West in turmoil about how to fight it, not least because ISIL’s brand of slice ’n’ dice Wahhabism, which encourages the taking of sex slaves and souvenir heads, has acted like Islamic catnip to the legions of young wannabe jihadists that mope about Western cities despising Western culture and spend their evenings watching radical Imans and decapitation porn on Youtube. In fact, ever since the Islamic State spread out from Syria into Iraq and started decapitating Western hostages, and, at the same time turning their chief head-hacker, Jihadi John, into an internet sensation, ISIL have put the West on the back foot and high-lighted yet again the West’s seeming inability to confront Islamic fundamentalism.
With ISIL, while there was universal condemnation of its brutality this was, and is, always mixed with the absurd spectacle of Western leaders, like the British Prime Minister David Cameron, and numerous media outlets, who repeatedly state and trumpet that ISIL is an affront to Islam, and that it is not representative of Islam or Muslims generally as they are peaceful and represent a religion of peace. This is both patronising and nonsense coming as it does from non-Muslims.
Yet this softly, softly approach to radical Islam’s excesses is as nothing compared to the West’s abject abasement and verbal contortions every time a ‘lone wolf’ ‘mentally deranged’ or ‘Asian’ drives a car into passers-by, or stabs, or shoots, or decapitates or blows himself up in the name of Islam. Then, like the followers of Islamic State or Al Queda, these ‘Muslims’ are suddenly not real ‘Muslims’, but aberrations, or unMuslims, their actions and statements a bastardisation of Islam and Islamic teachings. So, in recent months as these unMuslims murdered, rammed and hacked to death people in Canada, Australia, France, the UK and the US we could relax because, although all the perpetrators were Muslim and all the victims weren’t, these attacks were, despite the evidence, carried out by unMuslims. Then France happened.
Charlie Hebdo. A magazine born and put together by the generation of 1968. Its pages flavoured by the CS gas that wharfed in from the barricades that had lined the boulevards of Paris all those years ago and its ink the same as that which had written all the anti-establishment slogans that had inspired the students in their ‘revolution’, and now, 47 years later, that same ink had killed them.
This magazine and its cartoonists, in a nation that loves cartoons and graphic art, had lampooned all religion and the Establishment, yet, like its close ally in print, the newspaper Libération, it had also embraced and championed multiculturalism, attacked racism, hated the Front National and generally pursued a left-leaning secular socialism. Therefore the murder of its editor and key cartoonists by French Muslims was both truly shocking to the French nation, and to the wider left-leaning establishment in the Western world generally. This was a bullet to the heart of Europe’s multicultural nirvana and it hurt.
These murders couldn’t just be dismissed as the actions of the mentally disturbed or an unMuslim and at first it seemed that the media and the West’s political intelligentsia might just have been shocked out of their multicultural stupor and would see the Charlie Hebdo slaughter for what it really was: a further demonstration, if one were needed, that the West is at war with a religious faith that has one aim, the establishment of a worldwide Caliphate that the rest the of the world must submit to or die.
Yet within minutes of the attack the BBC and other news agencies, as well as politicians, were going through incredibly complex mental contortions in which to represent the wider French Muslim community as the real victims and, in an amazing piece of verbal dexterity by the BBC, they also managed to reappoint the wider blame for the shootings back to Charlie Hebdo and the West by suggesting that the Islamic faith is more sensitive to attacks on it than other faiths and therefore it shouldn’t be ridiculed or criticised to the extent that Charlie Hebdo lampooned Islam as that would in a sense ask for Islam’s followers to attack it. The BBC also suggested that French society was to blame for not allowing Muslims to be truly both Muslim and French in France; that France’s very secularism was, in fact, a hindrance to Muslim integration and that France should therefore change its constitution to accommodate Islam rather than the other way round.
Then, as if to ram home the West’s utter inertia and ineffectiveness in the wake of a murderous assault on its values, France, having had its 9/11 moment, also had it’s First Lady moment and created a completely useless hashtag; ‘#JeSuisCharlie’. Now millions of people worldwide can hold up a pen, and a piece of paper, and for a brief, fleeting moment, feel that they are standing up to terrorism and radical Islam, or at least standing up to those ghastly unIslamic, unrepresentative, mentally-challenged Muslims that give all the nice Muslims a bad name. Then, in a few weeks, like the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, it will all be forgotten. Perhaps our next hashtag campaign should be #IamNevilleChamberlin.
© Nigel Wingrove 2015