Why I am not Charlie

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not the same as to become them. This is true on the simplest level: I cannot occupy someone else’s selfhood, share someone else’s death. This is also true on a moral level: I cannot appropriate the dangers they faced or the suffering they underwent, I cannot colonize their experience, and it is arrogant to make out that I can. It wouldn’t be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo:  Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo: Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Erasing differences that actually exist seems to be the purpose here: and it’s perhaps appropriate to the Charlie cartoons, which drew their force from a considered contempt for people with the temerity to be different. For the last 36 hours, everybody’s been quoting Voltaire. The same line is all over my several timelines:

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

“Those 21 words circling the globe speak louder than gunfire and represent every pen being wielded by an outstretched arm,” an Australian news site says. (Never mind that Voltaire never wrote them; one of his biographers did.) But most people who mouth them don’t mean them. Instead, they’re subtly altering the Voltairean clarion cry: the message today is, I have to agree with what you say, in order to defend it. Why else the insistence that condemning the killings isn’t enough? No: we all have to endorse the cartoons, and not just that, but republish them ourselves. Thus Index on Censorship, a journal that used to oppose censorship but now is in the business of telling people what they can and cannot say, called for all newspapers to reprint the drawings: “We believe that only through solidarity – in showing that we truly defend all those who exercise their right to speak freely – can we defeat those who would use violence to silence free speech.” But is repeating you the same as defending you? And is it really “solidarity” when, instead of engaging across our differences, I just mindlessly parrot what you say?

But no, if you don’t copy the cartoons, you’re colluding with the killers, you’re a coward. Thus the right-wing Daily Caller posted a list of craven media minions of jihad who oppose free speech by not doing as they’re ordered. Punish these censors, till they say what we tell them to!

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.34.32 AMIf you don’t agree with what Charlie Hebdo said, the terrorists win.

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.22.15 AMYou’re not just kowtowing to terrorists with your silence. According to Tarek Fatah, a Canadian columnist with an evident fascist streak, silence is terrorism.

Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 11.46.59 PMOf course, any Muslim in the West would know that being called “our enemy” is a direct threat; you’ve drawn the go-to-GItmo card. But consider: This idiot thinks he is defending free speech. How? By telling people exactly what they have to say, and menacing the holdouts with treason. The Ministry of Truth has a new office in Toronto.

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire? I can hold that governments shouldn’t imprison Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t oblige me to deny the Holocaust myself.

It’s true, as Salman Rushdie says, that “Nobody has the right to not be offended.” You should not get to invoke the law to censor or shut down speech just because it insults you or strikes at your pet convictions. You certainly don’t get to kill because you heard something you don’t like. Yet, manhandled by these moments of mass outrage, this truism also morphs into a different kind of claim: That nobody has the right to be offended at all.

I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club.The demand to join, endorse, agree is all about crowding us into a herd where no one is permitted to cavil or condemn: an indifferent mob, where differing from one another is Thoughtcrime, while indifference to the pain of others beyond the pale is compulsory.

We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.

Funny little man: Contemporary caricature of Kierkegaard

Funny little man: Contemporary Danish cartoon of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, the greatest satirist of his century, famously recounted his dream: “I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled.” They granted him one wish: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.” Kierkegaard knew what he meant: Children used to laugh and throw stones at him on Copenhagen streets, for his gangling gait and monkey torso. His table-turning fantasy is the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have. As Adorno wrote: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof. Historically, therefore, satire has for thousands of years, up to Voltaire’s age, preferred to side with the stronger party which could be relied on: with authority.” Irony, he added, “never entirely divested itself of its authoritarian inheritance, its unrebellious malice.”

Satire allies with the self-evident, the Idées reçues, the armory of the strong. It puts itself on the team of the juggernaut future against the endangered past, the successful opinion over the superseded one. Satire has always fed on distaste for minorities, marginal peoples, traditional or fading ways of life. Adorno said: “All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay.”

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’InfâmeBut what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.

Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 3.01.25 AM

The Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?”

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you're circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you’re circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

Nobody wishes Voltaire had been killed for his slanders. If some indignant Jew or Muslim (he didn’t care for the “Mohammedans” much either) had murdered him mid-career, the whole world would lament the abomination. In his most Judeophobic passages, I can take pleasure in his scalpel phrasing — though even 250 years after, some might find this hard. Still, liking the style doesn’t mean I swallow the message. #JeSuisPasVoltaire. Most of the man’s admirers avoid or veil his anti-Semitism. They know that while his contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister. Last year a former Charlie Hebdo writer, accusing the editors of indulging racism, warned that “The conviction of being a superior being, empowered to look down on ordinary mortals from on high, is the surest way to sabotage your own intellectual defenses.”

Of course, Voltaire didn’t realize that his Jewish victims were weak or powerless. Already, in the 18th century, he saw them as tentacles of a financial conspiracy; his propensity for overspending and getting hopelessly in debt to Jewish moneylenders did a great deal to shape his anti-Semitism. In the same way, Charlie Hebdo and its like never treated Muslim immigrants as individuals, but as agents of some larger force. They weren’t strivers doing the best they could in an unfriendly country, but shorthand for mass religious ignorance, or tribal terrorist fanaticism, or obscene oil wealth. Satire subsumes the human person in an inhuman generalization. The Muslim isn’t just a Muslim, but a symbol of Islam.

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

This is where political Islamists and Islamophobes unite. They cling to agglutinative ideologies; they melt people into a mass; they erase individuals’ attributes and aspirations under a totalizing vision of what identity means. A Muslim is his religion. You can hold every Muslim responsible for what any Muslim does. (And one Danish cartoonist makes all Danes guilty.) So all Muslims have to post #JeSuisCharlie obsessively as penance, or apologize for what all the other billion are up to. Yesterday Aamer Rahman, an Australian comic and social critic, tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.08.33 AM

A few hours later he had to add:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.07.58 AM

This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of #JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. The antagonists are fake but they’re entangled, inevitable. The language hardens. Geert Wilders, the racist right-wing leader in the Netherlands, said the shootings mean it’s time to “de-Islamize our country.” Nigel Farage, his counterpart in the UK, called Muslims a “fifth column, holding our passports, that hate us.” Juan Cole writes that the Charlie Hebdo attack was “a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public” — at “sharpening the contradictions.” The knives are sharpening too, on both sides.

We lose our ability to imagine political solutions when we stop thinking critically, when we let emotional identifications sweep us into factitious substitutes for solidarity and action. We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killingsI mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.

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Tunisian promise(s)

Rachid Ghannouchi: nothing up my sleeve

Al-Nahda (also known as Ennahda), the moderate Islamist party that won 41.7 percent of the vote and a leading role in government in last month’s free elections, promises that it will not introduce shari’a or change the secular character of the constitution:

“We are against trying to impose a particular way of life,” Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, 70, a lifelong Islamist activist jailed and exiled under previous regimes, told Reuters. …

All parties agreed to keep the first article of the current constitution which says Tunisia’s language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. “This is just a description of reality,” Ghannouchi said. “It doesn’t have any legal implications. There will be no other references to religion in the constitution. We want to provide freedom for the whole country” …

Samir Ben Amor, a leader of the secularist Congress for the Republic party due to join a coalition with Ennahda and another non-religious party, agreed there was no dispute about maintaining the brief reference to Islam in the first article.

He said there was wide agreement among political parties to strengthen democracy in the constitution by referring to international human rights conventions. “We want a liberal regime,” he said.

Similarly, Al-Nahda promises it will not introduce laws new laws to regulate personal behavior:

“There shouldn’t be any law to try to make people more religious,” said Ghannouchi, whose party has pledged to continue to allow alcohol and Western dress here and pursue economic policies favouring tourism, foreign investment and employment.

The Islamist leader said he interprets sharia, the ill-defined and often confusing complex of Islamic teachings and laws, as a set of moral values for individuals and societies rather than a strict code to be applied to a country’s legal system.

Coalition partners committed to preserving Tunisia’s progressive laws on women’s rights and the family, without including those provisions in the Constitution:

Although all parties agreed to defend Tunisian women’s rights, some of the most advanced in the Arab world, Ben Amor said they could not agree to some feminists’ demands to have the country’s liberal Personal Status Code written into the constitution. “No constitution in the world has that,” he explained. These rights would be protected through legislation, he added.

About a third of the representatives in the newly elected assembly will be women — more than anywhere else in the Arab world, and twice the percentage in the US Congress.

At the same time,

Observers of events in Tunis have reported that radical factions have harassed women to dress more traditionally.  About 500 women gathered in the capital to protest these developments, and were granted a meeting with Prime Minster Beji Caid Essebi to raise their demands.

The campaign created the conditions for aggressive and intimidating public shows of zealotry. Anecdotally, I’ve heard two stories of lesbians and gay men being harassed on the streets or in taxis during and after the election.   In an alarming incident two weeks before the poll, the offices of a TV station that showed Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis — about religious oppression of women in Iran — were attacked and defaced by a crowd of Islamist men and women, some armed.

Nonetheless, there’s no reason now to doubt the apparent broad support in Tunisia for preserving the frame of the secular state, or to suppose that it will change in coming years. I tend to agree with Marwan Muasher, who wrote last week in the New York Times that

The best way to deal with Islamist parties … is to include them in government and hold them accountable. …  Ennahda understands that it can’t ignore the secular part of the electorate. If the party wants to be as successful in Tunisia’s next election after a new constitution has been written, it knows it needs to present moderate views.

Over the next few years, other parties will have a chance to develop in Tunisia and Islamists are likely to get a lower percentage of the vote next time around. … While they may be part of leading coalitions in various countries, they are unlikely to gain power outright in any country.

Tunisia votes

Into the box

Tunisia held elections Sunday — the first of the Arab Spring, now turning to a chillier fall. Al-Nahda, the moderate Islamist party, appears to have won: they claim over a third of the vote as the count continues.

According to the New York Times, they

won at least 30 percent of the votes cast on Sunday, and party officials told a news conference the party had come out ahead in nearly every voting district. Ali Laredi, a top official of the party, said it expected to receive possibly more than 50 percent when the final results are tallied. Calling his party “the most modernist” Islamic political movement in the Arab world — meaning the most committed to principles of democracy and pluralism — Mr. Laredi predicted that it would now “lead the way” for others around the region.

Ettakol, a leftist party, is running at about a fifth of the vote, but is likely to join in a coalition. Khalil Zaouia, the party’s number two, told Al-Jazeera:

“Al-Nahda is certainly the majority, but there are two other democratic entities, Ettakatol and the CPR [Congress Party for the Republic, another left faction], who were weak at the start but now find themselves in the position to contribute to political life and usher a rational modernity in this Arab-Muslim country.”

The Times suggests that Al-Nahda is negotiating with the full spectrum of liberal parties for inclusion in a coaltion. But the election’s real success , surely, is that actors associated with the old regime were decisively rejected.

“Rational modernity” is a very Tunisian phrase. The nature both of national modernity — what it means for Tunisia’s state and society to be modern — and of political reason itself have been subterranean subjects of debate since the Revolution.  Secularists insistently demand: can an Islamist party really be a rational political actor in a country where authoritarian secularism has defined the national identity? Al-Nadha seems publicly unfazed by the question. It maintains it can. Nouri Gana of Jadaliyya, in an incisive if tendentious report on the election’s stakes a few days back, writes:

Perhaps the trouble with the electoral campaign in the end is that it has allowed questions of cultural identity, religion and laïcité to override other important and thorny issues that have to do with the economy, unemployment, justice and political reconciliation, etc. On the one hand, Islamists have focused very much on their past histories of struggle and have insisted on their progressive civic agenda as well as on their preference for parliamentary democracy. On the other, pseudo-secularists have been fixated on the critique of Ennahda [al-Nahda], all the while remaining reticent about or oblivious to the ideological underpinning of laïcité. By presenting their ideology as a form of critique, Tunisian pseudo-secularists have steadily, even dogmatically, constructed themselves beyond critique. A critique of Tunisian laïcité, however, is never more to be desired than at a time when its complicity with the old regime of Ben Ali and French cultural imperialism has become an everyday Tunisian reality. Tunisians who will go to the polls this Sunday cannot be expected to deliver such a critique—they will deliver their long overdue judgment.