In defence of Charlie Hebdo: Open letter to an American friend

By Fred Martin

If we stop allowing speech or blasphemy when it’s offensive to religious people, who gets to draw the line? How, where and why? If we betray our own values for one thing, where do we stop?

My dear friend,

After you misunderstood a Charlie Hebdo cartoon that was taken out of context, you published a post insulting the publication online. You said you did not care that they got shot, that they did not deserve any kind of respect and that you never supported them. You called them bigots, victim blamed and went as far as to compare them to a man screaming “nigger” in a black neighbourhood.

When you wrote such despicable things about these dead cartoonists, it showed that you clearly had no idea what Charlie Hebdo stands for and all the good things they have done for minorities and immigrants in France for the past 45 years. It spits in the face of people who have always fought racism, xenophobia, the far right, homophobia and any kind of religious bigotry. It also spits in the face of people who supported them, like me and the vast majority of French liberals (90% according to recent polls and even 92% for socialist sympathisers) who, contrary to you, actually know what they are about.

As a black Haitian immigrant in France, who has been familiar with Charlie Hebdo for 20 years, I know for a fact that they are one of the most prominent anti-racist voices in France. They have always stood up for people like me, and for that, yes, they deserve respect.

CH

Translation of a statement by Dominique Sopo, President of SOS Racisme, the most important anti-racist organisation in France.

France is a truly secular country and this is part of our identity. We do not have blasphemy laws. Not allowing cartoons of Muhammad to be published would be like deciding to live under Islamic blasphemy laws. We want none of that.

If you knew a bit more about French culture and the history of French secularism, you would be aware of the fact that such religious satire is an important part of the culture and of course it was not always easy. There were problems with other religions but they had to deal with it and eventually adapt. Islam needs to adapt in the same way and many French Muslims have (75% of French Muslim consider themselves secular). You talked about respecting other cultures, so where is your respect for French culture? You should practice what you preach.

If we stop allowing speech or blasphemy when it’s offensive to religious people, who gets to draw the line? How, where and why? If we betray our own values for one thing, where do we stop? Like I said, it’s a slippery slope and it’s never-ending because anything can be considered offensive to anyone, especially to religious bigots and theocrats.

I’ll even go further: I consider blasphemy a good thing. Most progress (social, human rights or scientific) started off as blasphemy and at the time, there were always people screaming “blasphemy” or advocating the status quo of not offending. They were on the wrong side of history.

Let me remind you that the Charlie Hebdo attack was part of a coordinated attack which included the killing of Jews at a kosher market two days later. Their crime: just being Jewish! Islamists find that offensive.

Your existence alone as a gay man is blasphemous and offensive to vast numbers of religious people. Should you hide what you are or just stop being gay? One of my Muslim students once said to me: “we are all equal except murderers, rapists and gays.” Should I respect her beliefs just because they are based on religion and she totally identifies with them?

Should we accommodate practices like polygamy, female genital mutilation and forced marriages just because they are part of a belief system or a culture? Should we respect that? Such accommodations, and what I would call cowardice, have led the UK to accept the implementation of Sharia courts/councils, thus enabling a parallel system based on oppressive religious law. In France we do not pander to any illiberal practices which contradict our values, even if it comes from minorities. I consider that a good thing.

Did you know that I am now officially a target of ISIS? They released a statement calling their followers to kill French teachers in the public school system because they are guilty of polluting young Muslims’ minds by spreading secular values. It has already started: recently, a teacher was attacked by a student in the name of ISIS, and there will be others.

You see, if it’s not a drawing of the prophet, it will be something else. They will always find something. I am personally at risk because I expose my Muslim students to the liberal secular values of the French Republic. I am happy and proud to do it in spite of this risk.

For non-Muslims and secularists, to comply with Islamic restrictions is not tolerance, it’s submission!

There are many practicing and cultural Muslims in France who disagree with your positions and would take offence at what they would perceive as condescending paternalistic benevolence. Some would even call this paternal racism. Have you considered their feelings?

Liberal Muslim and ex-Muslim reformers and free speech advocates such as Asra Nomani, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Sarah Haider, Taslima Nasreen, Ali A. Rizvi, Maajid Nawaz, Salman Rushdie, Muhammad Syed, Waleed Al-Husseini, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Kamel Daoud, have not published cartoons of Muhammad, yet they are threatened because they stand for universal human rights and are critics of Islam.

You claim to defend minorities. These people are a minority within a minority and what they do takes courage. How about supporting them? They risk their lives to express their ideas and promote liberal humanist values and they consider Charlie Hebdo allies.

Protecting the hurt feelings of theists and theocrats is easy. No risk, no bravery required.

Either you truly advocate liberal values or you do not. Bad ideas are not worthy of any kind of respect. Free speech is one of the foundations of a secular pluralistic democracy and when you start questioning such a basic principle, it just opens the door for the worse. Also, being offended is not an argument. It’s just an appeal to emotion and not reason. I am personally offended every day by irrational beliefs, sexism, homophobia, tribalism and all the absurdities linked to religious bigotry. So what? There is no right to not be offended and it’s simply inevitable in a pluralistic society. Even bigots should be free to speak their minds, say things that I find despicable and not care if that offends me. It goes both ways.

To be clear, I will defend any Muslim being attacked by bigots just for being Muslim but I will also defend those who criticise or mock Islam or any other set of ideas.

You are a progressive and you often state your opposition and disgust towards anti Muslim bigotry. We share the same concerns about bigotry, but since you are a progressive, I find it surprising that I never see you criticising a backwards, anti-progress and anti-liberal ideology like Islam and its sexist, homophobic and antisemitic ideas. I never see or hear anything on the multiple and daily terror attacks and incredibly insane stories all over the world that happen in the name of this doctrine. Nothing on liberal Muslim reformers, nothing on the flogging of Raif Badawi, nothing on the secular Bangladeshi bloggers hacked to death, nothing on repressive blasphemy laws, nothing on the oppression of women, gays, atheists and free thinkers in the Muslim world and even in Muslim communities in the West. Of course you are free to talk and write about whatever you want and are under no obligation to address these issues. However, I find it quite strange and quite telling, that on the one hand, you stay silent on these issues and on the other hand, you express your opposition to Charlie Hebdo who stand for secular, liberal principles.

I hope you will not take this letter as a personal attack. It was not written as one. It’s a discussion about ideas and values, and these discussions are fundamental.

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