I don’t know exactly what I will say when people speak to me over the next few weeks about Charlie Hebdo. I know they will lean in, head cocked, as they do each time something like this happens, and ask me what I think about it. I will begin with ‘It is a terrible tragedy’ and, jumping in, their eyes will light up as they discuss the backwardness of certain groups. It always feels like an awful talk segment titled When Muslims Attack!, where the conclusion has be set and I am merely the speaker drafted in for “balance”. To defend nuance makes you an apologist for murder.
When I was in high school I ran the Model United Nation’s club. At the beginning of each session we would discuss the top news stories. It was an Islamic country and, by extension, most of our members were Muslim. One week we discussed the Danish cartoon controversy, an incident that I now mainly remember for the months we were unable to buy Lurpak butter.
People were angry but only a few admitted to actually seeing the cartoons in question; most relied on information and descriptions from news and social media which were not always accurate. In the interest of a factual debate I described the cartoons as best as I could. People were still angry, but this time their hurt was only focused on certain cartoons – those that seemed to set out to offend for no other reason than they could. The rest were bad jokes or just confusing. It was a heated debate about the moral right to publish such things. No-one was debating the legal right of a cartoonist to draw such things, nor was the protection of these people from violent reprisals in question. They were upset that in a world were there was so much miscommunication about Islam, newspapers around the world were declaring that the very essence of freedom was to perpetuate cartoons depicting it as barbaric, and then gleefully documenting the violent reactions rather than the dominant response of either silence or non-violent demonstration. They wanted freedom to also mean the freedom to consider treating them with respect by not publishing them.
Muslims, it seems, are not allowed to be angry. They are not allowed to have the nuance of opposing something they find offensive, protesting it non-violently, and opposing violent reactions. We celebrate the rights both to offend and criticise in general, but for a Muslim to be an active part of this system is to risk getting lumped in with those who do not believe in debate and engagement. The only correct responses to such a cartoon are apparently either unquestioning support or the acknowledgement that it is “just a bad joke”. Yet if we make it so that our definition of a good Muslim is one who believes only what “we” deem progressive then what does that say about us?
I know that I will spend the next couple of days dealing with people labelling those close to me, in the most thinly veiled terms, as animals because when they hear ‘Islamic extremism’ what they actually hear is ‘natural progression of a dangerous religion’. I know that I will get the joy of reading ‘Muslims and the West’ as if it is not possible to be both truly Western and truly Muslim. As if Western values are a separate entity reserved only for the non-Muslim (and let’s be frank – often white) amongst us. As if the many people sharing these cartoons now in a show of solidarity do not include Muslims in their numbers.
I believe that some of the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo I have seen in the past day, and the calls to reprint them everywhere, can make people feel like they are not part of our society. We are reacting to an event by being divisive – “fully support these things and prove you’re with us, or get out”. People may share (as they should rightly be allowed to) some of these cartoons, including the ones that shore up stereotypes of Islam as intolerant and violent, but in the small area I control I won’t add to that public perception. It is a path which can contribute to the escalation of looks I receive in airports. It means adding to that culture that has people arguing with queer Muslims about their ability to be queer Muslims, or dismissing the choices of women who wear head-scarves as being rooted in oppression. I practice the freedom I value in my choice to not add to this labelling of Muslims as guilty until proven innocent.
Let people be angry about cartoons – now and in the future – and let them make cartoons for people to be angry about as well. Recognise that people can deplore murder and deplore things that hurt them. People can and should be allowed to show their opposition to such a horrific attack in many ways. One of them is engaging in the freedom that enables Charlie Hebdo to be published and hopefully to continue to be published in the future (for press, even ones we disagree with, should not be stopped with the barrel of a gun).
People are people, and the press are press. They are all flawed. Let both be criticised through the freedoms we cherish, and let both be free from violent attack.