Why I Never Have Been — And Never Will Be — “Charlie”

I Am Still Not Charlie

Like virtually every person on the planet with some sort of a conscience, I was appalled by the massacre at the offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo last year. How could you not be? It was an act of appalling violence. But the evidence that Charlie Hebdo had a mean-spirited and racist streak piled up so quickly in my social media that I never wanted to declare “Je suis Charlie.” The same conscience that made me sickened at the murders of 12 human beings made it impossible for me to join in solidarity with the magazine they worked for.

I admit, I felt a lot of ambivalence at first. People I respected and usually agreed with were telling me that I was wrong, and I double- and triple-checked myself as I’m wont to do, but the arguments in favor of Charlie Hebdo, even when coming from people I generally respected such as Salman Rushdie, had a strong whiff of bullshit.

In the last year, Charlie Hebdo has been pouring the racist shit on so heavily that you could strangle on it. Nose plugs aren’t enough to stifle the stench; you need a military-grade gas mask to kill the smell. In January of this year, they published a cartoon saying pretty bluntly that Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body washed up on the shores of Turkey, would have grown up to sexually assault European women. (You can find a tweet of the cartoon here.)

There is already an enormous amount of evidence demonstrating Charlie Hebdo‘s racism and xenophobia. But for those who are still hanging on by their bare fingernails, who are still making excuses about how the rest of us don’t understand the context of French politics and culture, Charlie Hebdo‘s recent editorial titled, “How Did We End Up Here?” should be the final blow.

According to the editorial, all Muslims in Europe play a role in terrorism, merely by being Muslim and acting as good neighbors. Simply by making it acceptable to be a Muslim professor, baker, or a woman who wears a veil while otherwise minding her own fucking business, they’re setting us up to accept the eventual destruction of secularism. The bombers, according to the writer, are merely “the visible part of a very large iceberg”:

Take the local baker, who has just bought the nearby bakery and replaced the old, recently-retired guy, he makes good croissants. He’s likeable and always has a ready smile for all his customers. He’s completely integrated into the neighbourhood already. Neither his long beard nor the little prayer-bruise on his forehead (indicative of his great piety) bother his clientele. They are too busy lapping up his lunchtime sandwiches. Those he sells are fabulous, though from now on there’s no more ham nor bacon. Which is no big deal because there are plenty of other options on offer – tuna, chicken and all the trimmings. So, it would be silly to grumble or kick up a fuss in that much-loved boulangerie. We’ll get used to it easily enough. As Tariq Ramadan helpfully instructs us, we’ll adapt. And thus the baker’s role is done. …

And yet, none of what is about to happen in the airport or metro of Brussels can really happen without everyone’s contribution. Because the incidence of all of it is informed by some version of the same dread or fear. The fear of contradiction or objection. The aversion to causing controversy. The dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist. Really, a kind of terror. And that thing which is just about to happen when the taxi-ride ends is but a last step in a journey of rising anxiety. It’s not easy to get some proper terrorism going without a preceding atmosphere of mute and general apprehension.

There was a point where people could disagree in good faith about whether Charlie Hebdo was racist or just crude satire that struck at all targets. Immediately after the attack, it was easy to be traumatized by the overwhelming amount of media coverage. For Americans who, like myself, had never heard of Charlie Hebdo and didn’t speak French, there was an awful lot to figure out in a very short period of time.

But that time is over. If, at this point, you’re still claiming that Charlie Hebdo is a progressive force and Americans just don’t get the joke, the only excuse is that you’re trying to provide cover for your own bigotry. And I expect that unfortunately, there are lots of people in the atheist community who are gripping on to every word of that editorial as snugly as someone who’s just found their favorite sex toy after a long dry spell.

Hemant Mehta photo
Hemant Mehta
Photo by makelessnoise

Or again, maybe not. A lot of organized atheism’s loudest defenders of Charlie Hebdo are being strangely silent. Hemant Mehta went to great lengths to assure everyone that the Alan Kurdi cartoon was not racist, but was actually satirizing France’s anti-immigrant Right. 1 As of this writing, he has yet to say word one.

Likewise, Ophelia Benson has repeatedly declared support of Charlie Hebdo to be an essential marker of one’s commitment to free speech and secularism but so far, she hasn’t even acknowledged the most recent controversy. Of all the things that Benson can be criticized for, keeping her mouth shut in the face of controversy isn’t one of them. Of course, it’s possible that she’s preoccupied making sure that anti-trans bigotry stays cool in feminist circles.

Jerry Coyne has written on Charlie Hebdo‘s editorial, but he gives only very tepid support. He seems to think that the magazine’s heart is in the right place, while disagreeing about the specifics:

Charlie Hebdo is right that we should never, ever, stop criticizing irrationality, even if it puts us in danger. But even if we did, would that stop the terrorism, as the editorial implies? I don’t think so. The beef of Islamist terrorists isn’t criticism of their faith, but the incompatibility they see between their religion and modern secular society.

I hope we get stronger disagreement with Charlie Hebdo than that, because “How Did We Get Here?” is a truly, deeply, disgusting piece of shit. It will peel the paint off the most badass gas mask you can get. There’s no way for an honest person to read those words and say that Charlie Hebdo stands for a humanistic, democratic philosophy.

The idea that Islamophobia is nothing more than a phantasm invented by those who want to silence all criticism of Muslims is a popular one among atheists as well as right-wing Christians. You’re as likely to find it in the online rantings of Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson as you are in the sewage of National Review and Breitbart. Like all good lies, it does have a seed of truth to it, but just a seed. There are those who use the real threat of bigotry to shut down genuine, legitimate critiques. My fellow Orbiter Heina Dadabhoy has written some great things on the difference between racialized othering and criticizing injustice within Islamic communities.2 They’re the one you should go to for insights on that.

But as ridiculous as that is, Charlie Hebdo turned it up a notch into something exponentially more disgusting. To treat Muslims as human beings — to befriend the halal baker, the scholar, the woman wearing the veil — is to ally yourself with a dreadful fifth column. You become one link in the chain that inevitably ends in massacres like the one in Brussels.

If I thought that Charlie Hebdo wanted an active, critical conversation about the institutions of religion, I would be fine. I think that it’s always better to make our decisions based on their consequences here in the real world, not on the revelations of long-dead prophets or because of promised rewards in the next life. I even cringe a little when liberal Christians declare the words of Jesus to be their inspiration for fighting homophobia or poverty or racism or some other justice. I always want to know if they’d be willing to fight for those things even if it turned out that Jesus was an asshole who believed in White Power and gay bashing.

But Charlie Hebdo chose to target not the institutions of religion, but the people living their lives. It’s clear that they do not consider the Muslims living in France to be their neighbors or even truly French, no matter how long they’ve lived there. In the eye of Charlie Hebdo, they never will be truly French, nor do they want to be. Teju Cole, who’s been a vocal critic of Charlie Hebdo from the beginning, articulated the obvious historical parallels on his Facebook page:

Historical analogy can be tiresome and too easy, but sometimes it’s the sharpest thinking tool around. Reading this extraordinary editorial by Charlie, it’s hard not to recall the vicious development of “the Jewish question” in Europe and the horrifying persecution it resulted in. Charlie’s logic is frighteningly similar: that there are no innocent Muslims, that “something must be done” about these people, regardless of their likeability, their peacefulness, or their personal repudiation of violence. Such categorization of an entire community as an insidious poison is a move we have seen before.

The fact that Charlie Hebdo is not only widely accepted but embraced among prominent atheists is a sign of how deep the problems with race and xenophobia run in our community. As Heina has written at length, there are definitely problems with homophobia and misogyny within Muslim communities, and to excuse that under the cloak of tolerance makes us complicit in the fates of the oppressed. But defending justice doesn’t mean that we have to support bigots like the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo — nor do we have to become them.


  1. It never seemed to occur to Hemant that this isn’t so much a defense as merely damning with faint praise. According to his own argument, the best that can be said of Charlie Hebdo‘s editorial staff is that they’re stunningly incompetent satirists instead of racist assholes. 
  2. For a little  taste of how effectively Heina debunks the bullshit trope that anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t racist — I recommend this passage: Similarly, though Islam might not be a race, people do treat Muslims as if they are part of a single racial category. It is widely assumed that all Muslims are Arabs and that all Arabs are Muslims. It’s so pernicious that well-meaning people who know me and follow my writings have repeatedly made statements that rested on the assumption that I am an Arab. I’ve had friends who knew me well use Arabic phrases they picked up or say things about my family that implicitly assume that I am an Arab. They generally apologize in shame about it when I remind them that I am not an Arab, but it happens anyway. The stereotyping of Muslims, then, comes from racism and is a part of racism against Middle-Easterners (and, more broadly, the Other) rather than is equivalent to or is racism. Because Muslims are widely perceived and stereotyped to be a certain race, i.e. not white, criticism that is purported to be of Islam can end up being dressed-up racist statements against Arabs. 
Why I Never Have Been — And Never Will Be — “Charlie”

30 thoughts on “Why I Never Have Been — And Never Will Be — “Charlie”

  1. 1

    There seems to be a belief on the left that “not being on the right” is enough to deflect any and every claim of bigotry, no matter how well-founded. It seems to be a combination of associating bigotry with “the other” and a unspoken belief that you can earn the right to be just a little bit of a bigot as long as you’re not the most extreme bigot and generally good on some issues.

    The general defense of Charlie Hebdo bigotry seems to have always boiled down to “they’re associated with the left-wing French party, therefore…” and that’s not good enough.

    1. 1.1

      Exactly, Joe. And in the case of Charlie Hebdo, I think that a lot of people are remembering what it used to be and judging by that.

      Then, there’s the whole idea that anything can be defended under the aegis of “satire.” I want to write a little bit about that in the future, as I have a really dark, angry, sometimes very dry sense of humor that can tread on the edge of being inappropriate, especially if you don’t know me. And if it does cross that line, the fact that I’m joking doesn’t excuse me from rethinking what I’m saying and making an apology.

  2. 2

    Oh, you left out my favourite part, the part where they claim the muslim baker forbids you to eat what you want by not offering ham sandwiches*.
    Now, of course there can be situations in which private businesses not selling something is as effective as banning something, but the idea that you have problems getting ham in France is ridiculous.
    And that the woman in a veil forbids you to be uncomfortable. Because that’s actually possible, regulating your emotional reaction by her sheer existence.
    The essence of the article seems to be that if you ever had a chance to be an asshole to a muslim and weren’t, you’re supporting terrorism. Because being assholes to marginalised groups is a well tried recipe to prevent terrorism….

    *Did you know I’m constantly stealing money from the local baker by bringing my own damn lunch?

    1. 2.1

      Oh, you left out my favourite part, the part where they claim the muslim baker forbids you to eat what you want by not offering ham sandwiches*.

      Exactly. Living in Berkeley, I’m surrounded by vegans and vegetarians, but the fact that there’s a Herbivore down on Shattuck doesn’t mean that I have any issues getting a hot dog. Same for when I lived in Brooklyn: The fact that there were kosher delis all through the Five Boroughs didn’t mean that you had to worry about a pack of rabbis showing up at your apartment to separate the meat and milk in your kitchen. I guess it’s different when the Muslims do it.

  3. AMM

    I was never able to stand with Charlie Hebdo, even right after the attacks. I looked at some of their covers, and I simply could not buy the rationalization that “it’s just how the French do satire.” I lived in Europe for a number of years and the bigotry Europeans have against anyone who isn’t part of their tribe was all too obvious. I escaped the nastiest bigotry because as a USAan I was a “good foreigner.” On the whole, Europeans are far less willing than USAans to integrate people into their tribe who differ from them or weren’t born to members of the tribe or to even see them as human.

    If Ophelia Benson is keeping quiet about her solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, then maybe she’s changing for the better (well, a tiny little bit better.) Long before the blow-up about her transmisogyny, I remember cringing at her thinly veiled and sometimes not-at-all veiled islamophobia. The fact that almost nobody at FTB disputed her anti-muslim rants and a lot of people supported her and even echoed her left me feeling distrustful of the FTB and supposedly “progressive” atheist communities. Today, the muslims, tomorrow me?

    1. 3.1

      Long before the blow-up about her transmisogyny, I remember cringing at her thinly veiled and sometimes not-at-all veiled islamophobia. The fact that almost nobody at FTB disputed her anti-muslim rants and a lot of people supported her and even echoed her left me feeling distrustful of the FTB and supposedly “progressive” atheist communities. Today, the muslims, tomorrow me?

      Quoted for truth. I felt similarly.

      I noticed that there are some new anti-Muslim voices at FTB these days. I’ve seen complaints from a few people at FTB over the new crop of bigotry but there seems to be a fear of being too public and/or direct in calling these folks out.

      Now that Benson has her own blogging space, her anti-Muslim rants and anit-trans rants have increased dramatically. I occasionally drop by her blog to see how far her steep descent into unrestrained bigotry has progressed. It’s pretty bad.

      1. I agree. Actually, there were a lot of things about Ophelia that bugged me — and a lot of the bloggers at FTB — before the transphobia issue started to blow up. For one thing, she has shitty attitudes towards sex workers. If it seems like she got away with more than she should have, a lot of that probably had to do with the fact that she was the target of some genuine abuse by the Slymepitters, and a lot of people (including myself) didn’t want to pile on top of that.

        I haven’t checked out too many of the new FTB blogs, but I’m sorry to hear that there’s an increase in Islamophobia. After writing this, I did notice that one of the few atheist blogs to enthusiastically defend “How Did We Get Here?” was by one of the new bloggers, Arun. He writes:

        Charlie Hebdo , the French satirical magazine,, whose journalists were brutally gunned down by Islamic terrorists, is at the receiving end again. The attack is not directly from the Islamists, but indirectly through the regressive Left.

        What was their crime ?
        They wrote an editorial mainly addressing the European Left, pointing out how dangerous it is not to criticise Islam. It was titled “How did we end up here?”.

        I’m really sorry to see FTB going down that path. I’m really sorry to see atheism going down that path.

        1. I didn’t know that Benson was anti-sex worker because I was already avoiding her blog as a consequence of her blatant Islamophobia. Honestly, if Benson’s peers at FTB hadn’t called out her transphobia in other blogs and comment threads, I probably wouldn’t have realized that she was engaging in this prejudice as well. I had given up reading her toxic stream of verbiage upon realizing she was such a racist/xenophobe about Muslims.

          I’m hardly surprised about her treatment of sex workers because the genre of feminism she embraces has a well founded reputation for hating both sex workers and trans people. It’s rather remarkable how robust that correlation is. Her perspective is a variant of radical feminism and sadly, far too much of radical feminism has deteriorated into a static, reactionary school of thought since the 70s.

        2. And yeah, it has saddened me too that some of the most verbal parts of public atheism have embraced Islamophobia. I started to pick up on this pattern shortly after venturing into reading atheist blogs in 2010. It stood out like a sore thumb as soon as I encountered it but no one else was aware and/or willing to call it out for the hatred it was. Saying anything at that point resulted in being heavily ridiculed and dog-piled. The pushback was immediate, reflexive, and quite hateful.

          At least a good many atheists and progressives are now calling out the racists and xenophobes for what they are. That wasn’t the case four to six years ago. It seems that people started to actively call out Islamophobia in atheist blogging communities at some point after the rupture in atheism over Elevatorgate.

        3. “Regressive left” is something only said by bigots who were hoping that the general leftist approval of free speech would let them get away with bigotry. They’re all for “the left” standing up for principles until it butts up against their prejudices, and then “the left” is suddenly evil. Screw those folks, they can’t use progressive principles as a shield for their fundamentally unethical behavior.

  4. 4

    I noticed that there are some new anti-Muslim voices at FTB these days.

    Sadly yes.
    There’s one person who seems to happily make up “facts” as they move along (curating a slymer commentariat) and one person who just equated criticism of this Open Ed with the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo. In that sense congratulations to Chris. While we only tentatively support terrorism by not being assholes to muslims, you have upgraded to fully fledged terrorism.

    As for saying something: Personally, my spoon department is constantly running dry. New job, same kids…

    1. 4.2

      Yes, I noticed that blogger and the horrible commenters their words seem to attract. I also noticed that you gave it a go in critiquing the person I suspect you are talking about. I hear you on the lack of spoons. This stuff just seems to go on, and on, and on, and on again. After getting dog-piled so much over the past several years, I just stopped bothering. One can personally tolerate only so much before needing to seek greener pastures.

      My stint of calling out people started at the Friendly Atheist five or six years ago. I grew tired of the constant prejudice and hateful pushback toward criticism a good long while ago.

  5. AMM

    I noticed soon after TheOrbit started up that all of the FTB bloggers that I follow moved here, and the ones that I never felt comfortable stayed there.

    Confession time: I have a religion.

    My religion is summed up as follows: “it doesn’t matter what you believe (or don’t believe), what matters is how you treat people.” Or, in the standing-on-one-leg version, “don’t be a dick.” To be blunt, I don’t come to these blogs for the atheism, I come for the concern for the marginalized and oppressed and those who are dumped on and cast out by the privileged and powerful, and for the valuing of simple human decency.

    Unfortunately, from what I can see of on-line atheism, there are an awful lot of people for whom atheism seems to be about having an excuse to hate and have contempt for people. OB seems to be one of these, but either PZ is going that way, too, or else I’m just getting more sensitive to it. (People like Dawkins are of course way, way past the event horizon on that.)

    Don’t get me wrong, I see a lot wrong with Islam, even the kind of Islam that ordinary muslims believe in. The same for Christianity. (As for Ghod — well, I figure, if She exists, She can probably take care of Herself.)

    But to hate on the people who believe in these things for no other reason than what they believe — or because they look like a lot of the people who believe in those things — well, there’s some things that I just can’t. I just can’t. My soul just can’t be bent that far.

    1. 6.1

      I don’t come to The Orbit primarily for the atheism either. I mostly come here for the progressive news and views viewed through a SJ lens which this site specializes in.

      I stopped identifying as an atheist a few years ago and moved on to just plain agnosticism. Last summer, I started to openly identify as a Pagan. (Although, I still don’t see myself as really fitting a theist or polytheist mold.) It was a transition decades in the making but ultimately was finally catalyzed by the rampant prejudice I found in online atheist spaces. The transphobia I encountered (both personally and indirectly) last year was pretty much the last straw for me.

      Having said all that, I do place some value on The Orbit because it approaches religion with a critical eye. Being in this space helps me to keep my own personal critiques of organized religion sharp and active… and I do have quite a few of my own, Pagan or not. What is of the utmost importance to me is that I feel I can trust the authors here to avoid engaging in xenophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, classism, and various other knee-jerk reactionary behaviors I’ve witnessed in other atheist spaces… all of which have been frustrating and saddening.

      FTB was the blogging space which satisfied all of these needs until folks migrated over here… and then I came with.

  6. 7

    I agree with this post with exception:

    Stating (as you have in the final paragraph) that there is homophobia and misogyny in Muslim communities, I think you need to be careful about that. ‘Muslim’ is code for ‘Arab’, so you may as well be saying there are homophobic and mysogonistic Arabs. But almost every community has homophobia and mysogony, and it is no more prevalent in Arab communities than others, and arguably less so.

    Maybe an alternative way of putting it would simply to acknowledge some religious communities have isolated pockets of homophobia and racism. Otherwise, thanks for this post and keep up the good work.

  7. 8

    Islam is a not a race, learn the difference, one is a choice, one isn’t.

    Charlie Hebdo are defending secularity, which is under attack by the political islamists in Western Europe.

    You are an embarrassment to all secularists and atheists out there with this post. I feel this is a huge problem with Americans, you are too shielded from reality with political islam. You don’t have a fucking clue what you are talking about, come live in France for a bit and you’ll figure it out.

      1. Here I was hoping for some nuanced discussion from someone with “on the ground”knowledge, so to speak, and it turns out John Smith was just a drive-by commenter flinging poo.
        I’m soooooooo disappointed

  8. 9

    “The idea that Islamophobia is nothing more than a phantasm invented by those who want to silence all criticism of Muslims is a popular one among atheists as well as right-wing Christians. You’re as likely to find it in the online rantings of Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson as you are in the sewage of National Review and Breitbart.”

    Firstly, Benson does not deny the existence of anti-Muslim bigotry, hate and phobia. You’re engaging in outright defamation.

    Secondly, two points which are related to each other:
    1) Are you saying that the fact that she hasn’t written a blog post on Charlie Hebdo’s editorial means she tacitly supports it? I hope not, because that would be obviously ridiculous. That would entail support for a very large amount of things.

    2) Or are you saying that she hasn’t written about it because a) the editorial conclusively shows that Hebdo is Islamophobic; and b) Benson doesn’t want to admit that it is Islamophobic because of her past support for Hebdo? But if she is Islamophobic, as you seem to say, why would she care if the editorial is Islamophobic? Wouldn’t it mean she would like it?

    Btw, mocking her for not “shutting her mouth” is super misogynist, fyi. Surely you know how often women are silenced simply on account of being women? It seems she can’t win: you criticise her for “not shutting her mouth” and then you criticse her for not speaking. Classic misogyny.

    1. 9.1

      Let’s take the third point first, because it seems to most willfully misread what I actually wrote:

      Btw, mocking her for not “shutting her mouth” is super misogynist, fyi. Surely you know how often women are silenced simply on account of being women? It seems she can’t win: you criticise her for “not shutting her mouth” and then you criticse her for not speaking. Classic misogyny.

      What I actually wrote was:

      Of all the things that Benson can be criticized for, keeping her mouth shut in the face of controversy isn’t one of them.

      What I said — very explicitly — was that her trait of speaking up is not one of her flaws. She did, in fact, undergo some vicious abuse and harassment from the Slymepitters, and spoke up about it really well. I don’t want her to stop writing: I just wish she’d be less of a vicious bigot.

      Benson and Dawkins acknowledge anti-Muslim bigotry in the abstract, but in practice, they dismiss almost all actual incidents that don’t involve a bunch of skinheads with baseball bats.

      I’m not sure why she hasn’t written on the latest Hebdo controversy. As I said, it seems uncharacteristic of her, since she’s declared that supporting “Charlie” is one of those lines that divides true secularists from the so-called “regressive left.” It may be that Charlie finally took that one step that made them too fucking embarrassing to be publicly associated with; it may be that she’s too busy bashing trans people and sex workers. But in general, traditional supporters of Charlie Hebdo have been a little slower to back them up on this one.

  9. Jon

    Hi Chris, I read your and Heina’s article.

    Heina Dadabhoy states “It’s because race is a real thing that criticism of Islam has the potential to become racialized.”
    I’m still confused how Charlie Hebdo criticizing an idea or ideology made them racist?

    Heina Dadabhoy states “people do treat Muslims as if they are part of a single racial category”. Did Charlie Hebdo do this? When Charlie Hebdo criticized Christians was that also racist? Charlie Hebdo also criticized Capitalists. Was that also racist?

    I’m still confused how criticizing Islam or the followers of Islam might me racism? Maybe you can point out couple of their racist articles and posts as you claim there are so many, and show what exactly is racist there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.