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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩