There is not a “Charlie’s club” – Awareness of division created over a complex matter.

Author: Laure Ollivier-Minns

– “Je suis Charlie” versus “Je ne suis pas Charlie” –

Lets’ be aware of the misguided terminology used which has a different meaning to people. Aren’t those two terms (I’m Charlie/I’m not Charlie) misinterpreted when in fact we could be sharing the same values?

Intolerance saying-Gandhi

DIVISION is created when in fact we seek UNITY

“You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it doesn’t exist.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

 It appears that, all over the web, there is so much misunderstanding,  confusion and misinterpretation over such terms that make a statement ‘je suis Charlie’ or ‘je ne suis pas Charlie’. This is why I avoid using either of these terms. The world seems to be overwhelmed by them and in my view it generates irritation, more confusion and more division. Despite the outpouring of sympathy following the Paris attack on the 7th of January, aren’t people getting saturated by the topic of Charlie Hebdo, especially in the midst of other atrocities happening worldwide at the same time?

Satire on C.H.Photo caption: Clever satire…although I would have added Nigeria on that globe (in light of the 2000 people massacred earlier this month and the persecution towards the French more recently). More countries could be added but I know we can’t fit them all in! I should think that Charlie Hebdo’s team would see the irony/wit/humour in this drawing, like I do, even though the reality of the situation is actually very tragic. That’s what satire does. It draws attention to a particular and wider issue in society. (Visual impact bringing awareness, useful for those who don’t have time to read articles)!

To continue (and answer the question)… Saturated? To some of you Charlie Hebdo might be ‘last week’s news’ but I am interested and I ask myself many questions. So I will carry on keeping an eye on this ‘human behaviour’ (or not so very humanlike); reading on what’s happening, absorbing the consequences (still not digesting them) and possibly rambling on about it. This concerns all of us. This concerns our future.

The issue over those terms, ’whether to be or not to be Charlie’ is not black and white because it is hugely complex.

Misguidance feeds division

I think people can get easily put off by such labels and article-titles because it makes a statement of pro Charlie Hebdo or anti-Charlie Hebdo. I don’t think this is healthy and beneficial for either party as they can miss out on some very valid and constructive points expressed by either of them.

Those two terms have created two camps and one could be strongly put off to read what the other one is saying which is…

 completely defeating the object!

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Irresponsible newspaper vs. responsible newspaper

Photo Caption: “L’invention de l’humour” (humour invention) with a caveman holding oil and fire. Suggesting “mettre de l’huile dans le feu” (add fuel to the flame/intensify conflict)

To be constructive, wouldn’t we want the ‘je suis Charlie’ people to hear out what the ‘je ne suis pas Charlie’ people have to say and equally vice versa?

Almost half of those in France believe cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad (like those printed by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo) should not be published, a recent poll said on the 18th of January; with a similar number in favour of ‘limitations’ on free speech; announced France 24.

Since the march in Paris on the 11th of January, has the meaning of ‘Je suis Charlie’ changed, taken a new dimension?

I believe it has. And I think it would be more effective to use the hashtag Charlie Hebdo to discuss its topic.

Since the march in Paris ‘Je suis Charlie’, to me, it meant and still basically means two things:

I am anti barbaric action of extremist-fundamentalist-terrorist-radicalization

And;

I am pro freedom of speech, pro freedom of expression, pro freedom of thoughts…

The way I see it, this is what the millions of French people marching in Paris on the 11th of January represented…as well as a tribute to the lost lives.

On the subject of terminology, the term extremism is vastly used. Is it the right term to use on its own? Wikipedia says ‘Extremism (represented on both sides of the political spectrum in specific reference to Islamic terrorism) is an ideology (particularly in politics or religion). Extremism is considered to be far outside the mainstream attitudes of a society or to violate common moral standards…’

I thought it to be clearer (in what I stand against) to add the word radicalization which ‘adopts increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that reject or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions of freedom of choice’. Again there is that nuance; radicalization sounds a lot more extreme because it attack our freedom of choice.

People referring to ‘terrorists’, related to this topic, mean radical extremist fundamentalists. Often used in short: ‘extremist’ or ‘fundamentalist’. The term ‘terrorist’ can be frowned upon because it is too loaded.

Unfortunately, since the 11th of January we’ve seen, and we continue to see, a lot of backlash, retaliation and more violence. And not just against the Muslims and Jews (may I add). Innocent French people (especially outside France) are attacked, French establishments are targeted, French residents abroad and humanitarian workers are being persecuted…

Let’s hope this is a temporary reaction.

Emotion over intelligence (Joseph Antony's photo) Joseph Antony’s photo 

It appears that ‘Je suis Charlie’ and ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ (those two camps that have been created) are born over the issue of defining – what do we hear by freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of expression?

Many of us have a different opinion on those terms. Some are passionate about those terms, some use them loosely and other use them as an excuse for discord, racism and violence.

How far can it go? We fiercely defend those values but do we appreciate in which context and which perspective they are displayed? Is there a line to draw, a limit to this kind of freedom?

A limit to freedom doesn’t sound right to our ears, us Westerners.

Let’s not omit the nuance…

I believe in freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of expression WITHIN LEGAL OBLIGATION AND MORAL RESPONSIBILITY.

That’s the nuance!

The vast amount of violence worldwide, following the publication of Charlie Hebdo’s first front cover, after the Paris attack, demonstrates well to me, that this nuance ‘within moral responsibility’ can’t possibly have been fully considered… Yet so many claim that it has! Was people’s violent reaction against it because of what they thought it was rather than what it was? Isn’t it that, one of Charlie Hebdo’s job (as a satire magazine), is to denounce the violence, making it stand out, ridicule it even; show off its absurdity in order to bring awareness to violence in our society? Exposing its danger.

Like most of us, I am shocked, I am bewildered; I am distraught and outraged at all these violent and tragic recent events, in so many countries, generated over clashes of culture, values, beliefs and prejudice. Attacks anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and anti-French attacks too (the latter far less publicised it seems). I condemn all those retaliations. I abhor these prejudices. And I feel empathy and compassion for the families, of all background, race, ethnicity and religion who have lost their loved ones. Can’t we learn to suffer together?

To me, it is clear that those terms on FREEDOM of speech/thought/expression bear responsibilities and have consequences.

This is what I was questioning on my last blog post in my letter to Charlie Hebdo:https://grainetoroot.wordpress.com/2015/01/18/le-cul-entre-deux-chaises-seeking-comfort-and-sensibility/

Neither God, nor Master – “Ni Dieu, ni Maitre”

A quick note on Blasphemy vs. Satire: To not confuse satire with blasphemy and make the distinction between those two words, in my view, is important because satire has a greater purpose. Yet, many claim that satire is allowed to be blasphemous…

 “BLASPHEMY is the act of insulting or showing contempt toward something considered sacred or inviolable. Although SATIRE is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society”. And “because it is essentially ironic or sarcastic, satire is often misunderstood.”(From Wikipedia)

I believe Satire has a role in society in constructive social criticism using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues. It defies prejudice.

“Ni Dieu, ni Maitre” as Olivier Tonneau cleverly explained: http://gu.com/p/44zh2/tw

I join Olivier Tonneau in his efforts to re adjust the balance as so much gibberish has spread across the web! A lot of things about France have been deformed and misused. Let’s not get the wrong end of the stick and remember who the enemy is!

We don’t need further division over misunderstanding, misinterpretation, clashes over culture, values, beliefs and prejudice; we need unity against extremist-fundamentalist-radicalization who are the ones that create this division and complete chaos.…is what I’ve been banging on about!

Olivier Tonneau also tries to bring more clarity on the term laïcité very difficult to define as the word secular doesn’t quite cover it. The value of laïcité only exists in France it seems therefore quite difficult for outsiders to grasp and appreciate its full concept. http://www.normandyvision.org/article12030701.php

Has Charlie Hebdo been on the borderline of blasphemy with their front cover of the Prophet Muhammad published so widely? In which I explained the context, in my last blog post; a key factor. I hear the vast majority of Muslims calling it blasphemy and others strongly feel that if falls under what satire represent. To which extent satire is allowed to be blasphemous? By whom is it perceived to be blasphemous? I might not regard it to be blasphemous (accepting it in its satire context) but I accept that others (some Muslims for instance) do! How many know that Charlie Hebdo is actually pro Muslim and anti-Islamist fundamentalist? The perception of pro Muslim and anti-racism might have been missed outside its context and this is what I am trying to point out; how it is perceived by others and exposing the danger of its misunderstanding outside France.

Following this, I disagree with misguided statements that I have seen, such as “If you don’t agree with what Charlie Hebdo said, the terrorists win”. Charlie Hebdo is not an isolated case. Charlie Hebdo doesn’t represent France. And it is not well known enough to be understood.

It is true that what is being said: “Nobody has the right to not be offended”. So more tolerance and respect is called for? How can that be achieved when both, Charlie Hebdo and Muslims (generally speaking), seem so entrenched in their ideas/beliefs? One party imploring for more tolerance over their cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad – and the other party demanding respect over their sacred Prophet, crying out blasphemy. Is it? And is it unreasonable? In my opinion, it is a matter of opinion.

Freedom of choice?

In France, one made the choice to look at a Charlie Hebdo cartoon or not, but once it has been exposed worldwide, it’s a different matter. In those so called developing countries, those who are genuinely offended (and I’m not implying that they all were), those who had no knowledge of ‘it’ whatsoever and had this cartoon shoved in their faces…it wasn’t a question of choice for them.

Discord over labels

Coming back to those terms, je suis or je ne suis pas, it strongly appears that sometimes there is a discord over the terminology used when in fact we actually agree on the essence of our beliefs.

It is apparent that we agree on one part of the ‘je suis Charlie’, meaning what we are against: radical extremist – (anti-terrorism’- in simple term commonly used-) but what about the other part, on the freedom issue?

I think that ‘Je suis Charlie’ or ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ is no longer defined adequately because people are now arguing over this nuance ‘within moral responsibility’; and that doesn’t mean censure, that doesn’t mean that satire shouldn’t continue. The discord over this part on ‘what-je-suis-Charlie-means’ on freedom of speech… (within moral responsibility), refrains us to concentrate on the other part of the meaning of the original term ‘je suis Charlie’.This second meaning (displayed in huge solidarity at the Paris march and widely abroad), the one we appear to agree on, is being…making a stand against extremist fundamentalist terrorists/ radicalization – against barbaric violence.

And I don’t think, in my humble opinion, that a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad has achieved and will achieve that and I don’t see the point to add more fuel to the fire.

Yet…(alala!) from many of the French perspective, it strongly seems that it was crucial to precisely represent a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad; not to hurt Muslims (as in, people who practice this religion), but to fiercely defend their French values and culture as well as making a stand against radical extremist Islamist fundamentalists.

What about the consequences of retaliations with further violence?

Some people argue that it is a ‘necessary consequence of freedom of expression that people might be offended by what you express’.

Are we still trying to get our head around that? Sitting on my island, I’m still attempting to grasp both perspectives of the ‘je suis…’ and the ‘je ne suis pas’… There is a lot to take on board…

Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better… And like a Divine Angel told me: It has to get worse sometimes before it gets better, because what was initiated or experienced earlier was not enough; like the intensity was insufficient to achieve the end result of learning that particular point or issue!

Understanding is acceptance. Call for better communication, tolerance and respect from all parties involved.

Let’s reclaim this solidarity as in fact we seek UNITY towards the same goal.

Mahatma Gandhi had it spot on: “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding”.

Laure Ollivier-Minns

“Le cul entre deux chaises” seeking comfort and sensibility – Charlie Hebdo’s survival issue

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Author: Laure Ollivier-Minns

17th of January 2015

Dear Charlie Hebdo team

Following the recent turbulent events I felt compelled to write to you Charlie Hebdo. I share your values pro freedom of speech and in standing up against racism (lost in translation through your cartoons) and against the Front National. Living in UK, many perceive your cartoons as being racist but I believe that is not the intention.

I also understand satire and appreciate some of your cartoons that I find funny and witty, however there is some that I find over the top/bad taste and that I dislike. Then I don’t have to look at them and I don’t hold a grudge in any way accepting that you feel that you are doing your job.

It is clear that your work is not for everybody and it was originally for a French audience in a secular country where satire is part of their culture. There is nothing wrong with that when one makes the choice to buy what amuse them or chose to not buy it and not take it seriously.

I am a firm believer of freedom of speech which stays within the law and within moral responsibility.

In the aftermath of those atrocious attacks, in so many countries the past few days, due to terrible upset over a cartoon, please allow me to question this:

Could all this fuss be derived from a lack of moral responsibility or a lack of tolerance?

Since the attack of the 7th of January, Charlie Hebdo is now known worldwide therefore is out of its context being a satirical magazine from a secular country designed for a French audience. This attack was undeniably barbaric, shouldn’t have happen and you have all my sympathy for your lost ones.

Regarding the first publication of Charlie Hebdo, on the 14th of January since the attack, I am questioning whether you acted responsibly. Personally, this particular cartoon cover doesn’t bother me because I am not Muslim, but I am utterly shocked and saddened at the backlash that it has created. Many non-Muslims are upset, as well as the majority it seems of the Muslim community, who are clearly terribly offended seeing it as an insult to their beloved Prophet. They have the right to be offended, even if a lot of us don’t fully understand what all this fuss is about, especially when the message that the magazine cover wanted to convey was forgiveness.

It was clear in my mind that the defiance in that cartoon was addressed to the extremist fundamentalist terrorists responsible of the brutal murder of your colleagues and innocent others.

However you omitted the fact that because it is essentially satirical or ironic, satire is often misunderstood, misinterpreted and you omitted too it seems that Charlie Hebdo was leaving the cushy nest of France.  So why be so clumsy when you knew it was going to be published in millions of copies in so many different languages?

Just as much as you would like people to understand your perspective and accept that you are ‘just doing your job’, could you understand the Muslim’s perspective and accept that they have values to NOT mess about with?

Especially when:

  • There is already a considerable evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment in France.
  • There is long standing tension between French and Muslim identity.
  • There is a vast amount of ignorance regarding Muslims and extremist Islamists. And no, obviously we can’t put them in the same basket.

But the reality is that too many people:

  • Confuse satire with insult.
  • Confuse satire with racism and blasphemy.
  • Confuse Muslims (whose religion is peaceful) with extremists fundamentalist Islamic driven by hate and violence. I should think that the Muslim community regard those extremists as twisted murderers just as much as we do and condemn those attacks.
  • Are confused with the meaning of ‘je suis Charlie’. To me it remains meaning: I am anybody seeking unity against extremist’s acts of violence and promote freedom of speech (within legal obligation and moral responsibilities).

Would it not have been more effective, more to the point and far less harmful, to make the cover with the same message but instead of Muhammad you had represented an extremist-fundamentalist- Islamist-terrorist instead? The message you wanted to convey would have been the same and in my view a lot more laughable.

I can see that you could be accused of being clumsy, vulgar, childlike, controversial and “coquin” in your agenda to provoke in a satirical context but I would not go as far as saying that you are cruel with a purpose to hurt.

As well as defiance you wanted to create laughter by this controversial front cover published so widely but it resulted in monumental offence worldwide, spread hate and shed blood. Surely this wasn’t your intention?

This is polluting your reputation and inflaming the situation that cost so many lives due to so many attacks in several countries in retaliation and anger. And yes of a double standard too. It marginalises Muslim communities and creates more racism. Muslims and Jewish communities have been attacked and French establishments too are being attacked in several countries. All in retaliation over a cartoon defending freedom of speech?

Isn’t it this all so ironic as well as tragic when Charlie Hebdo is against racism and promotes humour?

What about those values?

Now that Charlie Hebdo is out (better known worldwide) and no longer existing for just the French people in a secular country, could you please show more respect towards humans who have ferocious values towards their Prophet Muhammad? I have seen on TV distraught Muslim women crying out that the Prophet is so sacred to them that they would even give their children’s life for him. To us Westerners, this might seem as a completely ‘bonkers notion’ but that is their belief. Muhammad is sacred to them. Please respect the fact that it is so to them and respect their freedom of speech in claiming so. I am imploring you to respect those people as Humans, with different belief, in the light that this has led to more human tragedy. Have we not learnt enough from past history?

Yes there is a limit to freedom of speech, legal and moral.

I have been defending you guys the past few days for the following  reasons:

  • I believe that you are not malicious people and that you didn’t foresee fully this terrible backlash.
  • It was so apparent that people got the wrong end of the stick. Not familiar with your magazine, many portrayed you as racist when in fact you stand against racism. You make a mockery of it all as well as all religions and that’s your job.
  • I believe too that your intention was to stand up to the extremists that have caused so much harm to you personally and to a very wide population.

The 11th of January rally against extremism and pro freedom of speech showed a great unity towards those values that clearly are shared by many. If we want those values to stand wouldn’t it be honourable of you to apologise for the offence caused toward Muslims and Islam? So many people have been killed over this and how much more deplorable retaliation are to come?

This level of hate and violence escalating so rapidly over this in so many countries due to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and different cultures, is alarming and has to come to an end. This huge fuss is alarmingly. Will you please help?

If your excuse is that so many people ‘do not get satire’ and do not get what Charlie Hebdo stands for, due to ignorance of who you are; then please don’t remain ignorant of what the Prophet Muhammad represent to a vast population and show more sensitivity. Please be more tolerant towards Islam’s sacred belief as you would like Muslims to be more tolerant towards your cartoons.

All these issues have made me very uncomfortable…as to so many people around me. Help us all worldwide to be less fearful. Let’s not forget the unity we all need to stand against extremist terrorists.  Let’s not give them what they want and let’s find hope out of the chaos they created.

It is more tolerance and compassion from all parties that the world needs, which would lead to a better understanding and respect of different values and cultures,  helping to guide us all towards acceptance and forgiveness.

Best wishes

Laure Ollivier-Minns

“Je suis qui?”- (Who am I?)

(About me): I don’t follow nor practice any religion but the one I feel the closest to is the philosophy of Buddhism as I believe in compassion. I am French, I grew up in France. I have been an UK resident for many years, with an English husband and English children. I am a campaigner for many worthy causes. I am also an artist.

 

Lost in translation: Charlie Hebdo, free speech and the unilingual left. (Article by Leigh Phillips)

In the 48 hours after the Paris massacre, much of the anglophone activist and academic left were quick to sneer at public displays of solidarity with the murdered cartoonists and journalists of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and criticized the vigils, demonstrations and editorial cartoons from other artists as siding with racists.

Of course the killing of journalists is a bad thing, so the argument goes, but come on, Charlie Hebdo is “a racist publication.” So what do you expect? is the implicit, victim-blaming conclusion.

The millions of people, atheist, Christian, Jew and Muslim — including trade unionists bearing the drapeaux rouges of the communist CGT union and activists from far-left groups such as the Parti de Gauche and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste — who spontaneously filled the streets of towns and villages across France in solidarity with the slain journalists and in defence against this manifest attack on freedom of speech, or who changed their social media avatars to a black square with the wordsJe suis Charlie were, in the words of prominent British socialist commentator Richard Seymour writing in Jacobin magazine and on his own blog, “platitudinous,” “mawkish and narcissistic” and engaging in a “blackmail that forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.”

Elsewhere many leftists such as Jon Wilson writing on LabourList have declared “Je ne suis pas Charlie” and that this is about Islamophobia and war. Those who stand up for freedom of expression today, they argue, are at best unwittingly performing an ideological service to militarist elites and at worst actively lining up with the war party just as liberal hawks such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen and Paul Berman did after Sept. 11, 2001.

The last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days

The last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days, as so many people have posted cartoons on social media that they found trawling Google Images as evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s “obvious racism,” only to be told by French speakershow, when translated and put into context, these cartoons actually are explicitly anti-racist or mocking of racists and fascists.

The best example here is the very widely shared cartoon by the slain editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, of a black woman’s head on a monkey’s body above the phrase Rassemblement Bleu Raciste (Racist Blue Rally). The French are aware that the woman in the cartoon is the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, and that the red, white and blue flame in the cartoon is the logo of the Front National, which had recently gotten into hot water for publishing a photograph of a baby monkey and the words “At 18 months” next to a picture of Taubira and the word “Now.” The Front National’s slogan is Rassemblement Bleu Marine (Navy Blue Rally), a play on the name of their leader, Marine Le Pen. It is obvious to any French person familiar with the political context that the cartoon is mocking the racism of the Front National and indeed Taubira herself, in the wake of the massacre, has mounted repeated defences ofCharlie Hebdo.

Another would be the cartoon of pregnant Boko Haram sex slaves under the slogan “Hands off our benefits!” which many English leftists held to be a self-evidently racist commentary on the Muslim “demographic threat,” when the cartoon is actually a clunky “first-world problems” commentary on complaints over the French government restricting child benefits for top earners, suggesting that rich French people really have nothing to complain about compared to people’s travails in northeast Nigeria.

In an extremely widely shared post (Over 90,000 shares as of the time of writing) Jacob Canfield at The Hooded Utilitarian showcased a series ofCharlie Hebdo cartoons and declared, “Its staff is white. Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.”

First of all, its staff is not all white, not that a small newspaper with a tiny all-Caucasian employee roll is automatically a signifier of racism in any case. Copy editor Moustapha Ourrad, for example, was among those murdered by on Wednesday. Next, the cartoon that Canfield feels is homophobic, of a male Charlie Hebdo writer kissing an imam under the words “Love is stronger than hate,” was the cartoon that filled the front cover in 2011 the week after the paper’s offices had been firebombed by Islamists, completely destroying all their equipment, for printing an edition “guest edited” by the Prophet Mohammed to celebrate the election of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamists of the Ennahda party in Tunisia. This was also the time of growing conservative opposition to gay rights, culminating in the country’s massive right-wing Catholic anti-gay-marriage protests of recent years. Five months earlier, the government had crushed legislation to legalize same-sex unions.

In this context, the cartoon can only be seen as expressly anti-homophobic, giving a big, wet, cheeky kiss to the likely homophobic Islamists who had tried to kill them. (One friend told me after I explained the context behind this cartoon that it was still problematic because “at a time when Muslims in Western countries are the target of Islamophobic prejudice, we should be sensitive to their religious sensibilities. A cartoon of two men kissing is offensive to them.” To my mind, if there’s anything homophobic going on here, it’s the idea that gays should hide themselves so as not to offend those who maintain a hatred of homosexuals.)

How can we trust these leftists’ critical analyses of other events in foreign lands such as Ukraine, Syria or Mali if it turns out they haven’t done their due diligence as researchers when it comes to the far more accessible French context? These otherwise well-meaning but non-French-speaking knights-in-social-media-armour have embarrassed themselves by spouting off about things they know not quite enough about. This is not clear-headed thinking. This is not leftist or anti-racist thinking.

It is an illogical, self-destructive, identity politics mess where all accusations of racism are instantly believed and anyone who raises questions is racist themselves. Accusations of racism (indeed any accusations) must be substantiated by the accuser, not automatically presumed to be true. Automatic presumption of racism without substantiation is not anti-racism; it is cowardice and vanity, as it suggests the individual is more interested in ensuring he or she does not appear racist rather than in actually countering racism.

But this episode is about more than just the willful ignorance of a unilingual left luxuriating in its whipped-up dander; there are deeper worries about how such left and liberal critics are approaching freedom of speech in general. The whole affair is quite the nadir for the identitarian left, an object lesson in how its current tendency toward a censorial, professionally offence-taking prudishness is limiting the left’s advance, cutting us off from how most ordinary people live their lives and navigate prejudice, and a breach with hundreds of years of leftist thought and practice with respect to the enduring question offreedom.

Charlie Hebdo is, above all, a child of the upheaval of May 1968. It was founded in the wake of the publication ban on its predecessor, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, after the latter cheekily poked fun at the right-wing president and hero of the Resistance, Charles de Gaulle, upon his death.

It was born a left-wing publication, indeed a far-left publication, brimming with insolence and bile for capitalist, governmental and clerical elites. In the English-speaking world, malheureusement, we don’t really have a tradition of satirical newspapers quite like Charlie Hebdo or its rival Le Canard Enchainé (The chained-up duck), which combine cheeky editorial cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion. The closest approximation would be Private Eye in the United Kingdom. But the format has spread throughout the francophone lands, with imitators in Belgium, Switzerland and French-speaking Africa, both sub-Sahara and the Maghreb.

Charlie also embraces a politics of anti-clericalism — a species of militant secularism that targets priests, monks, nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis and, latterly, imams and mullahs specifically as individuals (believed to be pompous, hypocritical figures preaching a morality that they do not observe themselves) and not just as representatives of a religion — that dates back to the original Jacobins in the French Revolution. Anti-clericalism has also existed in varying forms in Spain, Latin America, Québec, Russia and contemporary Iran.

The targeting of Catholic priests by anarchist revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War and Orthodox priests by Bolsheviks were two of its most violent expressions. But anti-clericalism never really existed in the same way in the Protestant (and thus anglophone) world due to the break with Rome in the 16th and 17th centuries and Protestantism’s transformation of an individual’s relationship with the church hierarchy and God himself. Related to this, the paper’s style of comedy, gouaille — a bawdy, impertinent, insolent, often obscene humour corrosif — is a part of a Parisian tradition that finds its origins in the time of the French Revolution as well, and which Arthur Goldhammer, the translator of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, explains well: “It’s an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful.”

It’s not witty. If anything, it’s rather juvenile. In mocking the idea that there should be no graven images of Mohammed, one of Charlie’scartoons was of a naked prophet with a star instead of a bumhole under the slogan “A star is born.” It’s puerile, infantile, not infrequently unfunny. It’s fart jokes. It’s whoopie cushions. It’s Monty Python’s masturbation-themed and Vatican-mocking “Every sperm is sacred” sketch.

Leftists must make a distinction between blasphemy and racism. The two are not the same thing. No one has the right not to be offended. This is not an arcane point. After decades of legal abeyance, blasphemy and “religious insult” laws are making a comeback.

Meanwhile, for the most part, Charlie Hebdo’s politics have been progressive. SOS Racisme, the main anti-racist NGO in the country, has partnered with Charlie in the past in campaigns against anti-immigrant politics, such as a joint campaign in 2007 against DNA testing for migrants aiming to be reunited with their families. Following the massacre, the organization offered its support to the newspaper and denounced the attack as an assault on free speech. The editor murdered this week by the Islamist gunmen, Charb, was a long-time member of the French Communist Party, supported the new far left Front de Gauche, opposed the adoption of the proposed neoliberal European constitution in 2005 and illustrated Marx: A User’s Guide, the 2014 book by the late, brilliant socialist author Daniel Bensaïd. One of those killed, Bernard Maris, was on the scientific council of ATTAC, the NGO critical of corporate-led globalization; ran for the Greens; was a critic of EU austerity and the eurozone; and wrote for a number of other left-wing publications.

The paper has no set editorial line per se, and its journalists frequently disagree publicly, but among the favourite targets of its cartoons and journalism are the far right and other partisans of anti-immigrant politics, corporate malfeasance, banker shenanigans, cuts to public health care, tax havens, and the arms industry. A scoop in Charlie from last November, for example, revealed threatening text-message extortion of an assistant of a right-wing senator already indicted in an investigation into municipal vote buying. The paper is a furious opponent of the Israeli government’s regular assaults on Gaza. It defended Roma against government round-up and deportation. Charlie Hebdo is part of the “mental furniture” of the left in France.

As Charb wrote in Le Monde in 2013, “It’s no secret: the current editorial team is split between supporters of the left, the far left, anarchism and environmentalism. Not everyone votes, but we all popped the champagne when [conservative president] Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in May 2012.”

Of course, nothing stops one from being racist and otherwise left-wing, just as there are sexist animal rights campaigners and homophobic trade unionists. But describing Charlie as a “racist publication” makes readers think that the paper is akin to the house journal of the National Front.

Charlie, like many organizations, is a jumble of good and bad politics. In the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers, like Christopher Hitchens, the editor at the time, Philippe Val, took a “clash of civilizations” turn that infused the paper. If the mockery of imams was just in keeping with the anti-clerical tradition, and obscene cartoons also targeted the Catholic hierarchy, there now seemed to be an undue emphasis on Islam. It also — like many on the French left, even anti-war campaigners — backs the contemporary ideology of laïcité. Strictly translated, laïcité is the French for secularism, but the translation doesn’t do it justice. It’s a sort of state-enforced anti-religionism rather than a simple government neutrality in the face of different faiths as exists in the U.S. (but not in Canada), but typically focused overwhelmingly on Islam.

They are right, those who say it is hypocritical to be raising the banner of freedom of expression today if one did not raise it in the face of the headscarf and burqa bans. (Formally, in 2004, it was the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols in schools” that was restricted and, in 2010, face coverings in public, including motorbike helmets and balaclavas, were outlawed, but everyone knows who was being targeted). But the obverse of this is also correct: If you opposed the headscarf and burqa bans, then today you must rally to the defence of freedom of expression with respect to Charlie Hebdo.

They are right, those who say it is hypocritical to be raising the banner of freedom of expression today if one did not raise it in the face of the headscarf and burqa bans.

There is hypocrisy elsewhere as well. If Charlietypically rested unbothered by accusations of Islamophobia, its famed fearlessness reached its limit when cartoonist Maurice Sinet (nom de plume Siné) faced accusations of anti-Semitism. In 2008, Siné wrote in a column about rumours that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was to convert to Judaism prior to marrying the heiress of household appliance multinational Darty, joking, “He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad.” He was prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, as the sentence allegedly linked Jewishness with financial success, although the judge dismissed the case. Siné was in any case fired by Val, a decision that was defended by a series of right-wing intellectuals and attacked by their left-wing counterparts as a betrayal of free speech.

As a result of Philippe Val’s post-9/11 Hitchensian tubthumping, as we in English might describe his stance, a number of journalists felt they could not in conscience continue to work for the newspaper and quit,publicly criticizing the paper. Many people who claim to “criticize everything” actually don’t criticize everything equally, and in fact do single out certain racialized minority groups for unique opprobrium and so genuinely are prejudiced in some way. Many of the current wave of New Atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher are examples of this: they claim to be criticizing all religions, but in fact reserve special criticism for Islam.

Even if no one particular Charlie cartoon can be said to be racist, and even if the paper also published covers depicting Pope Benedict kissing a Vatican Swiss Guard, a Palestinian woman being shot by an Israeli settler shouting, “Take that, Goliath!” as part of an anti-Zionist series entitled “The Torah Illustrated by Charb,” and many other cartoons that theJewish Daily Forward newspaper categorises as anti-Semitic (Honourably,The Forward has actually re-printed one of these “anti-Semitic” cartoons, in solidarity with Charlie after the massacre), overall, the paper’s hard-on for ridiculing Islam above all other targets fits with this “equal-opportunity offence” narrative. Some friends of mine say they stopped reading the paper around this time. One Catalan friend told me, “Charlie Hebdo used to be left-wing. It’s made my stomach turn for some time though.”

However, there is a difference between a left-wing newspaper gone rotten and a racist publication. For all of Hitchens’ support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I couldn’t at any point suggest he was a racist.

I offer all this history as background, as additional context that has been ignored by the “Je ne suis pas Charlie” critics. But I’ll go further: It shouldn’t even matter.

Even if Charlie Hebdo were a racist publication, the murders would still be an assault on freedom of speech, and leftists should still rise up with all the indignation that so many French people have righteously displayed. Not because, as elites have it, the Paris massacre is an attack on “Western values,” values that plainly do not exist outside of hackneyed, hypocritical bromide, but because freedom of speech is a left-wing issue. Indeed, it is the most important issue we should concern ourselves with. Everything else we ever do depends on this foundational freedom.

It is vitally important to be on guard against the certain wave of attacks on Muslims across France and the rest of Europe in the coming days and weeks.

It is vitally important to be on guard against the certain wave of attacks on Muslims across France and the rest of Europe in the coming days and weeks. Already at the time of writing, there have been some 15 violent reprisal incidents against Muslims since the murders in Paris, including shots fired and three training grenades tossed at a mosque in Le Mans, shots fired at a prayer hall in Port-la-Nouvelle, and a bomb blast at a kebab shop in Villefranche-sur-Saone.

We must also be prepared to mobilize against the predictable, fresh round of efforts by elites to expand the security and surveillance state. Already, a panicked EU is to seek new anti-terror powers in the wake of the attack.

It is also worthwhile to recall how the Paris massacre fits within a wider story of a continued Western imperialist project in the Middle East. Although Western military intervention in Muslim countries undoubtedly produces “blowback,” whoever did this is not merely “reacting to Western imperialism.” They are autonomous actors. To reduce these murderers to automatons responding to military interventions in Iraq (a war France did not participate in) or Mali actually erases subaltern agency and thus is its own species of “noble savage” racism. Historically, anti-imperialist Arab resistance was primarily secular and socialist, not Islamist. We are abandoning our progressive brothers and sisters in these countries who are caught up in their own civil war that intersects with and is exacerbated by the Western War on Terror. The targets of political Islam, remember, are primarily other Muslims, such as in the case of December’s Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in which 141 were killed, 132 of them children. The same day, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula killed 25, including 15 children on a school bus, in Yemen. Rather than reinforcing Western imperialism, acts of blasphemy can — depending on how they are mounted — be an aid to secularists who are fighting Islamist reaction.

Author Kenan Malik puts it well when he writes how the Charliemassacre connects to the front lines of struggle for free speech in the Middle East and within Muslim communities in the West. “What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms.”

Likewise, Iranian-French graphic novelist and author of bestsellerPersepolis Marjane Satrapi defended Charlie in an interview with the New York Times, arguing that criticizing the paper was “the wrong conversation.” “I wasn’t always in love with what they did, but I was in love with the idea we had one magazine that was this subversive,” she told the U.S. daily. “People have the right to have a different point of view, and to provoke. If we allow acts like this to create a climate of fear, we will have lost our freedom.”

And indeed, many Muslims see the attack on Charlie as akin to the attempted assassination by ISIS of the Syrian revolution’s activist-cartoonist Raed Fares. While Western leftists scoffed at what they felt was the mawkish Princess-Di-style sentimentality of the Je suis Charliememe, many Muslims in France and worldwide were perfectly happy to embrace the slogan. While the delicate flowers at the CBC and theGuardian were fretting over whether to reprint Charlie Hebdo drawings,Arab editorial cartoonists in Lebanon, Qatar and Egypt were made of much tougher stuff.

It is also necessary to point out the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of the French president marching along other world leaders in defence of freedom of expression when in September, domestic authorities banned protests against Charlie cartoons as well as Palestinian solidarity marches during the Israeli assault on Gaza last year. The West’s strategic ally, Saudi Arabia, on Friday mounted a public flogging of the jailed liberal blogger Raif Badawi, a double standard that Arab cartoonists have lambasted.

Many of those among the elite who today make reference to freedom of speech made no such reference when U.S. forces bombed the offices ofAl-Jazeera in Kabul and Baghdad, when NATO targeted Serbian TV, or when seven Palestinian journalists were killed by the IDF last year. Leaked documents appearing in Britain’s Daily Mirror suggest that in 2004, George Bush and Tony Blair considered bombing the Qatar headquarters of al-Jazeera, a building where 1,000 people work. As the Dutch-born Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop said upon seeing world leaders march in Paris in solidarity with his slain colleagues, “We have a lot of new friends, like the pope, Queen Elizabeth, and Putin. We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.”

Many of those among the elite who today make reference to freedom of speech made no such reference when U.S. forces bombed the offices of Al-Jazeera in Kabul and Baghdad, when NATO targeted Serbian TV, or when seven Palestinian journalists were killed by the IDF last year.

But the hypocrisy of elites over freedom of speech does not make freedom of speech something leftists should oppose or be unconcerned about. Indeed we should expect liberal democracy to be incapable of defending basic liberal principles. The left should not fight elite hypocrisy with its own version of hypocrisy.

There is a worrying trend on the left to dismiss freedom of expression as part of the colonialist project, to repudiate free speech as a meaningless elite piety. In recent years, the liberal-left, particularly in the anglophone world, has taken to demanding the censorship of “offensive” or “triggering” speech, and student unions, theatres, universities, schools, municipalities, art galleries and other public venues have increasingly shut down a wide range of speech acts. Even many traditional civil liberties groups appear to be cowed. Demonstrators go beyond protesting those they oppose, and now try to actively prevent them from speaking, as in the case of efforts to disinvite Bill Maher from UC Berkeley last year — ironically during the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement protests. In 2014 in the United States, campus protesters prevented commencement addresses by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, attorney general Eric Holder, and IMF head Christine Lagarde. According to campus free speech group FIRE, 39 protests have led to the cancellation of protested events on campuses since 2009. All this is contrary to traditional leftist defence of freedom of speech and must be strongly opposed. The politics of the speaker should make no difference here.

We counter bad arguments with good ones. The minute that we begin embracing censorship, it will be our own ideas that sooner rather than later will be deleted by the censors. And the irony is that while these calls to censorship frequently come from the “social justice left,” it is precisely as a result of the liberal foundation of freedom of expression that the women’s movement, the civil rights struggle and gay liberation have achieved all that they have.

Today, we cannot denounce the Conservative government of Stephen Harper for muzzling climate scientists or efforts by energy giant Kinder Morgan to restrict the freedom of expression of anti-pipeline protesters if we don’t also stand up for the right of those we disagree with — and in particular those we strongly disagree with — to speak.

Speech acts whose content we agree with are easy to defend, so defending them is not really defending free speech at all, but rather just asserting our own speech. This is just as arbitrary as the vis et voluntas, or “force and will,” attitude that King John took to executive decisions before he was forced signed the Magna Carta, the first civil liberties charter and founding document of all our freedoms, 800 years ago this year.

It is worthwhile recalling how Noam Chomsky in 1979 not only signed a petition in defence of the freedom of speech of French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, but also, because the grand old man of the left so believes in this ideal, wrote an essay, “Some Elementary Comments on the Rights of Freedom of Expression,” that was printed as a preface in a book by Faurisson. Today’s leftists spurning free speech are dwarfed by Chomsky, a moral giant who was even willing to defend hate speech.

“Even if Faurisson were to be a rabid anti-Semite and fanatic pro-Nazi — such charges have been presented to me in private correspondence that it would be improper to cite in detail here — this would have no bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of the defence of his civil rights. On the contrary, it would make it all the more imperative to defend them since, once again, it has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defence.”

The left would do well to remind itself that freedom of speech is not a pick-and-choose buffet dinner. Throughout our history, from Robespierre to Stalin, every time we have spurned this freedom as a bourgeois bagatelle, as a trinket to be set aside for the sake of solving allegedly more worrying social injustices, disaster has swiftly struck.

Freedom of speech is no liberal bauble. It is the first freedom, upon which all other liberties depend.

Longue vie à Charlie Hebdo.

About the author

Leigh Phillips is a formerly Brussels-based EU affairs journalist and science writer who has written for the Guardian, Nature, the Daily Telegraph, the Globe and Mail, and Jacobin, among other outlets.