Debates about Islam and free speech only go so far. This was a political blow aimed at multicultural democracy
Saturday, Jan 10, 2015
We can blame religion in general, and we can blame Islam. (We can hem and haw around, Bill Maher-style, and say that we’re not blaming absolutely all Muslims but only some of them, perhaps most. Or we can go full Fox News and blame the whole damn religion.) We can blame free speech carried to irresponsible and obnoxious extremes, and we can blame the pantywaist spinelessness of liberalism. We can blame the cultural arrogance, racism and Islamophobia of French society, and we can turn around and blame its overly lax immigration policies, the residue of colonial guilt. But with the two principal suspects in the Charlie Hebdo attack now dead and the relentless cycle of punditry churning onward to third-level meta-analysis, I think we’re in danger of overlooking the obvious, or to use Joan Didion’s memorable phrase about the journalist’s task, failing to observe the observable.
If anything, this attack testifies to the power the French model still holds, even in an era of sustained political crisis, social conflict and economic stagnation. Amid its evident difficulties, France remains a peaceful, prosperous and culturally vibrant nation with a relatively well integrated and increasingly secular Muslim minority. (As has been widely reported, one of the police officers killed on Wednesday was a Muslim.) That model of democracy — or perhaps we should say that possibility — is exactly what came under attack from the Charlie Hebdo gunmen. Their aim was to pry open that model at a tender spot, expose its contradictions and undermine its stability.
Debates about the role of religion in modern society, and the outer limits of free speech, are undeniably seductive. I am liable to get drawn into them at any moment. But when we allow our discussion about a political act, which took place in the familiar context of a Western liberal democracy and whose origins are not especially mysterious, to get sidetracked into grand pronouncements about abstract moral and philosophical categories, we are deliberately clouding the issue and not talking about the things we should be talking about.
For the record, since this has become a point of contention: I personally would not have published the famous Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. I wouldn’t have published a whole bunch of the things Charlie published, which strike me as juvenile and in poor taste. But I’m not the editor of a French satirical weekly whose mission is to jam its thumb into the eye of propriety, and to continually test how far it can go in mocking the sanctimonious and self-important attitudes of others. If anyone gave me that job, I would fire myself immediately. I see no contradiction between personally finding Charlie Hebdo distasteful and saying that the editors and cartoonists who died this week must be remembered as heroes of free speech, and that the attack was a direct attempt to undermine a fragile, frayed and embattled core value of the Enlightenment.