UNPOPULAR OPINION: We Can Condemn Racist Cartoons and Fundamentalist Violence at the Same Time

The Charlie Hebdo shooting was a horrific and unjustified act of violence, but publishing racist cartoons is still a problem.
Publish date:
January 12, 2015
unpopular opinion, racism, terrorism, terrorists are dicks, Charlie Hebdo

Last week's terrible shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo that claimed the lives of 12 people, including journalists and police officers, was a sobering reminder of the dangers of journalism — 1,1o9 journalists have been murdered since 1992. Additional acts of violence claimed the lives of five more people in and around Paris, despite the heroic actions of people like Lassana Bathily, a French Muslim who hid Jewish deli customers while he snuck out to assist police. These acts should rightly be condemned as the acts of horrific fundamentalist violence that they were, intended in part to silence the press and to intimidate journalists.

Over the weekend, millions turned out for solidarity rallies across the world, heartbroken by the horrific events in France. At the same time, a tide of anti-Muslim extremism began to sweep across Europe, particularly in France, where a slew of mosques endured attacks like shootings and explosions. Meanwhile, a German newspaper that reprinted some of the publication's controversial cartoons was firebombed, possibly by Muslim extremists. Things are turning rapidly violent and ugly in Europe, and there's something many people aren't talking about.

Namely, Charlie published some racist cartoons.

So let's talk about that, because je ne suis pas Charlie.

We live in a world where things often seem incredibly black and white, extremely dualistic: Either this or that, either something is good or bad. In the cases of both murdering people and racism, let's be clear, there is no good, period — and it's possible to talk about both of these things at once without dishonoring the memories of those killed.

Charlie is known for publishing a wide range of content, and for taking equal-opportunity potshots at pretty much everyone (a memorable cartoon included the Bible, the Qu'ran, and the Talmud in a toilet). But a lot of those cartoons weren't just political commentaries, but actively racist, with the publication displaying a particularly Islamophobic turn as well.

The shooting has been attributed to the publication's history of cartoons deemed blasphemous by Muslims who a) think that depictions of the prophet are blasphemous, and b) the extreme minority of the previous who think that violence is an appropriate response to this problem.

But it's about more than that — it's about a return to classic terrorist tactics, to keeping an entire populace afraid and worried about when and where the next attack will strike. If we attribute the attack entirely to "Muslims getting mad about content that offends them" the implication is that we should embrace all of the content Charlie Hebdo prints as some kind of bold defiance — and that we should hate all Muslims — rather than saying that extremists are terrible people, which is what's actually going on here.

France, like many parts of Europe, is in the grip of a conservative spasm, with the far right gaining ground in politics. This event has already spurred an increase in far right activity and will no doubt shape electoral politics as candidates whip up anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment on the grounds that the Charlie shooting is evidence that all Muslims are evil, and should be kept out of a country that does things like banning burqas and telling women in hijabs that they must take their scarfs off to drive.

This event will hurt French and European Muslims and has potentially very serious consequences — and the shooters knew this when they opened fire and took civilians hostage, but chose not to care. We are already seeing the results of their hateful decision play out across Europe, as Muslims are attacked for their faith by European extremists, creating an ideal stage for the extreme minority of radicalized Muslims to retaliate even as Muslim communities across Europe are hurting and want the violence to stop.

It's possible to talk about the publication's history of racism without dishonoring those who were murdered in cold blood. In fact, I'd argue that it's necessary. We need to condemn racism, just as we need to condemn murderers — and if we let this become a case where people are lionized and we never talk about racist cartoons, we're not going to be able to have a larger and important discussion about the fact that racism is rampant in satire and political cartoons, and it's long past time to stop it.

There is a difference between sharp, snappy, sometimes biting commentary and plain racism, and we all know where the line lies even if no one wants to talk about it. provocation and racism are two different things — and Charlie engages in both.

Racism is not political commentary. It adds nothing to entirely valid and important discussions about political and social issues. It's. Just. Racist.

Gross caricatures of Muslims and Middle Easterners littered Charlie's pages and covers, and many of these cartoons are readily available for your viewing pleasure now that numerous publications are reprinting them as a defiant commentary on freedom of the press. But maybe they shouldn't. I certainly don't feel the need to reproduce them here, because I don't particularly want to perpetuate racism and then pat myself on the back as some kind of representative of journalistic freedom.

Because yes, free speech does include racism. But free speech also includes the right to talk back to racism, and to maybe use some selective care as a media publication when it comes to fighting back against acts of terrorism and honoring the memories of those killed by curating images a little more carefully.

No one deserves to be killed, ever, including racists, and victim-blaming is not acceptable, but we can still talk about the racist culture at Charlie and why it matters to the larger world of journalism and political commentary.

As Muslims around the world are ordered to apologize and distance themselves from the killers, they're also facing something else: Because they're supposed to vehemently oppose the shooting, there's also a social expectation that they not talk about the problems with the cartoons at "Charlie." (As J.K. Rowling pointed out, the rank hypocrisy in holding all Muslims accountable for the actions of a minuscule percentage is painfully obvious.)

Because the implication of talking about racism seems to be that if you think the culture at Charlie is a problem, then you're condoning terrorism. But that's not how it works. You can condemn both racism and terrorism at the same time. You can talk about how Charlie's cartoons are often offensive and infuriating and still be horrified that the publication's journalists were mowed down for drawing them. You can protest racism and still not believe that people should be murdered for being racist. You can be outraged about the depiction of your religion and still be heartbroken by the actions of a handful of religious extremists claiming to act in your name.

Racism isn't acceptable. Full stop. And now is a really good time to be talking about that, as Charlie's cartoons flood many media outlets, as some cartoonists, politicians, and members of the public respond to the shooting with racist commentaries of their own, as we slowly encase the publication in a cocoon of "they died for our freedoms," suggesting that it's impossible to criticize.

Generic Muslim terrorists are abounding.


So are caricatures of Muslim clerics and Middle Eastern bogeymen.

Here's a reprint from 2010, resurrected as "commentary":

Screw reclassifying Charlie into an angelic publication that can do no wrong. I'm criticizing Charlie even as I'm devastated by the loss of 17 lives. Charlie published and will continue to publish racist content — now more so than ever with the endorsement of millions across the globe — and it's appropriate to push back on that, yes, even now.

But screw fundamentalists who think it's acceptable to attack a publication for being racist, too, because killing people is never, ever acceptable. And screw extremists on all sides for turning a terrible event into an excuse for an escalating series of violent acts across Europe.