Charlie Hebdo just meeting demand for Islamophobia
Charlie Hebdo was ultimately promoting the very stereotypes it was supposedly trying to satirize, which is detrimental for society.
By: Abbas Kassam
Toronto Star | January 18, 2015
Charlie Hebdo has long operated on the fringes and is now only popular for doing what seems to be in vogue — being Islamophobic. Many of the magazine’s cartoons were plainly bigoted and unnecessarily inflammatory. They depicted Muslims as brown-skinned and turban-wearing violent misogynists. The cartoons reinforced harmful stereotypes about Muslims and were designed to shock.
But let’s be clear: nothing is more offensive and denigrating to the conscience and to Islam than murdering people for their views. Canadian Muslims have categorically condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The killers despicably claimed they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad — but they betrayed the Prophet’s message of mercy and peaceful coexistence.
Freedom of speech protects Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish all of its cartoons, even if highly offensive. The magazine should be critiqued in the same forum, the media, using the same weapon, the pen.
But the debate should not be focused around freedom of speech. Free expression is a near-absolute in our western democracies. It is a protected right and for good reason. It is premised on a free market of ideas. Speech is allowed to enter the market, where it can be analyzed, debated and then accepted or rejected.
Yet, the magazine and its supporters are just meeting the market demand for Islamophobia. It is now popular in our discourse to pitch western values against radical Islamists (no matter how empty these terms are). Charlie Hebdo met this demand in the worst possible way.
It is questionable whether the cartoons were even satirical. Satire is a classical tool of those without power to shed light on the weaknesses of the powerful. Satire is not about perpetuating negative stereotypes about a disenfranchised minority. Ultimately, Charlie Hebdo was promoting the very stereotypes it was supposedly trying to satirize. This might work as a business model, but it is detrimental for society.
French Muslims, by all indicators, are a stigmatized community. Close to half of the prison population in France is Muslim, even though Muslims make up only about 8-10 per cent of the French population. A large portion of French Muslims are immigrants who have trouble integrating into society due to systemic barriers such as employment discrimination.
Publishing incendiary cartoons that perpetuate the “otherization” of a minority in France leads to social divisions and is disgraceful to the genre of satire.
The Muslim community in France does not have a strong voice in the marketplace of speech. Contrast this with criticism and caricatures considered to be anti-Semitic that were published in 2008 by then Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Maurice Sinet. Sinet was asked to issue an apology, which he refused to do, and he was subsequently fired by the magazine.
There is similar precedent in Canada. In March 2014, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay asked a local Nova Scotia paper to apologize for printing a cartoon of a flag with a Nazi swastika flying over the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. MacKay called the cartoon “deeply offensive, outrageous, insulting and completely inappropriate.”
It is essential that we also collectively reject the demand for Islamophobic material because it harms our valued social cohesion. As Canadians, we are living in a society that promotes tolerance and cohesion, not discrimination. However, Islamophobia stigmatizes Muslim communities, disenfranchises and isolates them from the mainstream. This creates conditions ripe for extremist radicalization, which has proven to be a danger to all of us, including Muslims themselves. And violence then creates demand for a response. This reaction can sometimes lead to the erosion of civil liberties and decreased freedoms for everyone.
Much of Canadian media should be lauded for their principled stand in declining to print the magazine’s incendiary cartoons. We can take a cue from their decision. As democratic societies we need to demand mutual respect and understanding, and reject the purveyors of intolerance. This may not sound as interesting or exciting as the clash of civilizations framework, but it is a long-term investment in our shared future.
Abbas Kassam is on the Human Rights Committee at the National Council of Canadian Muslims.