What role can white non-Muslims play in expressing solidarity with the values of social and political equity and open debate since the horrific and murderous attack on the satirists at Charlie Hebdo? Mainstream American commentators seem to have decided that Charlie‘s anti-Muslim cartoons, which had previously earned death threats for editors and cartoonists and a 2011 firebombing of their offices, themselves should be “welcomed and defended.” Plenty of folks are even counting as solidarity the dissemination of the cartoons and of further “blasphemous satire.”
I don’t agree. Most of the conversations I observe on this attack, among my community and in the press, are happening without mention of the extent to which Muslims’ rights of speech, worship (three more links), and free travel are being abrogated in the West. Nor do many commentators mention the role that post-WWI western colonial politics and US meddling has played in the rise of the brutal– and, in what I know of the history of Islam, quite new– form of Islamist fundamentalism apparently behind these attacks. To claim that the defense of blasphemous speech is the best role for supporters of liberal values in the West is, to my mind, to ignore the deep illiberality (or, one might call it, “oppression”) to which Muslims are subjected by Western state power, domestically and in the Middle East.
To respond to the attacks primarily by praising the cartoons is to ignore the extent to which these attacks will likely be used as justification for continued, or expanded, state surveillance in the West. As well as for, possibly, anonymous drone attacks, aid to “friendly” autocratic governments who say they’ll help us fight Al Qaeda and ISIS, and continued military incursions in the Middle East.
Why attack Charlie Hebdo to begin with? Middle East commentator Juan Cole notes that this horrifying attack seems to be a strategic attempt to “sharpen the contradictions” between French Muslims (most of whom are secular and not remotely interested in violent fundamentalism) and non-Muslims. The response to the attack has been near-universal outrage and horror and, unsurprisingly, a new surge of reactionary politics across Europe. This, Cole suggests, is the attackers’ goal. In the attackers’ chilling form of game theory, such a rise in general anti-Muslim sentiment among ethnic Europeans will aid in the creation of a “common political identity [among the tiny minority of violent Islamists and other French muslims] around grievance against discrimination.” Of those Muslims who will bear the brunt of increased discrimination and persecution, some tiny fraction might be radicalized into terror themselves. Cole goes on, “The only effective response to this manipulative strategy… is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals.”
But this is not generally being talked about. Rather than reflecting on Western treatment of Muslims domestically or abroad, the center of debate I’ve seen in light of these killings has been, Is Islam itself intolerant? Those who claim that aspects of Islam itself may be to blame adopt an embattled tone, as if hordes of pious multicultural commentators were declaring the “criticism of any manifestation of Islam” off-limits. I believe that this is a straw-person argument. I’m not claiming that this question– whether the illiberality or violence of some minority of Muslims means Muslims somehow aren’t “fit” for liberal values– is by definition one asked in bad faith. But it becomes disingenuous when asked apart from historical and political contexts. To name a few: the US spent decades covertly arming and training fundamentalist Muslims to fight first and kill secular socialist pan-Arab nationalists, then Soviets. The US, in exchange for favorable oil deals with Saudi Arabia, supported the Saudi royal family’s exportation of its particularly severe and repressive Wahhabism. Though they bear no obligation to do so, Muslims around the world have condemned ISIS and this attack specifically. Anti-Muslim prejudice is horribly and increasingly common in the West. And let’s not forget that, as journalist and former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald so bluntly puts it, “[T]he west has spent years bombing, invading and occupying Muslim countries and killing, torturing and lawlessly imprisoning innocent Muslims, and anti-Muslim speech has been a vital driver in sustaining support for those policies.”
In this context, the celebration of anti-Muslim satire no longer seems particularly liberal or heroic. The narrow terms of conversation on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons feeds just the sort of generalizations about Islam that will harden into further stereotypes on the part of non-Muslim Westerners.
This criticism (I feel silly even saying so) is not the same as seeking to silence or censor those who share the cartoons. In the same column I quoted above, Greenwald reflects on the distinction between defending and endorsing speech, then notes:
It’s the opposite of surprising to see large numbers of westerners celebrating anti-Muslim cartoons– not on free speech grounds but due to approval of the content. Defending free speech is always easy when you like the content of the ideas being targeted, or aren’t part of (or actively dislike) the group being maligned.
So, I return to my first question. What could be the next step, as a white non-Muslim who wants to promote social equity and political freedom? For my part, I believe naming and critiquing unjustifiable generalizations about Islam in my own communities, supporting the free speech and worship of Muslims in my own country, and organizing in resistance to the US role in empowering American-friendly autocracy in the Middle East, is more strategic for these values than republishing anti-Muslim cartoons, or high-fiving Charlie Hebdo for having done so particularly. Another thing I think is important, which I probably should have done at the top of this post rather than here near the end: admitting what I don’t know about the history and theology of Islam, which is plenty, and seeking out opportunities to educate myself on the faith and its history.
P.S. Thanks to my friends Gavin, Jon, and Sam, whose reflections, assertions, and questions on this topic on my Facebook wall spurred me to set my thoughts down here in this form.