L’amour, plus fort que la haine

In an old cover, a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist is drawn in passionate, loving embrace of an Islamic extremist. ”Love is stronger than hate” reads the headline. I’ve no doubt that extremists would be appalled by this symbolic invitation to modernity, tinged with in-your-face homosexuality that only serves to inflame their retrograde sensibilities. And that’s the point. Welcome to the 21st century, guys—it’s a lot more open here than the repressive medieval state you’d like us to return to.

I’m seeing lots of hand wringing and moral equivalence in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, along the lines of “I of course condemn these murders, but I don’t support the content of the speech.”*

Some seem to be taking it on face value that Charlie’s a racist magazine or part of a pattern of systematic oppression. Many non-French observers are mistakenly interpreting Charlie Hebdo as a right wing, racist, anti-immigrant publication. If you spent two minutes scanning covers you’d miss the political context and how the magazine’s sense of humor fits in. Look more closely and you will find an anarcho-left, pro-reason magazine whose politics are generally very sympathetic to immigrants. In fact, the edition on newsstands at the time of the attack was mocking the publication of a xenophobic novel by a right-winger.

Yet social media is abuzz—”I abhor murder; but I am not Charlie!”—with the premise, or at least the implication, that Charlie is part of the problem. These sentiments can be found in uninformed aesthetic critiques; like poorly-cited papers from a bad grad school seminar they fundamentally misread the material. Here are some cartoon depictions of Muslims, a priori, they’re racist. In The New Yorker, for instance, you will read: “it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech.” A forgone conclusion embedded in a truism about free speech—Charlie is obscene, yes, but racist? Misread Charlie’s politics and you will fundamentally misunderstand how this sad chapter relates to the really worrisome developments in French politics, like the rise of Marine Le Pen.

If you’re an American searching for an analogy, ask: How would you feel if al-Qaeda terrorists killed Matt Stone and Trey Parker? You know, these guys? South Park is puerile and offensive. It’s not for polite company. But nothing would justify the assassination of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. And who would suggest after an attack, in the name of conciliation or aesthetic judgement, “maybe we shouldn’t air South Park anymore?”

Crass is protected in liberal societies. We should make no apologies for living in a liberal society. This was often the point for the staff at Charlie Hebdo. After its office was firebombed in 2011. and al-Qaeda put its editor on its hit list, they continued unfazed. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings,” he told Reuters in 2012. “I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.”

It’s a bit silly to show up to gunfight, smoke still rising, with a stack of texts on critical theory. But some are doing a purely aesthetic reading of the cartoons, and concluding that the cartoons went beyond “offensive” to racist, xenophobic, bigoted. Even if they were drawn by liberals, whose politics are known to anyone who cares to look, these cartoons must be understood as “extreme attacks on oppressed and marginalized peoples.”

I swear, some people cannot help but cast these events as The West vs. Muslims. Why should we accept the premise—which appears to be shared by extremists on both sides, as well as their apologists—that the West is at war with Muslims? This is no basis for peace or constructive betterment of our world. To accept the premise that the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are somehow an “instrument of oppression” is to concede to a Western “aggression” that was supposedly answered last week in Paris. Don’t take it from me. Read the official statement by al-Qaeda in Arabian Penninsula:

“The target was in France in particular because of its obvious role in the war on Islam and oppressed nations… [we] warned the West about the consequences of the persistence in the blasphemy against Muslims’ sanctities… If there is no check on the freedom of your words, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions.”

These words treat incompatible ideas as an incitement to violence. More importantly, they draw no distinction between a clash of ideas and a clash of civilizations. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are intentionally provocative, but drawn in the spirit of a free society. Look again at the “L’amour, plus fort que la haine” cover—is this a racist and homophobic image, or one that playfully challenges the repressive, inhibiting worldview that extremists would like us to adopt ? This image, as courageous, crass and defiant as before, is the best representation of why I stand for Charlie’s freedom of speech. And its content, too.


[1] The worst of this ignorance and moral equivalence is Glenn Greenwald rushing in to “commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews… the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims.” Try to ignore the non-sequitur—though I have to say, it reveals a lot about Glenn’s worldview and priorities following a string of assassinations that kind of proved the cartoonists’ points.

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