To those of you who’ve been defending freedom of speech, including the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish “blasphemous” cartoons, the political director of The Huffington Post UK has a message:
“Please get a grip.”
That is the advice of Mehdi Hasan in an open letter that begins, “Dear liberal pundit,” before it descends into a casserole of lies, strawmen, false equivalencies, and general babble. It is the latest iteration in a week-long series of editorials that can be filed under the I’m-all-for-free-speech-but category, whose population is far too large for comfort.
Note how Hasan tries to muddy the waters:
“Yes, the attack was an act of unquantifiable evil; an inexcusable and merciless murder of innocents. But was it really a ‘bid to assassinate’ free speech (ITV’s Mark Austin), to ‘desecrate’ our ideas of ‘free thought’ (Stephen Fry)? It was a crime — not an act of war – perpetrated by disaffected young men; radicalised not by drawings of the Prophet in Europe in 2006 or 2011, as it turns out, but by images of US torture in Iraq in 2004.”
No one so far as I can tell has claimed the Kouachi brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo were radicalized by cartoons, and it certainly may be the case that they were radicalized by the torture committed by the U.S. at Abu Ghraib prison. But what on Earth does this have to do with France, which vehemently opposed the Iraq war? More specifically, what does this have to do with cartoonists whose goal was simply to skewer sacred cows and make people think and laugh using the power of the pencil? To claim that the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo wasn’t an attack on free speech despite the fact that the murderers yelled, “The prophet has been avenged” after they finished killing, is an affront to truth.
Hasan then breaks into a false equivalency so facile, it’s difficult not to be embarrassed for the entire Huffington Post UK staff. It’s worth quoting at length:
“None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn.
“Has your publication, for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No? How about caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the twin towers? I didn’t think so (and I am glad it hasn’t). Consider also the ‘thought experiment” offered by the Oxford philosopher Brian Klug. Imagine, he writes, if a man had joined the ‘unity rally’ in Paris on 11 January ‘wearing a badge that said Je suis Chérif — the first name of one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen. Suppose, Klug adds, he carried a placard with a cartoon mocking the murdered journalists. ‘How would the crowd have reacted?”
Again, as far as I can tell, none of the “liberal pundits” defending the right of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons have or would advocate (government-sanctioned) suppression of Holocaust jokes, however repulsive they might find them. And if they did, they would be wrong. Beyond this, however, Hasan’s inability to tell the difference between mocking a religious figure who’s been dead for 1,400 years and making light of the victims of the single biggest atrocity in history perpetrated just 70 years ago is galling. As the saying goes, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” and I have no doubt that at some point the Holocaust will become acceptable comedy fodder, be it in 50 years or 500. And you can be assured that the Charlie Hebdos of the future will consider this monstrous episode fair game, and they will be right. Similar observations can be made about 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo massacre jokes.
Back to Hasan’s deceptions:
“When you say ‘Je suis Charlie‘, is that an endorsement of Charlie Hebdo‘s depiction of the French justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is black, drawn as a monkey? Of crude caricatures of bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave?”
As Gawker has explained, the slain cartoonist Charb did in fact draw Christiane Taubira as a monkey. What Hasan and others critics leave out, however, is that the cartoon was a spoof advertisement for the far right National Front/Rassemblement Bleu Marine (“navy blue rally,” whose Facebook page had once featured a photo of Taubira juxtaposed with a photo of a monkey. This was Charb’s response:
Charb changed the name of the party to “blue racist rally” and drew the National Front’s symbol on the lower left. Yes, he did draw Taubira as a monkey, but not because this is how he saw her, but how he thought the National Front views her and by extension other people of color. Unfortunately, Hasan couldn’t be bothered to note this, which would undermine his “point.”
As for Hasan’s characerization of “bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave,” that description weirdly resembles Jordan Weissmann’s critique in Slate in which he said that “the cartoonists simply rendered Islam’s founder as a hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said’s nightmares.”
Regardless, one of the hallmarks of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons is the exaggerated nature of physical stereotypes. So when Hasan wonders what the reaction would be if the magazine had attacked Jews instead, he’s ignoring cartoons that depict them like this:
Hasan then hints that the point of such cartoons is to critique racism, saying, “Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic.”
Suey Park, eat your heart out. One would think that after last March’s #CancelColbert fiasco, we all learned that invoking racist imagery and stereotypes in such a way isn’t a “dubious satirical tactic,” but is instead satire, the definition of which is, “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.”
If these cartoons aren’t satire, then satire does not exist.
Next, Hasan plays the victim card:
“Muslims, I guess, are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren. Context matters, too. You ask us to laugh at a cartoon of the Prophet while ignoring the vilification of Islam across the continent.”
First of all, I expect Muslims to have as thick of a skin as Christians and Jews. Obviously, however, this expectation is too much, as we can all think of instances where artists were killed (Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Theo Van Gogh) or quite seriously threatened with death (Kurt Westergaard, Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali), or assaulted on camera (Lars Vilks) by outraged Muslims, not to mention the draconian blasphemy laws that reign in many Muslim-majority countries. The fact is, if you publish a cartoon mocking Jesus, you’re simply being irreverent. If you publish a cartoon of Muhammad, you may be putting your life in danger.
Second of all, no one is asking Muslims to laugh at the cartoons, but it would be nice if people like the Kouachis didn’t go on homicidal rampages because Muhammad was “insulted.” Call me entitled, but this shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Whether all of this is truly lost on Hasan or if his piece is indicative of willful deception isn’t clear. It’s immaterial, anyway. Hasan is right about one thing. Certainly, most people do not believe in an absolute right to free speech, and frequent exceptions tend to include defamation, clear incitement to violence, the proliferation and possession of child pornography, and so forth. However, drawings of Muhammad fit none of these categories, though they are peripherally related considering that Allah commanded Muslims to fight infidels, and that Muhammad slaughtered Jews and married a six year-old girl.
And if Mehdi Hasan’s is correct, Muhammad literally rode into heaven on a winged horse.