Like other Americans of goodwill, I am appalled by the savage and cowardly attack that killed two police officers and 10 artists and editors at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. It is in their honor that #JeSuisCharlie, which translates to “I am Charlie,” became a slogan for thousands of tweets and signs at rallies.
That’s inspiring, but that’s not me.I defend their right to publish even their most vulgar, over-the-top and pointlessly provocative cartoons even though, if I were their editor, I would choose images that were less offensive. I don’t think that’s an insult to the memories of the weekly’s staffers, since they have taken pride in their ability to “offend everyone equally,” as the publication’s defenders like to say.
“It’s a big difference between the way things are done in the United States, where often editors are trying to rein in the cartoonists,” Ted Rall, the Los Angeles Times’ excellent editorial cartoonist, observed on “PBS NewsHour.” “There, they were encouraged to stretch and be as aggressive as possible.”
Understood. But even as I defend the heroism of Charlie Hebdo, I would be remiss if I failed to condemn its racism — as well as its sexism, its anti-theism and other attacks against targets that were in much less privileged positions to defend themselves.
Those are not contradictory sentiments. France is a country where Muslims, among others, are a poor, harassed and often-maligned minority. Many have ironically been isolated from mainstream French social and economic life by a European version of multiculturalism that leaders in France, Germany and England admit has not worked.
It pains me to see the Charlie Hebdo attacks now give more aid and comfort to France’s growing nationalist movement, which routinely uses secularism and free speech to put lipstick on its xenophobia. France has a rich tradition of art as commentary, going back at least to 19th century artist Honore Daumier. The editors and cartoonists murdered in Wednesday’s attack are martyrs to a cause that I certainly hold dear: free speech and free press.
Although most mainstream American media are refusing to run the cartoons that have offended Muslims — among others — the most, any news consumer can instantly Google them. It’s easy to see why most media are reluctant to publish or broadcast them. Some of their work that I have seen is quite sharp, deft and biting in its wit. Other cartoons look like they came out some American hate group’s newsletters.
Some cartoons show Muhammad naked and in pornographic poses. Some show nuns masturbating, popes wearing condoms and the Christian Holy Trinity locked in a three-way homosexual orgy (in regard to French religious leaders’ opposition to gay marriage). One cover cartoon of four young black women in burqas was headlined: “The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry. ‘Don’t touch our child benefits!'” Yet, offense does not mean you should relinquish your rights — or your life.
Christiane Taubira, France’s first black minister of justice, has made that point well. After the weekly depicted her as a monkey in a cartoon that followed a far-right politician’s scandalous description of her in those terms, she nevertheless defended free-press rights as “the enemy of obscurantism and violence,” and said that it inconceivable that Charlie Hebdo should cease to publish.
In that spirit, a second hashtag quickly emerged after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, #JeSuisAhmed. That’s a reference to one of the two police officers who were fatally shot, Ahmed Merabet, who also happened to be a Muslim.
As Twitter activist Dyab Abou Jahjah said in a tweet that has gone around the world in retweets, “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed.”
Merabet, like the slain editors and artists at Charlie Hebdo, did not set out to be a martyr. But today he symbolizes how well the melting-pot model of assimilation, that Europeans are trying in their own various ways to emulate, can still work.
I am not Ahmed, but he sounds like an excellent role model.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage. “Culture Worrier,” a collection of his best columns, is available in print and at chicagotribune.com/ebooks.