The Blog

We Must Reject the Demand to Try Charlie Hebdo, and the Narrative That Spawned It

Last week, Charlie Hebdo magazine contained cartoons featuring Aylan Kurdi's death. The cartoons mocked the atmosphere which had preceded, and indeed immediately followed, his death, and yet the magazine has once again been erroneously branded as racist. What makes the charge all the more grave, however, is the call from the head of the Society of Black Lawyers for the magazine's staff to be tried by the International Criminal Court. The very fact that such a call was made goes to show that we have learned nothing since January.

It is worth noting from the outset, yet again, that Charlie Hebdois not a racist magazine, and is in fact staffed by left-wing anti-racists. Its cartoons lampooned all sectors of French society, most infamously the Pope, and the first family of the Front National were also regular targets. Hardly the repertoire that one would expect from a "racist" and "xenophobic" magazine as it has been labelled ever since the mass killing of a dozen members of its staff. Notably, it also satirised Islamic extremism as well as Islam more generally, and while satirising the former it managed to avoid falling into the trap that far-right movements often do by conflating criticism of Islamic fundamentalism with prejudice against all Muslims; its cartoons of Muhammad lamenting at the activity of those who invoke his name, and more striking still the beheading of Muhammad by an ISIS terrorist, made such a message very clear.

And again, in the case of this week's cartoons, they are considerably more intelligent than the crass idea of simply mocking Aylan Kurdi's death, the main charge levelled at Charlie Hebdo for featuring his body in their cartoons. In fact, its targets were starkly different: namely, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, and the British Press. In the former case, the idea (being expressed by the caricatures) that the drowning of a Muslim shows that Europe is Christian is surely mocking politicians like Viktor Orban who has in part justified Hungary's harsh policies on the migrant crisis as necessary to protect the Christian heritage of Europe. The latter case is far more interesting; as Maajid Nawaz notes, the seeming incongruity of Aylan's body next to a McDonald's advert was in fact replicated outside the realm of satire on the cover of the Daily Mail which had a Bake Off-themed offer advertised on the front cover above the photo, and moreover any mockery of the media reaction to the migrant crisis should get us thinking about just how quickly sections of the Press turned from calling for the Army to be sent into Calais, to viewing the crisis as a human tragedy.

Yet none of this seems to matter to the offence-takers that have accused the magazine of mocking Aylan's death; the mere presence of his body on the cover was enough to invalidate any message of the cartoons, and enough of an excuse on its own to brand the magazine racist, or in the case of Philip Herbert, go so far as to consider complaining all the way to the International Criminal Court accusing the magazine of "incitement to hate crime". With said narrative hopefully debunked above, we can turn to what any "charge" against the magazine should read if it's honest: namely, the act of causing offence, which does not suddenly render the label of "racist" an apt one. Moreover, the fact that these cartoons, with messages that are not overly subtle, can be reduced by a wide range of outlets to simply the inclusion of Aylan's body, and thereby invite an automatic assumption of bad faith in its inclusion, only serves to prove once again that offence is often not given so much as it is taken, and that not all offence is worthy of either our respect or validation from society.

Such overblown and narrow-minded reactions to the magazine's output would not be nearly so reprehensible, however, were it not for the events of January which brought the magazine into the international spotlight in the first place. And, in case we need reminding, the spotlight did not fall on Charlie because it incited violence or otherwise acted illegally, but rather because twelve of its staff were shot dead in a cold-blooded attack motivated, by the attackers' own admission, by their own offence at the magazine's publishing of cartoons of Muhammad. To be absolutely clear: this is not the case of a far-right, racist publication adding to its litany of othering and baiting, but of a magazine whose staff have been gunned down for exercising their legal rights to free speech daring to continue to do so. It is an endeavour which any of us who believe in free speech should be wholeheartedly supporting.

The reaction to the events of January, however, served as a disturbing precursor to further attacks on the magazine like the one we see now. Charb's body had barely hit the floor when he was derided as a "racist asshole" and Stop the War went even further, publishing an article which seemed to insinuate that not only did the cartoonists deserve to die, but that it was somehow becoming on Islamic extremists that they didn't do this more often. And when in its next issue, the magazine bravely (and, frankly, necessarily) featured Muhammad on its front cover, Joseph Harker argued in the Guardian that this picture and its caption added "insult to injury", at a time when some of those who were actually injured were still in hospital and the dead were waiting to be buried. This is a narrative that should horrify us; it is a narrative advocating for an assassin's veto, and one that we need to resist.

Yet the fact that we have ended up, once again, in a situation where Charlie Hebdo is being falsely derided as racist, and attempts are being made to silence its output - this time through a lawyer's veto rather than that of an assassin - suggests that we didn't do enough at the time to proactively debunk and challenge the narratives justifying the direction of revulsion not at those who shot twelve cartoonists dead but at the dead and the injured for somehow "provoking" them to such an extent that the only available avenue to vent out their anger was to go to the offices of the offending magazine and kill as many people as possible before holding others hostage (disclaimer: this is satire). I would have hoped, as I'm sure others did, that we shouldn't have needed to do much - that when the dust settled and our adrenaline glands resumed normal function, we would take stock both of Charlie Hebdo's true character and the need to defend free speech beyond the assassin's veto. Evidently (as shown not just through this episode, but also the PEN boycott), we did need to, and that in itself is telling as to the state of free speech in Britain today.

If Philip Herbert were to insist on referring the magazine to the ICC (where I would hope the case would be thrown out as quickly as possible), it would be a damning indictment on our society. Yet, whether or not he does, this is also an opportunity to bury the false narrative that Charlie Hebdo was a racist magazine whose staff in some way deserved to be attacked, and to stand up once again for the right of free speech, a right which has been paid for - and continues to be paid for in parts of the world such as Bangladesh where atheists are hacked to death - with rivers of blood. The fact that we have reached a point where such a referral is even being contemplated suggests that we can ill afford to let this opportunity pass us by.