Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Playing Into Their Hands?

“And world leaders were standing together amidst a procession that included François Hollande of France, Angela Merkel of Germany, David Cameron of Great Britain, Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, along with the leaders of Mali, Jordan and Turkey. It is no small thing for the king of Jordan, a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, to march in a rally prompted by the murders of people who mocked Islam as well as of innocent Jews—all of whom were killed by Islamic extremists.”
—Jake Tapper, writing on the CNN web site on January 11

It was fascinating to watch the various reactions and narratives that came spinning out of the aftermath of Paris’s Charlie Hebdo massacre. Perhaps the most interesting was the kerfuffle that erupted in the U.S. over the fact that no high-ranking American official was sent to take part in the massive march on the following Sunday.

Yes, when watching coverage of the march, I did scan the footage to see if there were any faces from Washington, but when I did not see any I did not think too much about it. And I heard absolutely no mention of or comment on the American absence from any of the Irish, British or French coverage I caught. My news consummation is not necessarily exhaustive, but I saw enough of it to be reasonably certain that no one missed seeing President Obama or Vice-President Biden or Secretary Kerry. And I saw absolutely no mention of Kerry’s belated visit and his cringe-inducing presentation of James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend.”

For good or ill, the media here seem to be treating the U.S. government as pretty much irrelevant—at least when it comes the problem of terrorism.

As for the commentariat on both sides of the Atlantic, there was predictably near-unanimous condemnation of the killings, but there was also a fair amount of “it was reprehensible but…” Left-of-center pundits were quick to opine that the absolute worst thing about the mayhem was that it would strengthen the hand of far-right political parties.

Another take was best expressed by former Reuters and BBC journalist Amil Kahn, writing for Politico. His reaction was that, not only was Obama right not to go or to send someone to Paris, but that the march played right into the hands of the jihadists. In his view, the bad guys got exactly what they really wanted, which was to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims by manipulating non-Muslims into demonstrating in support of a magazine that viciously mocks Islam. He underlined his view by pointing out, quite correctly, that the French government displayed a double standard by censoring (among other things) the Facebook posts of the anti-Semite comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. (The French and other many other countries have undermined their defense of freedom of speech with complicated laws banning certain kinds of “hate speech.”)

“Overall,” writes Kahn, “the direction of the public debate plays directly into Al Qaeda’s narrative that Muslims cannot live in the West without demeaning themselves.”

One problem with Kahn’s argument is that it presumes that Muslims do not have the intellectual capacity to distinguish between, on the one hand, supporting the principle of free expression and being against violence and, on the other hand, endorsing hateful and offensive opinions. A more fundamental problem with the argument is that it can be—and frankly has been—applied to virtually every act that the West might ever take to defend itself against or to attempt to counteract Islam-inspired violence.

Perhaps the best response to Kahn’s view might be a piece by Jeff Goldberg for The Atlantic with the headline “Why French PM Won’t Use Term ‘Islamophobia’.” He recounts a conversation he had with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (before the Charlie Hebdo attack) in which Valls explained that “he refuses to use the term ‘Islamophobia’ to describe the phenomenon of anti-Muslim prejudice, because, he says, the accusation of Islamophobia is often used as a weapon by Islamism’s apologists to silence their critics.”

Goldberg points out that Valls is echoing the writer Salman Rushdie, who was threatened with a fatwa issued by the head of state of Iran. In an open letter Rushdie wrote, “We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia,’ a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it.”

The Atlantic writer further notes that the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has rejected use of the word Islamophobia for being used “to silence all those Muslims who question the Koran, who demand equality of the sexes, who claim the right to renounce religion, and who want to practice their faith freely and without submitting to the dictates of the bearded and doctrinaire.”

Goldberg concludes by taking what he considers a fair definition of Islamophobia (as described by Hussein Ibish, writing in The National) and then concluding that Charlie Hebdo’s provocative content does not meet its standard: “While many of the images it printed over the years were offensive to Muslims and many others, and were intended to be so, did its track record really suggest that its presence on the French scene in any way compromised, challenged, or complicated the ability of the Arab and Muslim migrant communities in France to function properly in that society? Clearly, the answer is no.”

I myself remember being amused by the antics of Charlie Hebdo (as well as Le Canard Enchaîné) when I lived in France back in the 1970s, but I was always more impressed by its audacity than for the coherence of its views. As someone who does his best to respect other people’s religious beliefs, I would not be inclined to endorse or recommend much of its content. But I have no ambivalence when it comes to defending its contributors’ right to say whatever they want.

After all, to refuse to defend the rights of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo out of deference to religious sensibilities or out of fear, well, now that would be giving the jihadists what they want.

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