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The Debate

The cartoons from the magazine Charlie Hebdo were shocking enough to one group – terrorists – that they murdered the creators of those images. But are these images, which tend to draw on crude ethnic stereotypes to ridicule Muslim figures (including the prophet Mohammed) and other minority groups, themselves offensive and damaging, and is their widespread publication likely to stir up racial intolerance? Or does their libertine, dissenting spirit help support the very minority groups they portray? Read these two opposing views, and use the box on the right to vote.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Piali RoyToronto-based freelance writer. Tweets @pialiroy
How can you fight racism with racist images?
Debate contributor
Omer AzizFellow with the Information Society Project at Yale University Law School. Tweets @omeraziz12
Hiding these cartoons belittles and stifles minority communities

The Discussion

Debate contributor

Piali Roy : The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are just jokes, right? More funny than racist. What is wrong with a series of a nude Mohammeds, genitalia exposed, or the prophet moaning, “It’s hard being loved by jerks,” or a black justice minister depicted as a monkey?

In the two weeks since the murders at the French satirical magazine, the issue of republishing its cartoons has become a foaming whirlpool of media angst between the crusaders for free speech and defenders of community standards. Do we stand up to the murderers and for our way of life, or protect the delicate constitutions of Muslim readers?

This so-called civilizational discussion about freedom of expression and censorship feels like a coded attack on behalf of the forces of assimilation. Forget equality, minority cultures must embrace what is deemed acceptable by the mainstream. To do otherwise would be the gravest insult to “us” whoever this “us” may be.

Apologists for Charlie Hebdo's style of satire claim the rabble-rousing cartoonists are not racist. The images are merely used for effect and are perfectly in tune within the French tradition. And even if they are offensive, they must be republished to understand the rationale behind the murders, regardless who they may offend.

Are the images harmful to minorities? What is wrong with showing what appears to be the most benign of Charlie Hebdo covers, a tearful Prophet Mohammed saying all is forgiven while holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign? It can justifiably be read as beautiful and mournful as well as the magazine's middle finger directed at the murderers and their supporters: the secular world's infidel.

That cover, however inoffensive to the majority, can also be read as a not-so-subtle reference to the countless Charlie Hebdo covers mocking Muslims and other French minorities. To those communities most threatened with a backlash against them, they signify mosques with broken windows, the innocent attacked in retaliation. Ordinary law-abiding Muslims who hope not to become victims of a different group of extremists.

Charlie Hebdo, born of the political left of the 1960s Paris (the Internationale was sung at this week's funerals), sees itself as anti-racist publication, poking its finger in the eye of authority. Unfortunately, their methods do not work. The intent may be to attack racist figures such as National Front leader Marine Le Pen, but by using the crudest of ethnic stereotypes, which seemingly tickle its insular audience, it lays itself open to appearing retrograde. Readers outside its self-satisfied cage see how hurtful it is and understand how others will use the cartoons against them. Charlie Hebdo becomes the ironic purveyor of racism, reinforcing everyday French racism.

The magazine regularly approves of images that are meant to make their targets uncomfortable – even the target is, by extension, an entire community. The numerous lawsuits – Catholic, Jewish, Muslim – against Charlie Hebdo demonstrate what many in France felt about their caricatures.

Making a faith a subject of mockery and scorn has real-life effects. French anti-racist activist Rokhaya Diallo, author and producer of the documentary Networks of Hate (Les Reseaux de la Haine), faced it the day after the shootings. As she participated in a radio panel, a prominent journalist made the bizarre demand that Ms. Diallo, as a Muslim, publicly disassociate herself from the murders.

Her response: “So I am the only one around the table to have to say I have nothing to do with it?”

It has becoming increasingly obvious that even in France, freedom of expression is not a universal right but one circumscribed by history. Protecting one minority has become critical to France overcoming its previous crimes against its own Jewish population. Anti-Semitism is banned as is denial of the Holocaust. There are no such protections for Muslims. Shouldn’t we be fighting the hierarchy of prejudice?

Today's debate is not about censorship – the cartoons will live forever on the Internet – but about whether the mainstream media must publish them as an act of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo (or as context), or not publish them in solidarity with Muslim communities. On one side, it's back to that simple binary: you are either with us or with the terrorists.

And what of “our” community standards? Are the editorial pages a free-for-all? Do we continue to use homophobic imagery, such as political leaders engaged in sodomy as a commentary on gay marriage, a la Charlie Hebdo’s infamous cartoon involving God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit engaged in that act? Does that make a naked Mohammed seem as benign as one would think? What about an emaciated Jesus as Santa nailed to the cross at a mall during Christmas? I don’t think we'd let that happen. Yet, not publishing cartoons deemed offensive to one group is now considered to be pandering.

Debate contributor

Omer Aziz : Dissident voices within minority communities have their absolute right to free speech threatened today by those who think certain forms of expression should be off limits if they give too much offence. This is not about “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” (a metaphor employed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to silence opponents of the First World War).

It is about the right to express diverse, irreverent, and offensive opinions. It is about the right to publish satire and ridicule racists, religions, and the powerful alike. Most crucially, it is the same right that empowers minorities within immigrant communities who are pushing for organic and progressive change — the same people with whom other Westerners should be allied.

Plenty of objections can be made to anyone who insists on censorship. The first is that it arrogates to the censor the right to determine what is acceptable speech and what is not. It allows him — it is usually a he — to define the borders of speech and punish those who dare cross it. If giving offence is the line here, then every community can claim certain ideas as too sacred. Christians were once so offended by certain books that they banned them, and punished those found reading them. Today, this list reads like a syllabus of great novels and philosophical tracts. Many Jews who have a religious connection to Israel are offended by harsh criticisms of the Jewish state. Militant Hindus last year pressured Penguin India to withdraw a scholarly study on Hinduism that they considered offensive.

This kind of censorship would be endless, accommodating a theoretically infinite number of special immunity zones where ideas were to be restrained. It would require the appointment of arbiters to enforce these “acceptable speech” borders — an effective recipe for dictatorship over the mind.

Censorship also excludes precisely those minority viewpoints which are, within their communities, using free speech to provoke, confront, and, yes, offend established dogmas. By challenging authorities and authoritarianisms, these voices are ensuring that their communities are not held hostage by reactionary views.

The absolute right to expression is an empowering thing for the “double-minority:” that is, someone who is already an ethnic or religious minority in her country, but also an intellectual minority within her community. This is why so many writers accused of blasphemy have been minorities and women, from Azar Nafisi to Taslima Nasrin.

Finally, when censors tell us that “the Muslim community” is offended, they are suggesting that there is one easily discoverable Muslim community, an undifferentiated collective of immigrants who all think a certain way. The entire post-9/11 demand from countless intellectuals has been for politicians and media outlets to stop treating Islam as a monolith, yet this is what the centres of power do when it comes to cartoons.

This bigotry of low expectations, where “the Muslim community” cannot be entrusted with ignoring or critically refuting rebellious art, is actually a subtle form of racism, a kind of modern White Man’s Burden where the good censors paternalistically limit what Muslims may see — all supposedly for their own good.

The move from treating people as autonomous individuals guaranteed fundamental rights to treating them as part of collectives defined by the state was all done in the name of multiculturalism. Originally institutionalized to celebrate diversity, multicultural policies tried to manage it, and the self-segregated parallel communities that exist in Canada and Western Europe are its worst result. Governments now slap catch-all labels such as “the Hindu community” on millions of individuals, reducing their layered identities to their ethno-religious affiliation. This has produced a virus of sub-nationalisms within the state, exploited by the xenophobic right.

Immigrants are not the problem. They inject a vital dose of energy into any society, exposing it to new forms of thinking. The problem is with outsiders putting immigrants in boxes and treating different groups differently, thereby vitiating the Enlightenment idea of equality and reason that unites us humans.

Those who would hide or censor these images, like the European right, commit a grave error when they refer to this imaginary homogenous unit called “the Muslim community.” The two famous cases of offending “the Muslim community” make nonsense of the censors’ arguments. The Satanic Verses only became controversial after Saudi Arabia tried to ban Salman Rushdie’s novel and Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khomeini issued his homicidal fatwa. The Danish cartoons stirred controversy four months after their publication when Islamist governments pushed their citizens to protest in the same squares where protestors are usually shot. In both cases, theocrats and conservative imams claimed offence “in the name of Islam.”

The seventeenth-century Sufi poet Bulleh Shah—himself accused of blasphemy — once wrote, “I am free, my mind is free.” He understood that enlightenment was part of the Islamic tradition, where even the Quran encouraged dialogue. As with all indictments of the ironic by the literal, the censorship of art and the punishment for thought-crimes must be opposed unconditionally.

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