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Farhad Mirza

Charlie Hebdo emulates the narrative it claims to oppose

Charlie Hebdo's logic has the potential to develop into unconditional hate, writes Mirza [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2016

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Comment: Framing religious extremism as a spiritual confrontation between European secularists and Muslims is a dangerous, reductive and equally radical approach, argues Farhad Mirza.


A friend of mine once described the controversial French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as a collection of "stupid cartoons that somehow manage to spark intelligent debates".

At the time, we were scrutinising the implied meaning of one of its cartoons that had caused outrage among its readership, with many accusing the magazine of making the outrageous insinuation that all refugees - even blameless dead toddler refugees, like Aylan Kurdi - were destined to become as beastly as the perpetrators of the Cologne assaults.

Others, who came to Hebdo's defence, argued that the cartoon crudely poked fun at the fickleness of European public sentiment which had oscillated wildly between universal compassion for Aylan and the spike in militant xenophobia we saw in the aftermath of the Cologne assaults. There was room for doubt, and this doubt is what gives Hebdo its power.

Whatever one's attitude, Charlie Hebdo remained dangerously tasteless and at times, irritatingly ambiguous, and in doing so, sparked debates about where to draw the line. How far should we chase absolute freedoms before someone gets hurt? How much do we compromise on them before they are lost forever?

French people have tacitly supported a cultural invasion that has intimidated its opponents and stifled debate, ultimately 'contributing to the problem' of terrorism, claims Riss of Charlie Hebdo

Sadly, if there were any doubts about Charlie Hebdo's political orientation, they were laid to rest in its latest editorial. Published a week after IS members carried out a horrific attack in Brussels, Charlie Hebdo endeavoured to illustrate the tell-tale signs of religious terrorism.

Brussels, according to the editors of Charlie Hebdo, and specifically the cartoonist 'Riss', is merely the "visible part of a very big iceberg". The real problem, he says, is the culture of self-censorship masquerading as political correctness: French people have tacitly supported a cultural invasion that has intimidated its opponents and stifled debate, ultimately "contributing to the problem" of terrorism.

Halal bakers are blamed for not serving pork and ham, and Muslim women rebuked for wearing the veil. Riss concludes that "from the bakery that forbids you to eat what you like, to the woman who forbids you to admit that you are troubled by her veil, we are submerged in guilt for permitting ourselves such thoughts".

What is especially offensive about this is the claim that Islam as practiced by the local baker and by a terrorist is inherently the same thing. It is the implication that if this Muslim baker had been told to serve pork or close shop then Brussels airport would not have been in need of emergency repair works last week.

The editors claim to illustrate the tell-tale signs of religious fascism - but by situating it in the daily lives of ordinary Muslims, they end up encoding racism in the Enlightenment discourse pedaled by militant atheists, such as Sam Harris, who single out Islam as the most problematic doctrine in existence today.

Similarly, Charlie Hebdo's logic has the potential to develop into a policy of unconditional hate and blanket punishment. To tout it as though it belongs in the Human Rights Declaration is an insult to reasonable, tolerant people everywhere.

This is not to say that Islam, as a religious doctrine and practice, is free from ethical conflicts, or that it is simply misunderstood by its critics. However, ordinary Muslims and Muslim women in particular are often perceived in the West as passive agents of their own oppression.

This discourse objectifies women as both material and metaphor, turning their bodies into spaces in which "society" can inscribe its ideals, morals and laws. It ignores the different experiences of repression and resistance felt by different Muslim women in a range of contexts.

By ignoring the complexity of the human condition and rejecting the diversity of lived experiences, Charlie Hebdo has promulgated a dangerous and divisive form of self-righteousness



The fact that these debates seldom focus on the question of men having religious beards illustrates this discriminatory attitude. Commentators rarely think beyond the veil, failing to ask tough questions about those forms of resistance that are alien to their understanding of how other people feel and react to their circumstances: What is important to Muslim women in the choices they make? Do Muslim women always feel victimised? Do they feel empowered by symbols of religious identity? Do all patriarchal societies share the same dress code?

In the absence of any curiosity or compassion for the plight of Muslim women, Charlie Hebdo's critique of religious patriarchy becomes hollow and self-serving.

By ignoring the complexity of the human condition and rejecting the diversity of lived experiences, Charlie Hebdo has promulgated a dangerous and divisive form of self-righteousness, one which positions the grief of the privileged European on a higher pedestal of legitimacy than that of non-white victims.

In other words, Charlie Hebdo would have picked out every suspect in a police line-up, simply because they sort of match the description of the real assailant.

This neo-Enlightenment discourse is often framed in terms of rationality, with the implication being that progressive social organisation is contingent upon the personal responsibility of citizens to behave in an "objective" manner towards each other.

There has to be a demonstrable justification for the ways in which we choose to interact with each other: A Muslim cannot simply stop selling ham sandwiches because he believes some higher power to have forbidden the consumption of pig meat - he must have a reasonable explanation for it; an allergy, proof about its carcinogenic effects, low market demand, etc.

This is made to sound fair, especially when coupled with stories about Galileo, democracy, the freedom to peacefully contest opinions and perspectives.

Charlie Hebdo's editorial posits a vulgar claim of moral superiority, veiled by the discourse of democracy and secularism


However, considering humans rarely feel compelled to act in objective or rational ways, it is more useful to think of such debates in broader terms, specifically in relation to faith, doubt and power. These issues are far more intimately embedded within our emotional constitution, producing their own rationalities, motivations and behavioral shifts.

Sam Harris believes that science can answer moral questions. Sure, but can it regulate those motivations that slip beyond our intellectual radar?

When so much of our behaviour is rooted in socio-political processes that constantly toy with our subconscious, how can ordinary human beings be expected to make "rational" decisions all the time?

A healthy relationship with doubt can bestow an optimistic lift upon one's faith. Inversely, a lack of it can lower faith into nihilistic depths. And if our ability to doubt our most precious beliefs tells us anything about our relationship with power, then Charlie Hebdo's editorial posits a vulgar claim of moral superiority, veiled by the discourse of democracy and secularism.

Such a discourse does not view the world from the perspective of difference - as it claims to - but from the perspective of identity, eager to flatten and homogenise the cultural sphere of the global order.

We cannot afford to raise the same breed of apocalyptic pessimism as the one adopted by those we wish to oppose


Doubt is the basis of all inquiry. By renouncing it, Hebdo has confirmed its departure from an honest discussion. By holding ordinary Muslims responsible for every act of terror from Brussels to Lahore, Charlie Hebdo has taken away one more reason to have any faith in the future. 

The important thing now is to avoid framing the problem of religious-extremism as a spiritual confrontation between secularists in Europe and Muslims everywhere. After all, this is the very narrative espoused by the Islamic State group as a tool for recruitment.

We cannot afford to raise the same breed of apocalyptic pessimism as the one adopted by those we wish to oppose.

As Riss states in his editorial: "That is where and when fear has started its sapping, undermining work. And the way is marked for all that will follow."


Farhad Mirza is a writer, journalist and educator. He is a regular contributor to various publications in Pakistan, Europe, the US and the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @FarhadMirza01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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