How We Should Deal with the Charlie Hebdo Attack

by Benjamin Studebaker

As most of you probably know by now, terrorists in Paris shot up the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this week, killing 12 people. Charlie Hebdo is known for publishing provocative cartoons. Some of these cartoons mocked the prophet Muhammad, and this earned the magazine the enmity of reactionaries within Islam. Before we think about emotionally charged events like this, it often helps to think about how we should think about them. To get the objective distance we need from events to analyze them with the most fairness and impartiality we can manage, a little temporal distance can be useful. Over the last few days, I’ve been digesting a variety of visceral, emotive reactions from people across the political spectrum. In most of the think pieces I’ve read and discussions I’ve seen and participated in, there has consistently seemed to be something missing, and today I’m ready to identify that something.

When a tragedy happens, there are two questions to be asked:

  1. Why did this happen?
  2. What can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

The answer we give to the second question always depends on our answer to the first question. The trouble is that most people don’t put much thought into the first question, so when the second question rolls around, they’re in a poor position to answer it effectively. So it’s very important that we get our answer to the first question right. It seems pretty likely that the proximate cause of the attacks was the offending cartoons, but we need to ask a deeper question–why is it that these individuals were so deeply offended by these cartoons that they put their own lives in danger to murder the people who drew them? In recent days, I’m seeing two answers to this question predominate:

  1. Blame Islam: these people believe that the principles of Islam are fundamentally incompatible with free expression on some level, making this kind of violence inevitable when the Muslim population in a country grows. Many of them have taken a stridently pro-free speech position, adopting the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, to show solidarity with the publication. They sympathize not merely with the right to publish the cartoons, but with the cartoons and cartoonists themselves. Examples include Bill Maher, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, and Rand Paul.
  2. Bad Apples: these people believe that the attackers do not reflect the values of Islam and represent a lunatic fringe element within the religion. Incidentally, many of them have argued that the cartoons are legitimately offensive to Muslims (though they claim that the overwhelming majority of Muslims would deny that violence is the appropriate response). They prefer to identify with Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer who was killed attempting to stop the terrorists, using the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed. They sympathize with the right to publish the cartoons, but are much less comfortable with their contents. Examples include Bill Donohue, J.K. RowlingAmanda Taub, Arthur Chu, Al Jazeera, and Jacob Canfield.

To be clear, these are ideal types–there’s a lot of nuanced variants within and between these two general positions. Nevertheless, there’s a pretty clear divergence when it comes to how these two broad groups of people think we should solve the problem.

Those who think Islam is to blame tend to think more aggressive, anti-Islamic policy is required. This ranges from “let’s all draw and share cartoons that mock Islam” to “let’s deport all the Muslim immigrants and/or redouble our efforts to win the war on terror”.

Those who think the terrorists are bad apples want us to defend free speech rights while condemning speech that criticizes of Islam writ large. They want to defend Europe’s multicultural status quo and oppose escalation of cultural tension between Muslims and non-Muslims both in the west and globally.

Who’s right? That’s a big more complicated. It’s certainly not the case that the principles of Islam are fundamentally incompatible with the idea of free expression, or even with illustrations of Muhammad. There is a history of Muhammad being depicted in Muslim societies, albeit usually with respect. Additionally, a Muslim friend of mine told me a story about Muhammad that illustrates how Muslims are meant to respond to insults against the prophet:

The Prophet (as) had a neighbor who every day would leave garbage, thorns, and glass shards strewn along the path to his door, so that when he was leaving during the pre-dawn time without any light, he would inadvertently walk through this stuff and injure himself. Same when he was returning at night. He never confronted her about it. Not only that, but one day the trash wasn’t there, and same the day after, and the day after that, so he went to her house to see if she was all right. He found that she was ill, and so he asked her if she needed anything and offered his help to her during her illness.

In practice, we find that Muslim opinion varies widely depending on which Muslim societies we look at. For instance, most Muslims oppose suicide bombing, but the size of the minority that does support it varies quite a bit:

On many other moral issues where most Muslims agree, there are still large regional differences, often 20 or even 30 points wide:

I talked about this research in more detail back in October. The interesting observation is that Muslims living in European countries are sometimes more similar to other Europeans ideologically than they are to Muslims living in Africa and the Middle East. This suggests that factors aside from Islam play a large role in determining moral beliefs. Anecdotally, many Muslims have condemned the killings.

But this raises a further question–if Islam is not the cause, what is the cause? The “bad apples” types have focused the discussion around the cartoons, arguing that Charlie Hebdo‘s speech is incendiary, insulting, and offensive, that it disrespects people’s cultures and leads to this sort of behavior. These same people are very quick to remind us that they support free expression, but claim that support for free expression is compatible with condemning content. They claim to be espousing the old Evelyn Beatrice Hall line (often wrongly attributed to Voltaire):

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk, intellectually. It is absolutely true that we can say “I don’t agree with the intellectual content of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but I defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish them.” But that’s not all the “bad apples” people are saying. These people were not condemning Charlie Hebdo two weeks ago. By condemning the content of this speech now, in the wake of this tragedy, the implication is that the content of the speech legitimately provoked a violent response. If the cartoons are not merely the proximal cause, but the root cause itself, the implication is that we should self-censor. This implies that the views expressed in the cartoons are not merely views with which we should disagree, but views which should not be expressed in the first place.

We are often told that it’s important to participate in open national or international conversations about social justice issues–racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, any of these things. But this cannot happen if we condemn people for expressing views we don’t agree with. There is a big difference between condemning racism and condemning racists. Individual racists have acquired belief in racism through a complex social process that begins at a young age and which is not ultimately their fault. It is a learned belief, acquired through socialization. While racists victimize others, they are themselves also victims of racism in their own way, because they have fallen under the spell of a system of beliefs that alienates them from millions or billions of other people. If we’re going to help racists out, we need racists to be able to express their views without worrying about being called out or picked on. Our task is to calmly and patiently engage racists in an open dialogue to help them see the error of their ways, not to vilify them or drive them into hiding. Compassion is not just for the victims of racism (though they obviously deserve it), but for the racists themselves. In recent years, the social justice movement has become increasingly bad at this, employing a Twitter lynch mob to single out individuals for holding repugnant views. Instead of engaging these people constructively, this has only served to deepen extant divisions. It’s a counterproductive political strategy and it stems from the left’s lack of imaginative empathy for people who have acquired repugnant beliefs.

No matter how awful our beliefs are, it’s important that we can vocalize our beliefs without worrying about being personally attacked. It’s not enough that the state won’t throw us in jail, we also should be free from the worry that we will be ostracized for holding views that many people find repulsive. This does not mean people should not disagree with us (indeed, if they refrained from vocalizing their disagreement, they would be engaging in the same kind of self-censorship), but this disagreement should be about substance, not about tearing down individuals. We should always bear in mind that when people believe awful things, they believe them because they learned them somewhere else.

And this brings us back to the Paris terrorists. They somehow acquired the repugnant belief that any person who expresses a repugnant belief ought to be held personally responsible for this. Their methods are more repulsive than Twitter’s, but they are motivated by the same foundational belief that individuals who say repugnant things should be individually targeted and made examples of.

How did the terrorists and the Twitterverse learn this misguided belief? Many Muslims, like many women, members of racial minorities, or non-heteronormative people legitimately feel marginalized in western society to varying degrees. They feel that they are denied equal access to society’s resources and opportunities and that their groups are often the victims of disrespect and bullying. They are right about all of these things. The marginalization and inequality are real, and they are right to be upset. It is because they are so upset about these material political inequalities that they are so easily offended by insulting speech. It quite literally adds insult to injury. If you’re a straight white affluent secular male like me, you don’t have to worry about being marginalized in that way. When people fling insults at me, no matter how offensive they might seem, I laugh them off, because I have confidence that their words are wind, that they aren’t going to do me any material harm. People who don’t have that confidence often feel that they have to protect themselves by lashing out at the individuals they take to be threatening them and their way of life.

But that doesn’t make it right. Marginalized people have legitimate grievances and we should respond to them by distributing resources and opportunities more fairly, but this does not make it right for marginalized people to target individuals or publications in a misguided effort to achieve those goals. As they say on the internet:

Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.

Don’t hate racists/sexists/homophobes/Islamophobes. Hate the ideas and the systems of material inequity that drive them, and work to correct those inequities at the policy level.