Since the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, people of all ages and beliefs have stood together to condemn the terrorists’ actions in what has proved to be an unprecedented global response. The hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” quickly erupted on Twitter, trending at a peak of 6,500 tweets per minute the day following the massacre. On the Sunday after, presidents, prime ministers, and an estimated one million individuals participated in a solidarity rally that spanned the streets of Paris, all in support of Charlie Hebdo.
But is Charlie Hebdo deserving of the overwhelming support it has received from the global community over the past couple of weeks? The search for moral clarity in the wake of the tragedy isn’t as easy as some have made it out to be.
For sure, the global community is right to condemn the terrorists who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo shooting. No argument can justify the killing of 12 individuals, no matter how offended a group may be. But what do we mean when we chant “Je Suis Charlie” in unison? With whom are we standing in solidarity?
A quick survey of Charlie’s portfolio raises doubts about its image as a righteous crusader for the freedom of speech. From crude, stereotyped depictions of Arabs and Africans to several drawings of the Prophet Muhammad in naked, insulting poses, Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire is rife with racially charged and extremely insensitive undertones. A line must be drawn between satire that seeks to reveal hypocrisy and inform, and the kind of crass mockery that serves to provoke and insult.
And let’s not forget the broader context. The periodical exists in a France that has seen growing tensions between the majority of its population and already marginalized Muslim minorities. Following a similar turban ban passed in 2004, an act passed by the French Senate in 2010 prohibited the use of face-covering head gear like the burqa. To date the law has been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights despite continuing to infringe on some of French Muslim citizens’ right to freely exercise their religion.
Yet the 2010 ban on burqas is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to growing Islamophobia in France. Countless French mosques have been subject to vandalism and graffiti. And in 2008, 148 Muslim graves in France’s biggest WWI cemetery in Arras were desecrated with hateful slogans. Charlie Hebdo has often reflected and amplified this underlying racial prejudice already present in the backdrop of French society.
Tensions have only worsened since the shootings. On the day following the incident, three training grenades were thrown at Mosquee de Sablone and an explosion battered down a kebab shop in the small town of Villefranche-sur-Saône. Compare this to the response in Australia after similar shootings took place in Sydney in mid-December. An example for the rest of the world, thousands of Australians took to Twitter where the hashtag “#illridewithyou” shortly started to trend in a unique show of solidarity with the Muslim community.
So the question emerges: to be Charlie Hebdo or not to be Charlie Hebdo? The actions of the terrorists that took several lives that day should surely be condemned, but we must not lose ourselves to the very kind of blind hatred and bigotry that we condemn these acts for. In Sydney and Paris, the global community has seen two different aftermaths of horrible acts of violence. And, it’s entirely a choice in perspective that made the difference between these two reactions. We must recognize the nuances that surround these tragedies and continue to eschew the “you’re either with us or against us” stance that had defined U.S. foreign policy for so long.
Our solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech must not extend to solidarity with the callousness and intolerance that has defined so many of their cartoons. Our censure for the terrorists’ actions must not extend to censure of the innocent adherents of a religion of peace. This is the standard of tolerance and understanding that we and the rest of the global community must uphold ourselves and each other to.
As President Obama remarked to the U.N. General Assembly in 2012, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.”
It is our moral imperative to follow the path carved out by those in Sydney and understand that things aren’t either white or black, that the actions of a few extremists can’t define an entire group. It’s just not as simple as Je Suis Charlie or Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.
Archis R. Bhandarkar is a member of the Class of 2018.