A sneer too many

There’s another one. This article is much longer, and more “sophisticated” in what I think is a rather bogus way. What Rafia Zakaria says isn’t all wrong, by any means, but it’s…I don’t know what to call it. Academic, perhaps. Too sophisticated by half. Unfeeling. And, in places, just nasty.

My subject today is after all a philosophical one, dealing with my opposition to the PEN American Center’s decision to honor the French magazine Charlie Hebdo with the 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The star-studded gala, tickets to which cost more than a thousand dollars a person, took place on Tuesday evening, May 5, 2015. Thunderous standing ovations were given to the recipients. The fact that six writers and then eventually 145 others had objected to the granting of the award to a magazine that publishes Islamophobic content whetted the self-regard of the attendees. Their puffed presence at the gala stood for more than just literary renown or monetary privilege; it was a moral victory. It was they who really stood for freedom of speech, were truly sincere in their opposition to murder.

You’ll see what I mean, I think. The cold sneer is out of place. These were left-wing journalists discussing an anti-racism campaign in a shabby newspaper office; they were not her enemies. The two men who murdered them were not her friends. Her cold sneer is a sneer too many.

I believe the omission of the subjective and the sidelining of moral injury to Muslims as a result of Hebdo’s depictions of the Prophet reveal a double standard when set against examples of liberal moral outrage at certain practices found in the non-Western world. Judgment often exists at the intersection of reason and moral aversion; similar constructions by Western liberal theorists are permitted this hybrid, but not Muslims. Second, I believe that the application of this double standard and the valorization of Hebdo suggest an internationalization of the idea that freedom of expression is rooted in Western Enlightenment, and that all Muslims are opposed to the idea. Ironically, only Muslim extremists believe that Muslim authenticity lies in opposition to all that is Western.

Well I think it’s the opposite of that. I think the “valorization” of Hebdo suggests the belief that freedom of expression is a universal right and that far from all Muslims are opposed to the idea.

But I can’t do the whole thing. It’s too turgid, too long, too diffuse, too academic…much much too “sophisticated.”


  1. Lady Mondegreen says

    Second, I believe that the application of this double standard and the valorization of Hebdo suggest an internationalization of the idea that freedom of expression is rooted in Western Enlightenment, and that all Muslims are opposed to the idea

    My take was the same as yours, Ophelia: “What?! No. It suggests the opposite idea.”

    The protesters are the ones suggesting that all Muslims are hurt by criticism of Islamism.

  2. iknklast says

    moral injury to Muslims

    There has been no injury to Muslims, moral or otherwise. The depiction of a man who has been dead for 1500 years is hardly enough to injure anyone. Even if someone believes in an immortal soul, it would seem to be a fragile thing indeed if that is enough to injure it.

    By taking this stance, the protestors have decided who has the moral authority to speak for Muslims. It’s those who wield the tommy guns. The rest of the Muslims have no say. Those who do not see Charlie Hebdo as the enemy are not allowed a voice, because the anti-imperialist brigade knows what they think, and is going to loudly proclaim it to the world.

  3. Dave Ricks says

    Charlie Hebdo has been consistently precise and coherent in criticizing Islamists and Islamism. But those two words are absent from Rafia Zakarai’s essay. Instead she writes about mistreatment of Muslims and Islam.

    I would be happy to accept her starting point of taking things personally as a starting point for a productive essay. I would never fling someone took something personally as a barb.

    I fault her for writing a long essay criticizing Charlie Hebdo without engaging their position.

  4. Emily Vicendese says

    “Moral injury”. Interesting notion. I don’t see how “disapproving of someone else’s behaviour” = “being injured”. I don’t like the way “injury” and “hurt” can be used in ways which are metaphorical in one way yet literal in another. It’s very slippery rhetoric.

  5. Emily Vicendese says

    You know, what really bothers me about all this is the idea that only certain people can own ideas about Muhammad. In particular, people who believe that he really was / is the prophet of the The One True God. You’re only allowed to have ideas about Muhammad if they don’t contradict people who revere Muhammad. Funny how we’re supposed to be universally and perfectly capable of professing the truth of Islam, but we’re not allowed to express our opinion that it is false. We’re allowed to praise but not criticise. Convenient trick.

  6. says

    Indeed. It’s a convenient trick but [and] it fits with the nature of the whole arrangement. It’s arbitrary and unaccountable at the beginning – “Gabriel told me all this, in a cave, for real” – and it sustains its arbitrary power down the centuries by constantly reiterating the arbitrary commands and rules and boundaries and taboos. Of course kaffirs can’t say anything about the prophet – because they are kaffirs. Haram is haram is haram.

  7. says

    I’m sure I read a piece by this lady saying that the rape and grooming of girls in Rotherham and elsewhere in England was because of racism, Islamophobia which led to supposed margiinalisation of some men and thus, hey presto, rape and torture of non Muslim girls.
    Some people are just morally vile.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    Of course, this is just the kind of ‘sophistication’ that Bronner was talking about. It’s worth remembering that to ‘sophisticate,’ as a verb, was a synonym for ‘adulterate.’

    This circumlocuitous puffery is the means by which an officially Serious Person, like Judith Butler, can declare that HAMAS and Hezbollah are ‘progressives.’ [insert stock Orwell quote here]

  9. veil_of_ignorance says

    I have now read this obscurantist, condescending, self-indulgent essay several times, trying to find some sentence, which resolves its apparent, more than prominent contradictions.

    Many other commenters have already pointed out that Zakaria never mentions Islamism, never speaks of the heterogeneity of opinion in the Muslim community regarding CH, regarding blasphemy, regarding religion and politics; instead she speaks of Muslim opinion and Muslim subjectivity as if there was only one. All while permanently lamenting the fact that Muslims are ‘otherized’ in Western society, i.e. viewed as monolithic group and represented in malevolent terms. The irony of this was of course not lost on me; and it struck me that ‘otherization’ is crucial for Zakarias argument. While she is certainly opposed to the malevolence against Muslims in Western society [let’s call it negative ‘negative otherization’], she fully buys into the [positive] ‘otherization’ of the ‘cultural studies’ variety, which is justified with the concepts of postmodern différence or contextual epistemology or contextual schemes or whatever. If you take away the idea of collective Muslim otherness and special treatment as a group, her essay would fall apart. Zakaria is self-orientalized.

    Zakaria talks a lot about subjectivity and moral aversion/moral hurt (I see these terms as mutually redundant and also see a large congruence with Martha Nussbaum’s concept of moral disgust). She then uses the poststructuralist / postcolonialist commonplace that moral judgments – in these concepts the ones made by Western liberals regarding free speech, by Walzer regarding FGM and by Touraine regarding cultural rights – are always informed by subjective or cultural sensitivities and that our “universal moral values” are in consequence hegemonically Western. The main argument of the first half of the essay is then – in my view – that while Western liberals are allowed to present their “objective”, “rational” (a.k.a. subjective and affective) ideas about moral issues such as free speech, Muslims are not able to do so without being called irrational and illiberal.

    A general critique of this idea was delivered elsewhere, e.g. by Jürgen Habermas in 1981. Specifically, the problem with the ‘Human rights / liberal ideas / universal values / objective ideas are imperialist/racist/hegemonic’ is that they are themselves based on universal normative sentiments (that imperialism, racism and hegemony are morally objectionable) and on objective truth claims and thus create a problem of self-reference. Why should I give a shit that Muslim subjectivity is branded as irrational while Western subjectivity is not? The answer to that question must necessarily be linked to some kind of universalized, moral “truth”.
    While Walzer’s and Tourrain’s writing might be poisoned by the language of disgust, they provide arguments in the end. Walzer for instance invokes the harm principle (as Nussbaum did to contrast the morality of disgust). Zakaria on the other hand never even tries to argue beyond her call for the recognition of Muslim subjectivity.

    The main point here is however, that even if Zakaria’s idea about the implicit subjectivity of moral statements would be true, the way that we treat Muslim interlocutors in this debate is not extraordinary all. Whenever we argue and strongly disagree with somebody, we tend to question their objectivity, the consistency of their ideas, and so on. The racist lady in the subway that Zakaria describes in the beginning was acting correctly according to her own subjective ideas (otherwise she simply would not have acted that way). When Zakaria criticizes the behavior of that lady, she deems the subjective opinion of that lady irrational. This is what happens in everyday discourse all the time – simple as that.
    So when Zakaria laments that Muslims are treated like this, she is arguing in favor of a positive ‘othering’ – i.e. of a privileged treatment of Muslim subjectivity (the concept of which is absurd in itself) in discourse. Self-othering is central to Zakaria’s worldview. Accordingly, she is not even able to see this debate beyond the Hungtingtonian West vs. Muslim antagonism. She is not able to see Westerners and Muslims as heterogeneous political interlocutors who are defined by more than their religious identity. While she clearly realizes that the CH cartoonists and the many journalists in the MENA region were killed by the same political actors, she is unable to make a link between both because that would require a rearrangement of the political fault lines beyond her narrow conception of ‘otherized’ identity.


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