Myths about Charlie Hebdo

Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic writes about Charlie, with some useful information.

A subsidiary myth has grown up around Charlie Hebdo: that anti-Jewish hostility in its pages was forbidden. This false belief is offered as proof of the magazine’s “Islamophobic” tendencies (about the term “Islamophobia,” please read my interview with the prime minister of France, Manuel Valls).

This myth arose in part because of a controversy concerning the cartoonist known as Siné, who was fired from the magazine in 2008 after implying that the son of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy would “go a long way in life” after converting to Judaism. Critics of Charlie Hebdo point to this incident as proof thatCharlie Hebdo maintained a double standard when it came to Muslims: “Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column,” Garry Trudeau stated in his now-infamous anti-free-speech speech at the George Polk Awards ceremony in April. “Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another.”

I will put aside for now Trudeau’s dark insinuation about Jewish power—one that he embedded in a discussion concerning an extended terrorist siege that ended with the slaughter of four Jews of North African origin at a kosher supermarket—an example of Paris-style “Jewish privilege,” I suppose you could say.

Siné, of course, was not ridiculing a Jewish idea. Instead, he was deploying an anti-Jewish canard—that Jews maintain a protective cabal designed to advance each other’s interests—against an individual, living person. His comment was not a theological critique, but a libelous accusation. Siné was asked by the magazine’s editor to apologize to Sarkozy’s son, but he refused and was fired. (Siné, by the way, has described himself as a Jew-hater. “Yes, I am anti-Semitic and I am not scared to admit it,” he once said. “I want all Jews to live in fear, unless they are pro-Palestinian. Let them die.”)


Now there’s an example of speech that I would not like to see get an award from PEN. That right there – “I want all Jews to live in fear.” That’s a horrific thing to say.

Another myth: Charlie Hebdo is interested in advancing a “narrative” of “white privilege,” and therefore specializes in ridiculing powerless people.

The novelist Francine Prose, one of the writers protesting the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo, wrote recently that, “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.”

Prose’s coldness toward the victims of violence matches Trudeau’s. The 12 people killed at Charlie Hebdo were not extras in a George W. Bush-scripted imperialist narrative. They were human beings who were murdered because they offended the beliefs of theocratic fascists. It is not a narrative calumny to assert that white Europeans were killed by Muslim extremists at Charlie Hebdo’s offices on January 7. It is a sad fact. (It is also a sad fact that one of the Charlie Hebdo editorial staffers killed that day was a French citizen of Algerian extraction named Mustapha Ourrad. But I suppose acknowledging this fact would interfere with Francine Prose’s own narrative of majoritarian perfidy.)

And her own right-on-ness.

The power dynamic between the jihadists Said and Cherif Kouachi and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was quite unequal, but it did not tilt in the direction Trudeau believes it tilted. It was not the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who murdered the Kouachi brothers. Trudeau, and the critics of the PEN American Center and Charlie Hebdo, might not realize that they are captive of another, related myth: that terrorism is a weapon of the marginalized and the weak. Terrorism is most definitely not a weapon of the weak; it is a weapon used against the weak. The cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo never stood a chance against their killers.

It could be both. Terrorists do sometimes fight on the side of “the weak.” But when they have body armor and big guns and their targets have neither, yes, they definitely have armor and gun privilege.

One more myth concerns the way in which the Left understands Islamism. No fundamentalist interpretation of any religion deserves the protection and sympathy of progressives. Islamists—adherents of a politicized, radical strain of Islam—are misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-enlightenment, and possess no tolerance at all for members of religious groups whose beliefs conflict with their own. These are traits one traditionally associates with the far-right, but some on the left are happy to support Islamists—even Islamist terror groups—simply because they stand in opposition to the West. (Judith Butler, the Berkeley comparative-literature professor, famously described Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.”)

And there’s George Galloway. I hope he’s losing right now. The polls close in an hour and a half; I hope he loses.

In her anti-Charlie Hebdo op-ed, Francine Prose wrote, “Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.”

I hope that someone, someday, will explain to Francine Prose the work of Voltaire and Spinoza. I also hope that Garry Trudeau will one day understand that it is an act of bravery to write in opposition to religious fundamentalism in the face of fatal violence. And I’m glad that the PEN American Center has not capitulated under pressure.

I actually hope both of them learn better right now. I like the work of both of them, and have for a long time, and I would like to see them redeem themselves.


  1. P. Jordan Howell says

    @ Ophelia here is where the argument people like Goldberg makes loses me just a little:

    “These are traits one traditionally associates with the far-right, but some on the left are happy to support Islamists—even Islamist terror groups—simply because they stand in opposition to the West.”

    I am uncertain that this at all true in any real sense. I think for me, I have heard precious few voices on the left in major Western countries who push back against what I call “the violence we engage in always better than the violence they engage in” argument. When those voices rightly speak out against the atrocities committed by the West in far flung parts of the globe, I think they get unfairly castigated as supporters of Islamism or communism or anti-Western fervour etc. And I find that more often than not the acts which are often labeled “terrorism” by people like Goldberg are the only weapons left for the weak to employ. It is clear here that Goldberg is not taking care to limit his critique to particular situations such as the murdering of the Charlie Hebdo people and I think the fact that fails to make this distinction is instructive.

  2. says

    I’m not sure how it is clear that Goldberg is not taking care to limit his critique to particular situations such as the murdering of the Charlie Hebdo people. That is what he’s talking about here; I don’t see much reason to assume he’s talking about other situations too but without mentioning them.

    I did dissent from his claim that terrorism is [always] a weapon used against the weak, but I take this piece to be about Charlie specifically.

    That said, I doubt that I would agree with all his views on Israel, for instance…

  3. P. Jordan Howell says

    A little bit of miscommunication here Ophelia. I was linking two points in Goldberg’s article; his contention that terrorism is never the weapon of the weak and the idea that people on the left are happy to support Islamism and even Islamic terrorism so long as the proponents and perpetrators are opposing the west. I think the first idea is plainly false and the second is largely a self serving bit of slander.

    So yeah, I get that his piece is actually about Charlie Hebdo but I was addressing just those two arguments he made. So what I meant to say was that his argument about terrorism being employed against the weak is only really true in cases a la Charlie Hebdo. And I did see your dissent and appreciated it.

  4. says

    In my report on the forum, I used Goldberg’s piece as an example of one of the many CH defenders who deems their cartoons “not funny.” I was bothered by his remarks about a cartoon about circumcision (he provides the image, but no other context):

    We can learn three things about Charlie Hebdo from this cartoon. The first is that it is often, at least to people whose sensibilities are shaped by American modes of humor, not funny.

    See, despite the fact that my sensibilities have been shaped by American modes of humor, I dislike most US humor and think this is funny. The baby with the blood spurting out, the mohel brandishing the huge knife dripping with blood,… It’s funny and it calls attention to the fact that, whatever else it’s held as culturally and religiously, it’s an act of violence against an infant far too young to consent.

    The second is that it has been an equal-opportunity offender. Judaism was a target of its cartoonists.

    Yes, it’s one of many data points.

    The third is the most important: Charlie Hebdo specializes in attacking ideas, not people. I happen to be partial to circumcision—it’s a practice of baseline importance in my faith—but I understand that many people consider it to be barbaric, or at the very least distasteful. People who are repulsed by circumcision are not necessarily anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim), but merely pro-foreskin.

    This is confused, and missing the point of the cartoon. It’s not about the practice being repulsive or distasteful or “barbaric” (a concept I reject generally, and not at all what I think CH is getting at). It’s about power. It’s questioning a violent practice used on unconsenting infants, and making a provocative joke by suggesting that those who carry out the violence know they can get away with it because they have the power. It could potentially open up a dialogue about the political and ethical aspects of the practice, but not if even those who can read the words miss the message to the extent that they think it’s about judgments of barbarism or positive feelings toward foreskins.

  5. veil_of_ignorance says

    I disagree. There are quite a few voices from the Left who not only explain Islamism but who also downright justify it as the “will of the people” or voice of the marginalized. Irrespective of the fact that Islamism is as petty bourgeois as it can get. Beyond that, there are clear links between certain parts of the Left and Islamist organizations – Galloway is a good example, as is StopTheWar, as is Amnesty/CAGE.

    On the other hand, progressive voices from the MENA region are oftentimes ignored or played down. The American Left’s solidarity with the Rojava cantons – one of the most impressive progressive projects in the last 20 years -, the PKK and the now staunchly feminist Abdullah Öcalan is for instance very limited to say the least.

    I actually think that is circumstance – that parts of the Left ally with the Muslim Far-Right – is neither due to political pragmatism, nor due to a ideological or political misjudgement. The problem is rather that the identitarian Left – i.e. those lefties whose ideology is located at the boundary of postmodernism, post-colonialism, identity politics and cultural studies – share many ideological key concepts with the Far Right (not just the Muslim one but also the Western one). This includes cultural relativism, self-location in the anti-Enlightenment tradition, a mono-dimensional conception of national, religious or racial identity, a soft-spot for traditionalism and social conservatism (unless it’s in the West, see below), and a weakness for ethnopluralist thinking. In the view of the identitarian Left, left-wing ideology is simply the way of thinking of the Western tribe: this allows them to position themselves against the white reactionary but the non-white reactionary with realizing the bigotry of this act.

  6. says

    SC, yes, I too thought his exegesis of the circumcision cartoon was a mess – it’s not the idea that’s the problem, it’s the practice, and that’s a problem because it’s an infant who can’t be considered to have consented.

    Of course there must be an underlying idea about that, which is that that doesn’t matter, but it’s not very robust as ideas go.

  7. opposablethumbs says

    The fact that Galloway is out was one of the few crumbs of comfort available this morning.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    The fact that he crowed on Twitter that he wouldn’t be out is another.

  9. johnthedrunkard says

    #5. veil_of_ignorance
    Thanks for pointing out the amazingly reactionary aspects of po-mo ‘progressives.’ The anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment, anti-democratic, pro-traditional, pro-totalitarian aspects seem to trace back to French philosopher’s enthusiasm for German thinkers.

    I recall in one of the volumes of Letters and Essays, Orwell quoted an English pacifist/leftist’s response to the invasion of Poland in ’39: ‘How could we have allowed the Poles to bring it to this?’

    And of course, the Nazis ‘constructed a narrative’ by which they WERE striking back against dreadful Oppression.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *