In the aftermath of the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, there’s been grief, outrage, an outpouring of new art about the event, and replication after replication of old pieces from the magazine itself. If the goal of the terrorists was to silence the magazine, it is pretty obvious by now that they’ve instead canonized it. No matter what the content of the material, the more vehemently it is censored, the more it will get around.
Intermingled with outrage and grief I’ve read criticism of the magazine itself as well as implications leaning toward public offense and eventual consequences. The grief and outrage I understand. Men were killed because their drawings offended people violent enough to respond with deadly force. Blasphemy laws achieve the same purpose with less fanfare in other countries, but this was different, because this happened in France. This happened in a place that is supposed to be governed with some sense of law and justice, not in a place ruled by a tyrannical theocracy.
Innocent people in Islamic countries die as a result of violent and oppressive dogma. Existing as an open non-believer is basically a death sentence in those places. But things like that aren’t supposed to happen in Europe and the United States. In the western world, we have wifi, gender equality (*cough*), and the right to offend whoever we like with our words and drawings without fear of violent repercussion. So when people from another culture try to bend our will to their rules, we buck up, and rightly so.
But what about racism? Charlie Hebdo wasn’t just publishing drawings of rainbows and mapping out the route to a multicultural Neverland. Although it mocked religion, it often used caricatures of Muslims to do it. I decided to look into these claims of racism and found that, well, yes…some of their cartoons were pretty racist and could have been seen as oppressive to an already marginalized Muslim population trying to carve out a living in France. The illustrations were designed to offend, and offend they did. Does that mean the creators of those cartoons deserved to die? Of course not.
Of course not, many people have said. Conservative critics of the magazine claim outright that the deeply offensive nature of it welcomed violent destruction. Liberal critics speak of racism. Did it warrant killings? No, no…it really didn’t, because we shouldn’t kill people for drawings. Of course we shouldn’t encourage that kind of barbarism. And then it goes a little something like this:
“Maybe, they should be more aware of the message they are sending, especially with such a widely viewed platform. If they hadn’t been so darn offensive so many times, maybe they would still be alive today. Perhaps, probably, if they had put more thought into what they decided to publish, such violent people would be less incensed and less inclined to, admittedly, do something they shouldn’t do, but still. Maybe they were kind of asking for it. They didn’t deserve it. Definitely not. But if they could have just modified their means of expression just the tiniest bit…did I say they didn’t deserve it…maybe those terrible men, and they are terrible of course, wouldn’t have shot them.”
Sure, the victims were white men and some of their work was oppressive to Muslims. It wasn’t just offensive, but oppressive, and there is a difference. They’ve been criticized for adding fuel to racism against people that have immigrated from the Middle East, whether they are Muslim or not, and it is justified criticism. When I saw claims of “racism”, I didn’t quite understand and had to do some research of my own to really get it. Is a drawing of Muhammad racist? No. It is blasphemous, and as far as I’m concerned, blasphemy is an idea that should be challenged until we’re all blue in the face. Are exaggerated drawings of stereotypical Muslims racist? Yes. See the difference? We can attack the dogma without adding extra stigma to being brown in a predominantly white culture.
All that being said, it is entirely possible to criticize the art of Charlie Hebdo without resorting to victim blaming. Those men did not deserve to die at all. They weren’t asking for it, and their ability to speak freely, even if what they have to say is objectionable, is incredibly important. To even flirt with the idea that their willingness to offend in any way justifies their demise is abhorrent, and you can’t get away with concessions that terrorists are terrible if it leads to “maybe we shouldn’t piss them off”. To me, this is similar to relishing the thought of prison rape. Rape is bad. No one deserves it, and the mentality of “but maybe if they were better people, bad things wouldn’t happen” takes us down the same dark alley of inebriated women wearing short skirts and would-be criminals wearing hoodies.
It is very important that the criticism of Charlie Hebdo remain entirely separate from musings over the death of its creators. There are certain things that we can’t afford to justify if we are to achieve a better society. The issues of racism, terrorism, and religious extremism are no closer to being solved if we don’t address each concisely and with purpose. You don’t have to use hashtags like #JesuisCharlie, if you don’t like the publication or find its content problematic, but that criticism must stand on its own if it’s to stand at all. The “but maybe” inherent in so many implied justifications for terrorism, even generously laden with allowances for how unfortunate and horrific it all must be for those involved, erodes the validity of the criticism and makes room for terrible people to do terrible things.