Publish and be damned; it’s something I will always believe in. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, and one which is at risk of being supressed through self-censorship in light of heightening discourses around race and religion. The Charlie Hebdo killings were a tragedy of the greatest kind. They demonstrated the fragile nature of our human rights which are continually threatened and which the cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo risked much to defend. Or so I thought.
Unfortunately, life is much more nuanced than that. It’s all well and good to advocate for freedom of expression, but it’s also necessary to take into account the wider context in which this promotion takes place, something which I had failed to do in relation to the Charlie Hebdo attack. Much like the rest of the world, in light of their death, I saw the murdered cartoonists and writers of Charlie Hebdo as advocates for freedom of expression. Creative minds who were trying to help in some way to reverse the tide of radicalisation and extremism which is currently sweeping much of Europe.
However, although I have no doubt that Charb and his colleagues were good people with good intentions, I have come question whether they realised the political weight their images and storyboards carried. Of course they knew that what they were creating was politically loaded, it wouldn’t be worth publishing if it wasn’t, but were they aware of the policies they were both promoting and legitimising? It was something I certainly hadn’t considered, that is, not until I read comments published in Nouvel Obs and written by Henri Roussel (or Delfeil de ton as he writes under), a co-founder of Charlie Hebdo.
Roussel is known for his disapproval of much of the content published in Charlie Hebdo over recent years. He has accused its former editor, Philippe Val, of using the magazine as a Zionist and Islamophobic tool and questioned Charb’s motives on two previous occasions, after the magazine had published provocative cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. This article was much in the same vein, deploring, even in light of his death, Charb’s continuation of this provocation despite an arson attack and numerous other threats.
Why was Roussel so against Charb’s cartoons? Surely freedom of expression is worth fighting for and promoting when it is being threatened by a wave of extremist radicalisation? Well, yes, of course it’s worth fighting for. But is that really what they were doing? I’m not so sure. Of course, I can’t attest to the cartoonists’ and writers’ motives, but Roussel highlighted an important point: the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were part of a proxy war which France, and many other Western countries, have declared on the Islamic world.
This dichotomous relationship was demonstrated after the killings when there was very much a feeling of either/or: you either supported Charlie Hebdo and Western freedom of expression, or you supported the terrorists and their rhetoric which is, of course, insupportable. Roussel wrote,
I don’t much like it when a head of state speaks of the dead as heroes. It usually happens because citizens have been sent to war and not come back, which is rather the case with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The attack is part of a war declared on France, but can also be seen in the light of the wars France has got itself involved in: conflicts where its participation isn’t called for, where worse massacres than that at Charlie Hebdo take place every day, several times a day, where our bombardments pile death on death in the hope of saving potentates who feel threatened and are no better than those who threaten them…
Indeed, we seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle whereby, because we feel threatened we threaten in retaliation. Foreign policy isn’t restricted to the confines of the front lines or the intelligence agencies, it seeps into all of society. This could not be more evident than in the case of Charlie Hebdo. By declaring a proxy war against various Islamic states and perpetuating a discourse of menace from the Islamic world, the French government, among others, have legitimised threatening behaviours which I believe, in more peaceful times, would be considered abhorrent and certainly would not be praised.
Roussel questioned how an image depicting ‘a naked Muhammed praying, seen from behind, balls dangling and prick dripping, in black and white but with a yellow star on his anus’ was funny. The short answer is, it wasn’t. The explanation is that Charlie Hebdo, like many other areas of society and culture, has been caught in a vicious cycle whereby it feels the need to threaten the menace of Islam in a retaliatory manner. Of course, none of this means that they shouldn’t have published what they did. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right; we will continue to publish and be damned.