Charlie Hebdo, “Free Speech,” and Critique


by Matt Sheedy

It should go without saying that the massacre of journalists and police officers in Paris this past Wednesday is abhorrent, that the perpetrators should be brought to justice, and that measures should be taken to reduce the likelihood of such a thing happening again. It should also go without saying (though it rarely does) that responses such as these are part of complex social realities that include competing interests and ideals, and are thus, by themselves, little more than empty platitudes. As with any trauma that gains widespread attention and rises to the level of a “flash-point event,” the discourse that follows in its wake is never just about the incident at hand, but an open wound that tends to reanimate old arguments while creating new facts on the ground that will reconfigure this terrain, in both predicable and unpredictable ways.

In France, for example, there have already been a number of attacks on mosques, while there is speculation that this incident will help to bolster the far-right Front National, led be Marine Le Pen, with likely implications for immigration policy and a surge of xenophobic nationalism, which is on the rise in many parts of Europe, as seen with recent rallies by PEGIDA in Germany. Less obvious are the ways in which dominant narratives coming out of the Euro-West will play out, how they will condition certain responses over others, and provoke reactions from many sides.

In what follows, I will briefly explore the use of freedom of expression/speech as a primary filter through which this incident has been interpreted, followed by some thoughts on the prohibition against depicting the Prophet Muhammad among many who identify as Muslim.

I wrote a short piece on Charlie Hebdo in September 2012, in light of the (now late) editor Stephane Charbonnier’s decision to publish a number of incendiary cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In this post, I was particularly interested in Charbonnier’s defence of his decision as a matter of “freedom of expression” and his observation that it is only Muslims’ who react violently to the publication of offensive images, noting how the Catholic Church responded to Charlie Hebdo’s provocations by filing law suits. The implication, in case it needs to be underlined, is that there is something distinct about “Islam” that brings about violent reactions and that it is incompatible (or at least at odds) with the values of Western civilization.


In the wake of this most recent tragedy, the idea of freedom of expression has taken on much deeper contours, as seen with the popular meme “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) in cities all over Europe, and the outpouring of cartoons from satirists around the world (as seen with the image to the right). While meaning is never singular and will always be subject to contestation, the overarching sentiment in these popular images seems to be a blend of sympathy with the victims coupled with an identification of their values as “our own,” meaning those in Euro-Western democracies. As some have pointed out, Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are not only offensive to many Muslims as mere images, but also play on racist stereotypes that could be considered hate speech and would likely gain wider condemnation if they featured blacks or Jews.

Here I would suggest that part of the reason that such racialized images go unrecognized by many, including self-professed liberals, has to do with the widespread association of “religion” with “belief” and the concomitant reduction of causation in this case to the matters of blasphemy or offence, which, in turn, prompts the reaction to defend freedom of speech and expression. This is the very stuff that ideology and grand narratives about cultural identity are made of.

Consider, for example, popular comments by heads of state, variously referring to this act as “barbaric,” “terrorist,” and an affront to “democratic values,” typified by US Senator Ted Cruz’s statement that, “This most recent attack is an attack on us all.” Here condemnation takes the form of an affirmation of “our” values over “theirs” and functions less as a description of any precise cultural identity or set of values and more as a binary trope that works to simplify causation—from the common liberal doxa that points the finger at “madmen,” “extremists,” and “lone-wolves,” to the more reactionary tendency to blame “Islam” or even “religion” writ large, as was the case with Salman Rushdie. Even the satirical Onion, known for its sharp political commentary, followed this standard logic with the headline, “It Sadly Unclear Whether This Article Will Put Lives At Risk.”

These and numerous other examples highlight an important distinction between criticism and critique made by Wendy Brown in her introduction to the book Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, (2013) where she draws on the example of Marx’s theory of religion in order to illustrate the difference:

Mere criticism marks religion as false; critique connects religious illusions, and the need for them, to the specific reality generating and necessitating religious consciousness. (11)

While Brown goes on to critique Marx’s theory of religion, her point is to show that “criticism” (as defined above) reflects a reactionary response that tends to argue the opposite of some idea in typical binary fashion, as though that is all that is at stake, versus “critique” as a commitment to theoretical analysis of the larger field of play. As obvious as this may sound, I would claim that this distinction marks a key difference between the role of the pundit versus the task of the scholar (and critical journalist), whose goal it should be to problematize conventional wisdom and point toward the various ways that such regimes of logic narrow conceptual possibilities, marginalize certain groups, and uphold identities that effectively mask the hegemony of their own ideologies.

Juan Cole offers an interesting example of such a critique, arguing that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not in response to the defamation of a religious icon per se, but a provocation to promote a pogrom against Muslims in France and thus increase the ranks of recruitment for al-Qaeda. He continues:

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites.

Although Cole’s argument requires much more empirical verification and makes the problematic claim to know the attackers’ intentions, his analysis approaches the domain of what good critical theory should do—that is, move beyond the expressed intentions and beliefs of the assailants as an explanation for what caused this event toward an analysis of the material conditions (historical, political, socio-cultural, etc.) that produce such things in the first place.

As this story unfolds, one further line of inquiry that is in much need of critical examination circles around depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, as discussed in the aforementioned text Is Critique Secular?, featuring contributions from Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler in response to the 2005 publication of the Danish Cartoons.

For example, Asad argues “that we see blasphemy in these cases [the Danish cartoons] not as a discursive device for suppressing free speech but as an indicator for the shape that free speech takes at different times and in different places, reflecting, as it does so, different structures of power and subjectivity.” (29) Asad notes how the World Union of Muslim Scholars classified the Danish Cartoons affair using the term isa’ah and not tajdif, indicating insult, harm, and offence,” (32) thus implying that the issue or offense was not so much one of “blasphemy,” in the Christian sense of enforcing correct “belief,” but more of “a solemn social relationship having been openly repudiated (e.g., ‘being unfaithful’).” (37)

Saba Mahmood, for her part, draws on the work of Webb Keane in his book Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (2007), in order to show how Protestant semiotic ideology, (66) centers around certain conceptions of “belief” as a marker of legitimate public debate. Mahmood argues that the issue for many traditional Muslims with the Danish Cartoons was not so much one of following commandments, but of embodying certain virtues, where mimetic practices involve “a relation of similitude” (70) with the Prophet Muhammad, and where the pious are encouraged to “emulate how he dressed; what he ate; how he spoke to his friends and adversaries; how he slept, walked, and so on.” (69)

Whereas Asad’s point is to question Western liberal notions of freedom and autonomy by showing how events such as these are interpreted by Muslim authorities in ways that are both particular to Islamic cultures and different from common Western stereotypes, Mahmood draws attention to how “cultural and ethical sensibilities” (83) are variously understood and negotiated amongst (some) traditional Muslims living in the Euro-West, with the intention of opening up the conversation toward certain insiders’ points of view.

In the near-decade since the Danish Cartoons affair there seems to be little movement in the direction of broadening public discussion on the various positionalities of Muslim identities, and instead a doubling-down on well-worn tropes about “Western civilization” that promises much of the same.

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One Response to Charlie Hebdo, “Free Speech,” and Critique

  1. Karen Zoppa says:

    What irks me in all the “coverage” is the insistence on using the newsspeak of “terrorism,” “Islamicist,” and “democracy.” How would we all react if we reported this as murder rather than “terrorism”? How would the claim that individuals intolerant of free expression – in this case satire – eliminated their discomfort with mass execution? Or hoped to increase the membership in a group dedicated to violence with such an action? What if we read that capitalist governments who manipulate information all the time for their own purposes are exploiting this event to make hypocritcal statements about “democracy,” “freedom,” and “our values”? I am trying to make the point, as Huxley did, that newsspeak muddies our thinking and obscures those things we might need to attend to. Nevertheless, i still agree with Voltaire.

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