The case of Charlie: Who exactly is in the right here?

Philip Machanick looks back on recent and past events in a bid to weigh in on the case of Charlie Hebdo, and finds it debatable to even take a side. (Getty, AFP)

Philip Machanick looks back on recent and past events in a bid to weigh in on the case of Charlie Hebdo, and finds it debatable to even take a side. (Getty, AFP)

A war of ideas should not involve mass murder.

A satirical newspaper publishes a cartoon ridiculing a revered figure and is banned. A terrorist plants a bomb in a ship belonging to a movement he opposes, killing one person.

Things that are typical, you would think, of the fundamentalist Islamic world.


The first incident is a French publication, Hara-Kiri, the predecessor of Charlie Hebdo, which published a cartoon ridiculing Charles de Gaulle’s funeral in 1970. 

The second is the bombing of the Greenpeace nuclear protest ship, Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbour, by French agents in 1985.

So what is the point of this example? 

I cannot in any way accept the vicious killings that happened in France. However, there is an element of hypocrisy in the insistence that France is an absolute paragon of free speech and staunch opponent of terrorism in all its forms.

Hypocrisy is the enemy of clarity in these matters.
What was done was wrong, and the fact that there is an element of hypocrisy in the Western response should not mask that.

If we look at the general history of Islam versus the West over the past century, the West has a lot to answer for; such as the false promises made by the British through TE Lawrence during World War I, allowing the establishment of Israel without safeguards for the rights of the Palestinians, supporting corrupt regimes in oil states. 

But we need to beware of the false logic that wrong on one side justifies anything at all on the other side. 

After all, it is the memory of the Holocaust that hardline Zionists invoke to justify their most extreme acts.

Limits to free speech
Let us cut to the essentials. In a democracy, is what Charlie Hebdo published consistent with free speech? What other responses are open to those offended? Why did they choose to respond the way they did?

In any rights-based democracy, free speech is one of the most important, though not absolute, rights because all rights have to be weighed against other rights. Your right to swing your fist ends before my nose.

So the real question is: does this style of cartoon constitute hate speech? If it was clearly and overtly racist, many would argue that it does. Some say that the style of the cartoons is racist and, in that, it invokes stereotypes.

But that is not the reason for Islamic anger: it is the fact that the Prophet Muhammad is portrayed in an insulting fashion. Whether that constitutes hate speech is an interesting question because you could argue that religion is not as indelible a marker as, for example, skin colour or the shape of your nose.

And that is where there is a huge values disconnect. In modern Western society, religious belief is optional.

The United States, for example, has a heavy prejudice against atheism to the extent that a declared atheist is almost certainly not going to be ­nominated by a major party as their presidential candidate. But even the most fundamentalist literalist Christians, the kinds who murder doctors for performing abortions, would not argue for killing apostates for insults to any of their beliefs.

A step too far
So, to the response to the cartoons. I speak here specifically of those adherents of Islam who believe in extreme violence, not the many who abhor this sort of thing. 

If this group believes that an attack on their beliefs is worthy of the most extreme response, in a modern society, such a response can include a legal challenge, protests and a boycott movement against the offending publication.

Why then go for something as extreme as mass murder? 

To the people carrying out this act, they were doing no more than enforcing the law as they understood it – but in a mode that is not acceptable to the society in which they live, even if the law was on their side. So why this extreme reaction?

The motivation goes back to many insults to the Islamic world inflicted by Western powers over the past century. 

Such insults lead to extremism even without a religious backdrop – consider, for example, the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the spark that ignited World War I, and the 1991 assassination of India’s former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber. 

Neither event was religiously inspired.

But, ultimately, what they have done is a response of the weak, because it does not alter the power balance nor force the Western world to take the Islamic world more seriously.

Nor does it suppress the publication of such material but rather makes it more visible. A paper with a circulation of 60 000 is now known worldwide, and huge numbers of people have seen the offending cartoons.

Counterproductive response
Consider also the 2005 fuss over cartoons published in a slightly less obscure Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten. Again, images that would have been seen by tens of thousands of people were broadcast to the world and seen by hundreds of millions.

Likewise, the fuss over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses did not suppress the book. A relatively obscure author hit the big time as a result – and many more people read the offending content.

You have to question the motives of those who blow these issues up. If insulting the Prophet is such a heinous crime, why compound it by making the content known on a massive scale?

War of ideas 
What we are talking about here is a war of ideas. Ironically, antimodern Islamists are using the most modern weapons of the war of ideas to stoke up very old-fashioned modes of conflict that rely on killing and maiming your opponents.

Death and mayhem tend to put people off – but clever use of technology available to spread ideas in a more acceptable form is the real game and it is sad that death and mayhem remain the goal when there is another option.

In the end, if the Islamic world wants to rise above insult and neocolonialist exploitation, it needs to look to its internal sources of weakness, rather than lashing out at the West because a century of colonialism and neocolonialism is not shaken by violence. 

On the contrary, the rhetoric of the war on terror aids Western governments in asserting control, including over their own societies.

The Sunni-Shia split and the Wahhabist-modernist split are the biggest fracture lines in the Islamic world. 

Horrific though events like the Charlie Hebdo attack and 9/11 are, they pale in insignificance against the conflict in countries such as Syria and Libya. 

Then there are reprehensible acts such as the mass abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram – with a comparatively muted reaction. Imagine if 200 American or French schoolgirls were abducted. Why did we not see a million people in the streets of Lagos?

If we stand back and look at all these events without taking sides, it becomes very debatable whether there is a side to take, other than one where we insist on contesting wars of ideas in the space of ideas. 

The West has a long list of crimes and miscalculations going back to colonial times to account for. A section of Islam has turned on itself with a viciousness that occasionally spills into the outside world. And the rest of the world is all too often guilty of logic and ethics errors, such as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Philip Machanick is a researcher at the ­Department of Computer Science at Rhodes ­University

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