EDITORIAL
Charlie Hebdo: we got it wrong
Freedom Socialist editorial board
volume:  
volume 36
issue 3
June 2015

In the previous issue of the Freedom Socialist, we carried a story called “The Charlie Hebdo furor: when free speech collides with defense of the persecuted” (Vol. 36, No. 2). Unfortunately, in a rush to judgment, we seized the completely wrong end of the stick.

Our big factual error was our characterization of Charlie Hebdo, which colored the whole article. We called the publication’s politics reactionary and anti-Muslim, charged it with aiming its satire at the oppressed and not the ruling class, and compared some of its cartoons to Nazi caricatures of Jews and Ku Klux Klan portrayals of African Americans.

In reality, the satirical weekly is far from a racist rag. It has no political line as such, but its main targets are establishment figures, especially religious ones — of many denominations. The last issue of the magazine before the murders of the staff members featured a page of cartoons against Catholicism. And on the cover of that edition was a cartoon lampooning not Islam, but an Islamophobic French novelist.

Charlie’s contributors are a diverse bunch; many consider themselves progressives or leftists. One of the 12 people murdered, Stéphane Charbonnier, Charlie’s editor, was close to the Communist Party, and the socialist anthem “The International” played at his funeral.

We made the mistake we did partly due to what we were reading in the sources in English available to us as we researched the article. These featured widespread condemnation of some of Charlie’s cartoons as Islamophobic.

But the truth even of this is hotly debated, with some French writers asserting that people criticizing the cartoons don’t actually understand them — especially people outside France and people who don’t speak French. Context is key to understanding any social phenomenon, and the FS didn’t have a real understanding of the cartoons’ context.

An ingrained sympathy for the victims of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attacks also influenced us. Here, too, however, we were seeing only part of the social context.

True, in the wake of the murders of the Charlie staff and the murders of four Jewish men at the Hyper Cacher grocery store, assaults on Muslim people and mosques followed. The government predictably grabbed the opportunity to whip up support for the war on terror, with at least one high official calling for the return of the death penalty.

On the other hand, though, it’s precisely Muslims and Arabs who suffer most from the repression of reactionary Islamic regimes and the violence of terrorists operating in the name of Islam, like ISIS. Especially suffering are secularists and women.

This was pointed out by Zineb El Rhazoui in an article called “If Charlie Hebdo is racist, then so am I.” Rhazoui is a female Charlie contributor and proud “militant atheist,” originally from Morocco, who was forced into exile by the monarchist dictatorship there. In her piece, she asks, “Why the hell should I respect Islam? Does it respect me?”

The voices raised in support of the “heretics” at Charlie Hebdo include those of secular Arabs who see the magazine as on their side, and as a positive contribution in the French anti-clerical tradition. They view Charlie’s blasphemy not as racism, but as a weapon against Islamic theocrats — fanatical Muslims who can be fascist-like in their use of terror against those they perceive as infidels or who oppose them.

Life is complicated, and in the case of the Charlie Hebdo article, the FS failed to appreciate the complexities. By mischaracterizing the magazine, we in essence blamed the victims, which we deeply regret.

The anti-immigrant ruling class of France deserves all the anger that its oppressed and exploited Muslim and Arab population feels. But the 16 people who died in the attacks on Charlie and the kosher grocery are not responsible for the actions of their government. Terrorists, sadly, are not rational.

At the FS, though, we strive to be. We are printing this retraction because we owe it to the truth and because we want the Freedom Socialist to be a periodical that people continue to trust. Next time we decide to tackle a complicated issue we’re not familiar with, we pledge to stop and look both ways before picking up our pens.

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