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Are we Charlie?

Albena Azmanova, visiting scholar, Institute for European Studies | January 16, 2015

Upon arrival last week at Berkeley (I am a visiting scholar on a sabbatical leave) I was baffled by the silent campus. While the world was awash with “I am Charlie” protests in defense of free speech and condemnation of violence, the university that gained its fame as the cradle of the Free Speech movement seemed uncannily placid, ironically, during the year when it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the movement.

Sure, the term had not started yet, but there were effectively some student protests going on –  against torture at Guantanamo Bay, so mid-term recess could not quite explain the absent “Charlies.” Then I read Jonah Levy’s and Tyler Stovall’s blogs (on this site) and realized that what began here is something much better than any emphatic protestation in the name of a magnanimous ideal; what we have started, and I hope we continue, is an “Are We Charlie?” debate. What we owe freedom of speech is not declarations of allegiance, but a good, preferably impolite, dispute.

I hope, however, this debate does not get sidetracked by three issues that have dominated commentaries of the “I Am Charlie” mobilization. These issues do not belong to the debate because the answers are obvious:

(1) Is it acceptable to respond to verbal offence with physical violence? The Thou Shalt Not Kill rule is non-negotiable. No need for debate there.
(2) Should free speech be selectively applied? Commentators have pointed out the double standard of free speech in France, as anti-Semitic and anti-Republican pundits and comedians in France are much more severely sanctioned than their anti-Islamic brethren. Not a good thing, and nothing much to argue there.
(3) Are the vulgar depictions of the prophet Mohammed distasteful? They surely are. But rules of aesthetic justice are out of place in matters of free speech.

Leaving these three non-issues aside, I propose we focus on three that strike, uncomfortably, at the heart of the matter:

Issue One: should hate speech set the limits to free speech?

Where hate speech starts, free speech ends: this is how typically the line has been drawn. Yet identifying hate speech keeps infringing on the territory of free speech, especially when satire is deployed. Wit, though having its etimological origins in archaic forms of the verb ‘to know’, has existed in the shape of ‘intelligent insult’ more than of polite displays of wisdom. Take away the right to insult and the talent to insult intelligently, and you deprive wit of its most befitting attire. It is thus that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo explain the often offensive attitude their paper is known for: “We were drawing pseudo Mickey Mouse… sometimes goofy, other times crass, punk for sure… we were simply joyful unbelievers” (in the words of Renald Luzier, “Luz,” who has been a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo for twenty years, in an interview he gave after the massacre of his colleagues, explaining the Mohammed cartoons). The images and language used, in the process, have been often qualified as ‘hate speech’ risking to instigate violence. Similarly, when the French comedian Dieudonné (known for his anti-Jewish sarcasm), was arrested for making a joke that appeared to sympathise with the extremists, he justified himself: “I was only trying to make people laugh”.

The process of sarcastic exchanges can even be a form of recognition among the participants as equals and thus, of mutual empowerment – as they share a code of witty dialogue which turns them into partners rather than enemies. That is, provided that said participants are social equals. Take the fabled exchange between Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor (the affluent American socialite who was the first woman to be elected to the UK Parliament): At a garden party, she can no longer suppress her indignation at his poor manners and exclaims: “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” To which he is known to have retorted: “Nancy, if you were my wife I’d drink it.” Insulting, openly hateful? Surely. But also — a sparring exchange among equals, in which the mutual ridicule is a display of complicity beyond the apparent conflict. Invigorating for the participants, amusing to the viewers.

Is it only when the indirect witty exchanges between a ‘Luz’ and a ‘Dieudonné’ in France becomes an innocent interaction between social equals (with the requisite social reforms well in place, give it half a century) that we are to allow them to deploy their gift of intelligent insult against each other? Of course, there is an enormous difference between witty banter and hate speech as a public act potentially provoking violence against an oppressed group. But isn’t the irreverent de-crowning, through sarcasm, of the taboos and symbols that oppress – isn’t exactly this one of the most effective means for fighting oppression? It is here that hate speech and free speech dispute a very narrow territory. And here is how we arrive at the second question I deem important for our “Are we Charlie?” debate:

Issue Two: what is the point of free speech?

Yes, we should be free to ask that question, if free speech is not to reign as a sacrosanct dogma.

Free speech gained its validity (already in ancient Athens and the Roman Republic) not as a tool of information, but one of liberation; it still acquires its significance as such a tool. That is why the question of setting its range of operation should be approached not as a matter of horizontal delimitation of boundaries (by excluding issues), but as a matter of vertical distribution of power.

Let me explain: I grew up in a society (under the communist regime in my native Bulgaria) where sarcasm could freely be targeted downwards, at the Islamic minorities of ethnic Turks and Romani, but could cost you your life if directed upwards, at the ruling elites. Yet, jokes against the communist regime were in abundance. (We called them “the golden grid” jokes, as they sent you behind bars. Here is my favorite one: Question: “What is the difference between a racist and a political joke?” Answer: “Ten years”– that is, ten years behind bars). When used for its intended purpose – to liberate, sarcasm is a form of free speech only when targeted at oppressive ideas and institutions, which sarcasm dethrones. This has hardly been the case with the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo.

frontispiece of Voltaire play

Frontispiece of the 1753 edition of Voltaire’s play Mahomet

Let me clarify my point by making an experiment. Remember that splendid quip Mahatma Gandhi made about the Western Civilization? (When a journalist once asked him “What do you think of Western Civilisation?”, he replied “I think it would be a good idea.”) Replace “Western” with “Islamic” and the joke is no longer funny, as it’s purpose would be “to offend what we already know is a wounded civilization”(as the commentator Patrick Smith aptly put it in a recent piece).

The events in France are an urgent invitation to call the problem by its proper name – ridiculing Islam in a country where the predominantly Islamic population of Maghreb origin has been denigrated to second-rate citizens, amounts to exercising oppression on those in need of emancipation – thus, de facto going against the political project which gave freedom of expression its raison-d’être.

And the last uncomfortable question:

Issue Three: what is the proper object of satire?

Does anything go? A joke might indeed be a serious thing (an observation attributed both to Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill), and the gravest thing about joking is that not everything is a laughing matter.

That great wit, Voltaire – the human embodiment of the gutsy spirit of the Enlightenment, most ardent advocate of the freedom of religion and of expression, known for targeting his irreverent satirical attacks against all the powers of the day – from the monarchy and the church to popular superstition – did write a play about Mohammed. That play, however, was not a comedy, but a tragedy.

Issue Four: to be left out  

I would deliberately leave out of the Are We Charlie? debate on free speech the big, grave, most urgent of questions: How did we manage to get here? How did Islam become so radicalized and how come are our allegedly progressive societies failing to grant equal citizenship to the members of the Muslim communities who find themselves increasingly the losers in the distribution of life-chances. This is a debate that needs to be held in its own right. It will require an Islamic Martin Luther and an islamic Martin Luther King Jr., as well as democratic governments willing to do the right thing — undertake social reforms rather than take the short cut of increasing anti-terrorism budgets.

Albena Azmanova

UC Berkeley, January 15, 2015

Comments to “Are we Charlie?

  1. I am still not quite sure what Voltaire meant by refusing to turn his famous satire on Islam. I think there is some great wisdom to this that needs to be uncovered. Religious fanaticism (what stands behind beheadings, sex slavery, depriving children of education, killing the religion’s critiques) is surely not a laughing matter, but this does not mean we should be silent about it.

  2. “Islamophobia is a big problem in Europe, as once again is antisemitism”

    Can you both take your troubles to the Middle East please? Work it out there and leave us Europeans out of it.

    • Thank you for your comment, but I am puzzled by it. Do you mean to say that there is neither Islamophobia nor antisemitism in Europe? That Europeans are innocent of making Muslim people feel like second rate citizens? On this, see the recent study on Muslim job discrimination in France.

      I am not sure what you mean by ‘us Europeans’ who should be left out of it. By the way, I am European, permanent resident of Belgium.


  3. Exceptionally well written post Prof. Azmanova. These three issues are far more important and also interesting philosophical questions. It seems that these questions are easily ignored on North American university campuses and that the more false-liberal debates take centre stage. It would be nice to read a follow up to the post with your own tentative proposals for answers or approaches to these questions.

    • Yes, what you name “false-liberal debates” is a phenomenon that has fascinated me much. Instead of changing our societies in such a way as to give everyone a fair chance, to make sure there is no inequality in the distribution of life-chances to start with, ‘false liberals’ would adopt palliative measures to remedy some of the evil, rather than prevent its emergence — ban hate speech, redistribute some resources…

      We first deprive Muslim people from a fair chance of employment, then we are appalled at how ignorantly touchy they are at the innocent fun we poke at what they hold sacred.

      My point is that a dabate on where to set the boundaries between free speech and hate speech risks to side-track us from the real issue — socio-economic injustices in urgent need of elimination.


  4. 61 journalists were killed in 2014.* (See reference here.)

    And untold thousands of journalists were bullied by threats of violence and/or employment termination into submission/silence.

    None of the killings last year occurred in a western country so many in the west do not realize or appreciate how fraught with physical danger the job of journalist can be for a reporter with a passion for the truth working in the face of violent and/or manipulative adversaries.

    The brave Salman Rushdie spoke recently at the Univ of Vermont and his thoughts merit serious consideration and provide a realistic counterpoint to the scolding tenor of the visiting European scholar.

    • I personally do hold freedom of speech to be absolute; I wrote this piece in order to articulate the framework of a debate, not to state and defend my own views on these issues. To me, it is more important that freedom of speech is deployed to its proper purpose — to protect against, and fight, oppression. If we forget that freedom of speech has a purpose, we turn it into another oppressive dogma, as Luz, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, so well put it in an interview he gave after the attacks.

      Albena Azmanova

  5. Humorists and cartoonists do not approach ALL topics. There are some western sensibilities that they respect, and would be unlikely to make fun of a rape scene, for example, because that would be seen as insensitive, perhaps by themselves as well.

    They were killed, from what I understand, not because they made fun of fundamentalists and gazi fighters (terrorists, whatever), but because they portrayed the prophet, violating a prohibition against images. If they could respect Western sensitivities (I am not sure they did, but that’s my understanding), then why not respect this one strong sensitivity of a religion you do not understand?

    Is this about self-censorship then? Dogma oppresses. One should be able to laugh at it. But laughing at oneself is the key, not laughing at others.

    • Thank you for raising the issue of respecting sensibilities. This is of greater importance, and more help, than trying to adjudicate the right boundary between free speech and hate speech. I am no specialist on the matter, but I will draw on something a wise friend observed recently: Islam is more of a praxis than a doxis religion, and this creates great differences in the two cultures’ perceptions of acceptable critique.

      Let me explain: In Christianity, a doxis religion, what matters is what you believe – namely, the creed (which requires believing some rather unbelievable things, such as that Christ was born to a virgin and rose from the dead). Islam shuns the creed in favor of a simple belief, that there is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. It is instead a praxis religion, in that what matters is what you do (like praying 5 times a day, abstaining from alcohol, making the hajj if possible, etc.).

      People who have been raised in no religion (like me) or a belief-centered religion (e.g. Christianity; Judaism is more of a praxis religion) have trouble understanding how important these practices are in Islam. The very practice of not showing images in a mosque, or, every time you utter the words “Prophet Mohammed” saying immediately “Peace be upon him” (or if you are writing, putting in pbuh in parentheses) takes on an importance that might seem to us unfathomable; that we why we cannot comprehend the anger in the Muslim world about these cartoons – they are experienced as hate speech, and it is besides the point that we do not interpret them as hate speech.

      Since we share a society with Muslim people, we need to develop a sensitivity to what deeply matters to them. Saying this dos not mean that I would defend practices such as beheadings, sex slavery and depriving children of education; those are barbaric practices which are not endorsed by the Qur’an. And they are hardly proper objects of satire.

      Albena Azmanova

  6. In my humble opinion framing the conversation in this manner is not possible.

    Regarding Issue One: Of course, “in a world where…” all hate speech is just a precursor of extremely sporadic and isolated cases of violence then, yes, in that world free speech should not be limited by what any consensus in any political space labels as hate speech. But we do not leave in that world and there is clear evidence of causation between some hate speech and its following and continuous violence as it has been the case in various countries across continents in the last decades. So this violent result cannot be excluded from the debate because there are far too many human beings that react differently than, for example, the overwhelming majority of catholics would react in the 21st C. when the Virgin Mary is not treated respectfully by a non-observant of that faith.

    Regarding Issue Two: The point of free speech is only for the bottom to criticize those who hold power at the top? So the range of operation of free speech should be restricted to only in that particular vertical direction? I just do not see how further labeling people as weak or powerful and other blanket generalisations would contribute in having the societal results most of us are seeking. Were the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo really the kind of Masters of the Universe such as the Koch brothers, Vlad Putin, Carlos Slim, and the various semi-autocratic kings in the Muslim world? Is it then all reduced to being male, white, and French? I just do not see how the contentious democracies like France are more powerful and more cohesive than the high-income Arab Gulf states that for all intents and purposes have a heavier political influence over a great number of the 90% of Sunnis (1.45 billion people). Besides how do we measure all of this?

    I will like to add most of the people that were mentioned were hardly part of a dispossessed, oppressed class (Churchill and Voltaire were aristocrats; Gandhi born in one of the varnas of the Indian cast system and went to school in London; Nancy Astor, her last name says it all…). And finally what do you with “les petits Blancs”? I guess they are part of the establishment to some extent, but what about the other minorities of France that do not even own the streets and are repeatedly targeted? Are those minorities even less powerful than the Maghrebis?

    Who do we put in charge of determining who can use satire? Bobos in universities would decide? It all sounds to argumentum ad hominem. Let us focus on arguments for their own merit instead of on the speakers.

    Regarding Issue Three: The object of satire is to shame and knock down any world view that believes in any type of supremacy. The main target should always sympathizers. For example, in the South of USA targeting the Klan with satire would have been futile. Violent people are long gone and the only reason they understand most of the time is violent coercion. But to shame and ridicule the sympathizers did carry some dividends. It is worth mentioning that a vast number of racist sympathizers, but non-members of the KKK, were not at the pinnacle of American society as poor southern whites working in backward southern industries. So I do not think that targets of satire and shaming should exclusively be middle class or wealthy people (the latter should definitely be targeted more…).

    Regarding Issue Four: I know it was mentioned that it should be left out, but I know for a fact that those social reforms are arithmetically more expensive in the short run than anti-terrorism budgets. Besides what industries does those anti-terrorism budgets go to and who owns them? The West (a silly and monolithic statement as silly as most generalization of the “Muslim world”) could only dream of having the power that some attribute to it.

    I recommend reading a Brookings Institute publication as a good introduction for the history of France as a country of immigration (for example from Poland, Spain, Portugal, and Italy) and not emigration.

    Just as a final note, you could see some of these forces as late as the ’60s in the movie “Le Samouraï.” In that movie the criminals (losers in the distribution of life-chances) have last names such as Garcia and Damolini. We have now plenty of people in French elite with Catalonian or “Spanish” last names: Vals or the Charlie Hebdo victim Maris.

  7. Prof. Azmanova, I believe one of the most important differentiations we need to make about what it was Charlie Hebdo made fun of is that it made fun of certain pagan elements and traditions present in Arab cultures (because there are several, no one homogenous one), having little or nothing to do with actual Islam, as described in the Qur’an.

    Not sending your children to school, child marriage, expecting women to cover themselves from head to toe, living on wellfare instead of honest work – are actually social attitudes CONTRARY to the Qur’an. Any Islamic scholar will confirm these are not basic elements of Islam – only pagan Bedouin left-overs. THESE are what Charlie Hebdo predominantly made fun of – add to that ignorance, populism, ingratitude, and a host of other manners displayed by a certain social group – and I promise you, we are not talking about real Muslims. Islam is far less radicalized than is popularly believed. 70% of Foreign Fighters with ISIL are actually lily-white Caucasians, who never had anything to do in their lives with Islam.

    There seems to be a whole social niche of those, who would use Islam and their migrant origins as an excuse for their lot in life. But let’s examine the circumstances: who forces these people to remain Muslim (if that is a source of problems for them)? Who prevents them from using the whole host of mechanisms and tools to legally and transparently fight back that which they find offensive? Who stops them from looking for jobs elsewhere, learn other languages, change vocations, try new things in a Europe without borders?

    Prof. Azmanova, it’s certainly not Islam that’s holding them back. Islam – a religion quite radically progressive in some of its social solutions. This is not a question of faith; this is rather a matter of attitudes under the guise of faith and religion. How come the men who shot at cartoonists had money to obtain guns, ammunition; had the time and resources to plan, organize and carry out the attack; but they couldn’t start businesses? What, were they not intelligent enough? Not resourceful enough? Hardly. They just chose to dedicate their time and energy to something absolutely pointless and shameful.

    I do believe we are all Charlie because – as you say – certain things need no explaining. Leaving aesthetics aside, ignoring for the time being the quality and intelligence and taste of some of their jokes – free speech works on the basis of everyone being able to say what they feel like saying. Agreed, some matters aren’t to be laughed at. Let Charlie Hebdo pay for that by not getting a single issue sold; let people boycott it; let that be their punishment. But never someone’s life.

    Freedom to say anything and everything – even the most ridiculous, hurtful, ignorant things – actually lets us discern which direction we should continue in, and which we should avoid. And assault of this freedom will never be tolerated on European soil. And mind you – we will NOT be reduced to barbarism to defend it, either.

  8. Thank you for your enquiry Albena, it is most timely and urgent.

    We most urgently need to focus on:

    Women’s Rights, which the latest issue of CALIFORNIA alumni magazine featured, and I pray that issue creates a movement similar to the 1964 Free Speech Movement, along with:

    Inequality, which Robert Reich is doing internationally, seemingly by himself,

    Violence, which Kim Thuy Seelinger has been doing through our Law School,

    Poverty which was reported a couple days ago on HuffPo,

    and Climate Change, which Dan Farber is doing almost single handedly on the
    Berkeley Blog

    These are some of the greatest threats to the long-term future of the human race which must be solved today, and I pray that Berkeley will create the movement to make it happen in time.

  9. Finally, complete sense in this senseless world!

    The past few days have only proved that the world is no different than Orwell’s Animal Farm when it says “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” with some word changes though … All Charlies are equal but some are more equal than others.

    So no … we are not Charlie. It is either we are all the same Charlie, or we are all not Charlies.

    May all the casualties of this senseless world rest in peace.

    • As Luz, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist put it:” I’m going to think about my dead friends, knowing they didn’t fall for France! Today, it seems that Charlie fell for the freedom of speech. The simple fact is that our friends died.” (See here.)

      If we keep in mind the sanctity of human life, if we keep trying to reduce human suffering, we might be able to walk the right path without the help of the crutches of big symbols, like Free Speech or the ‘right’ religion.


  10. Dear Albena: I am in such disagreement with your comments that I cannot resist the urge to reply.

    First, surely there is need to debate whether physical violence is an acceptable response to verbal offence. Those who did the deed and the political forces that authorized them manifestly think it is acceptable. By the way, they also thought it acceptable to respond to the presence of Jews with physical violence.

    Second, while the question of double standards is a real one, we should not fall for the competition of victimhood that say that antisemitic comedians have been dealt with more severely than their ‘anti-Islamic brethren’. It is not at all evident that Charlie Hebdo is anti-Islamic. It certainly seems to me untrue of the survivors’ issue showing someone who may be identified as the prophet shedding a tear about that which is being done in his name. I don’t find this depiction of the prophet Mohammed remotely distasteful. The real issue has nothing to do with whether antisemitic and Islamophobic speech are being selectively sanctioned, but with maintaining the crucial distinction between critique of religion and hate speech. Dieudonné’s hate speech is not the same as Luz’s critique of power and superstition.

    You affirm that when used for its intended purpose, to liberate, and when targeted at oppressive ideas and institutions, sarcasm is a defensible form of free speech. Yet you deny that this has been the case with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons because Islam is a ‘wounded civilisation’. It may be ‘wounded’ but this is because some extremely reactionary and violent states and political movements have declared themselves representative of ‘Islam’ at the cost of the oppression of the vast majority of Muslim human beings.

    Islamophobia is a big problem in Europe, as once again is antisemitism (we should resist any temptation to indulge in a competition of victimhood), but it does not help Muslims to legitimate a double oppression: at the hands of the French society on one side and at the hands of radical Islamist leaders who would annihilate the space of subjective freedom for all Muslims.

    The political mobilization of religious offence is a scary phenomenon from whichever quarter it arises. It is an invitation to closure, not to dialogue or deliberation.

    Now this is off my chest, I send you my warm greetings and wish you a fine stay in Berkeley!

    • Warm thanks for your disagreement, Rob, I am only disappointed at how polite it is – I called for an impolite dispute. I find myself compelled to endorse much of what you say without altogether abandoning my stance. Thus, although I maintain that Islam is now a wounded civilization, it is indeed important to clarify that much of the wounding has been done by its own religious and political leaders.

      As to your appeal that we maintain the distinction between hate speech and critique of religion (in the name of which free speech is deployed): yes, it is worth trying to maintain that distinction, but without the illusion that we’ll not be gravely mistaken in drawing the boundary –- we’ll be likely to err, thus committing either a ‘crime of commission’, or a ‘crime of omission’, as Hannah Arendt would warn us. That is, we’ll be either constraining critique to avoid the risk of hate speech, or we’ll be engaging inadvertently in hate speech in our impassioned assault on the blinding and subjugating power of religion.

      I personally would tend to err in favor of free speech (and thus maximize the scope of critique of religion), because I believe that the primary vocation of free speech is to defend against and attack domination. I would do that also for the sake of free speech’s second most important task, as per Mill’s argument – to get us closer to the truth of an issue. When limiting free speech to where supposedly hate speech begins, by the very logic of this move we reduce the right to free speech to a right to polite conversation (and as I’ve made it clear I do not care much about that). Much is lost in that move: both the capacity to attack domination in all its forms and the chance of getting closer to the truth of an issue.

      And there is then the matter of the violence of drawing boundaries in judgment: there is violence in the very act of adjudicating the boundary between free, emancipatory speech and hate, subjugating speech; those who take upon themselves the authority to judge necessary commit that violence – as they impose their own perception of what ‘hate’ means and feels.

      I have heard many times Muslim friends say how deeply any mockery of the prophet Mohammed offends them – for them this is effectively hate speech, no matter that we do not deem it to be. This does not mean I will ban it. But those who indulge in such insults should be aware that what they do is being experienced as hate speech and does much damage. There is no innocence there, and it is the pretense at innocence that bothers me deeply. (In an interview after the attacks, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz explained that they were just poking innocent fun, like kids).

      Which brings me to your first point about the need to discuss whether physical violence is an acceptable response to verbal offense – I am not open to be convinced that it ever is, and I don’t believe that terrorists are oblivious of the argument, they have simply rejected it. That is why I proposed to exclude this from a debate on free speech, to save time for the controversial issues. But sure, if there is any hope that we might convince terrorists to replace guns with pens, we should do it – I’d be the first to offer a lecture course on the superior virtues of hate speech over those of killing. I’d do that pro bono.


    • I am still not quite sure what Voltaire meant by refusing to turn his famous satire on Islam. I think there is some great wisdom to this that needs to be uncovered. Religious fanaticism (what stands behind beheadings, sex slavery, depriving children of education, killing the religion’s critiques) is surely not a laughing matter, but this does not mean we should be silent about it.

      Voltaire spoke highly of Islam’s civil laws, its dogma, he even praised Mohammed as a legislator who brought his contemporaries out of idolatry; but he objected to Mohammed’s means — “deception and murder”, in Voltaire’s words.

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