Nausea in Paris

By Frederik Stjernfelt, 14-11-2011

It is with an increasing feeling of sickness you follow the incidents around the Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo and its special issue on sharia prompted by the political developments in Libya and Tunisia.
Early in the morning of November 2nd, a a window was broken and a Molotov cocktail thrown into the premisses of the weekly which burned out. By sheer luck, nobody was hurt. In the expectedly strong reactions against this attack on free speech, disturbing voices and events intervene. Initially, the asylum offered to the publishers by the daily Libération constituted a encouraging event - one voice supporting the other against threats to free speech.

But the larger picture develops alarmingly. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack as yet, but it is hardly a far-fetched guess that the attack is connected to the publication of the special issue named Charia Hebdo on the same day as the attack. Thus, the incident constitutes a radical resurgence of religious curtailment of free speech - and this in the midst of one of the very cradles of freedom of expression. It was in Paris that free speech was first established as a stable legal fact in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man - after a protracted and bitter struggle over decades between radical Enlightenment on the one hand and the Catholic Church and French Absolutism on the other - a history ripe with burning books prefiguring the burning piles of Charlie Hebdo copies Tuesday night.

Even more disquieting is the fact that the religiously motivated burning down of a house devoted to free speech is accompanied by the simultaneous appearance of further religious pressure. For the time being, the Italian director Romeo Castelluci's play Sur le Concept du Visage du fils de Dieu (On the concept of the face of the son of god) is staged in the other end of Paris, at the Théatre de Ville - and the staging has become the target of repeated daily attacks from fundamentalist Christians, entering the theatre and attempting to prevent the play from being performed. These protests are organized by infamous Catholic groupuscules such as "Renouveau Français" and "Civitas"  which nobody has any problems in identifying as belonging to the extreme right wing. But here, no center-left commentators defend Christian "sensibilities" against "Christianophobia". In fact, it is a highly confusing situation that so few commentators realize that the continuous Islamist pressure against Free Speech belongs to the exact same category of extreme religious right as do the Christian grouplets mentioned.

Large parts of the political left wing fail to grasp the extreme rightist character of the islamist ideology, directly and explicitly aiming to roll back Enlightenment standards in politics. Maybe this intellectual failure comes from the fact that Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, despite many similarities, are of course arch-enemies. But there is no reason at all to assume that extreme right wing movements should like or even support each other - rather, the particularism of right wing movements makes them natural enemies of each other - not unlike French and German right wing nationalisms in the 19-20 centuries. The same goes for the terrible Norwegian terrorism attack by Anders Breivik this summer, proudly displaying a home-made extreme right ideology mixing crusading, knights templar dreams and anti-Islam with European superiority, and, of course, anti-liberalism.

The democratic voices and parties of Western politics must realize we are now in a new situation of acute overcrowding on the extreme right not seen since WWII - where extreme nationalism, neonazism, ethnopluralism, and racism compete with many brands of Christianist and Islamist fundamentalisms. The mutual strife between such grouplets should no longer blind us for the fact that in their deep resentment against enlightenment, liberalism and human rights, they constitute extreme right wing movements. So the lasting picture of these weeks is that of an upsurge of radical religious pressure dominating the public scene in Paris, capital of enlightenment. 

Aggravating the nausea, now, is that sickening voices are entering the expected choir of support to Charlie Hebdo. The deeds of the terrorists are relativized if not explained if not apologized if not directly supported by commentators, thus constituting an intellectual barrage supporting the rights of the arsonists to do what they did. As an example may serve Time Magazine whose Paris correspondent Bruce Crumley wrote a long piece entitled "Firebombed French paper is no Free Speech martyr", sympathizing with "Muslims sensitive to jokes about their faith." Crumley directly addresses the victims of the crime: "Sorry for your loss, Charlie, and there's no justification of such an illegitimate response to your current edition. But do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of 'because we can' was so worthwhile? If so, good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring." The trivial fact that not everybody agrees upon what's funny is, incredibly, taken as a fair reason for arson. I, for one, do not find Crumley's charcoal joke witty in the least. Does this imply, now,  that I am in my good right to throw a Molotov cocktail into Crumley's office at the Time Magazine? This would, in fact, be the case if we were to follow Crumley's appalling conclusion:  "So, yeah, the violence inflicted upon Charlie Hebdo was outrageous, unacceptable, condemnable, and illegal. But apart from the 'illegal' bit, Charlie Hebdo's current edition is all of the above, too." The two acts, that of publishing a joke and that of burning down a building, are judged to be on completely equal moral footing - apart from the merely conventional issue of legality.    

Crumley fuels his burning passion against free speech by adding the worn-out allegory of shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre. Also this analogy is completely false - the danger of such shouting is, of course, the panicking of misinformed people. But the series of religious terror acts aimed against free speech has been developing for many years now - and are not in any way actions of panic. The criminal strong believers are not a stampeding, uncontrollable herd running for their lives. Quite on the contrary, all the cases of which we know the details show meticulous, cool, deliberate, and intelligent planning with political purpose.

Crumley's wicked claim that arson is no worse than joking plays another standard card, that of criticising supposed attacks on Muslims and their sensibilities. But it is entirely wrong to construe Charlie's special issue as consisting of jokes or even attacks against Muslims. The explicit occasion for the issue is the introduction of sharia in the debates over the political futures of Libya and Tunisia - an important international issue if any, and just as worthy a target for scorn, mockery, and ridicule as Sarkozy's political dead-ends and other of the staple items of Charlie's satire. A large part of the issue thus addresses the delicate issue whether a "soft" sharia is possible - that is, a version which refrains from stoning women for adultery, from killing homosexuals and apostates - and merely excludes human rights and suppresses women by inequalities in family and civil law. Are such policies compatible with democracy? Such issues constitute one of the more pressing policial issues of the day. In such a debate, criticisms and satire of the political ideologies of Islamism forms a natural part - and such attacks are in no way attacks on Muslims as such, no less than attacks on Angela Merkel's policies constitute attacks against Germans and their "sensibilities".

But it is contentious, to say the least, to assume the intention behind the supposedly Islamist attack is fueled by the "offense of Muslim sensibilities". A much more obvious reason for fundamentalists to exert religious pressure against satirical characterization of their faith is that such joking may, in fact, be detrimental for them as it may add to the delegitimation of their extreme political aims. Satire famously played an important role in the long process which, over centuries, emancipated European societies from religious dominance and finally forced Christianity to give in to enlightened principles and liberties. There is no reason to assume the Islamists are not aware of this - all the sweet-talking about "defamation" and "offense" by them and their intellectual fellow travelers is but a thinly veiled excuse to demand their exemption from criticism.

This combination of whimpering, death threats and arson now for years practised by fundamentalists is not, however, without effects. Until further notice, it seems Charlie will survive the pressure - but the flames of Paris are already in the process of consuming another victim, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, well-known for their publication of the Mohammed drawings in 2005, later taken as the pretext for the 2006 crisis. In a spectacular editorial, the newspaper explains its choice not to reprint a single one of Charlie's cartoons - despite the fact that the newspaper warmly praises Charlie for its solidarity when it reprinted Jyllands-Posten's drawings five years ago. The strange piece of text is almost contradictory in its high praise of Charlie and its conclusion not to return its solidarity act - almost as if the editorial was originally written with the purpose of explaining the printing rather than the omission of the drawings. Appearing on Danish television Nov. 6ht, Jyllands-Posten's editor-in-chief Jørn Mikkelsen sat blushing and sweating, unable to present a coherent stance. Much to the point, he claimed that to give in to violence only produces more violence - at the very same time as he tried to present the decision not to print as a form of principal attempt to find a new way in defending free speech! Suspicion mounts that the editors have been under some sort pressure from their board not to print; in any case, the strange decision of the paper marks the final victory of years of violent pressure over the free speech of newspaper.

On the international scene, the internet versions of many leading European newspapers feature the photograph of Charlie's editor holding up the front page of the magazine with the drawing of the prophet saying "100 whiplashes, if you do not die from laughter!" before the sooted ruins of the premisses. But not a single English or American newsmedia did so, as far as a quick net survey shows. At the same time, new threats against Libération tries to force the daily to stop its protection of Charlie. Slowly and steadily, the poison of the extreme religious right is spreading in democratic societies, shrinking the space of free speech and criticism day by day. The strange and unsavoury cocktail of death threats, bombings, and arson with whining and whimpering, topped with defeatist intellectuals talking about "sensibilities", is slowly eating away at the heart of open societies.