Liberalism is a two-faced creed. It can mean that you believe in individual freedom and abhor every variety of prejudice, including the prejudice that allows men to shoot journalists dead for producing a magazine they disapprove of. Or it can mean that you go to such lengths to take account of your enemy’s opinions you become indistinguishable from him.
After the massacres in Paris on November 13, the US Secretary of State John Kerry made a statement so disgraceful you had to read it, rub your eyes, and read it again to comprehend the extent of his folly: “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that,” Kerry began in the laboured English of an over-promoted middle manager.
“There was a sort of particularised focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of — not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, OK, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorise people.”
The staff of “Charlie Hebdo” in 2006: The cartoonists Cabu, Charb, Tignous and Honoré (first, second, fourth and fifth from left) were all killed in the 2015 attack, and Riss, third from left, was wounded. Meurisse, second from right, happened to be out of the office (© Joel Saget/AFP/ Getty Images)
Did you get that? Then allow me to translate. Kerry believes the satirists Islamist gunmen killed at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris’s 11th arrondissement on January 5 had it coming. It is not that they deserved to die. John Kerry is a New England liberal, after all, and does not endorse the death penalty for journalists. But liberalism is a two-faced creed. It can mean that you believe in individual freedom and abhor every variety of prejudice, including the prejudice that allows men to shoot journalists dead for producing a magazine they disapprove of. Or it can mean that you go to such lengths to take account of your enemy’s opinions you become indistinguishable from him.
John Kerry’s liberalism, and the liberalism of millions like him, ignores Chesterton’s warning not to be so open-minded that your brains fall out. Kerry wanted to understand radical Islam and to seek the root causes of its apparently psychopathic violence. Not for him the knee-jerk condemnations of a red-state redneck. When Kerry applied his nuanced and expensively educated mind to the corpses in the magazine office, he discovered that the dead had provoked their own murders. The assassins had, well, if not quite legitimate reasons, then certainly a “rationale” which explained why they were “really angry because of this and that”.
Charlie Hebdo mocked the prophet Muhammad, Islamic State and Boko Haram. Its editor Stéphane Charbonnier (aka Charb), the cartoonists and columnists who wrote for him, and the police officers who died protecting their freedom (and ours) knew the risks and paid the price. They went looking for trouble and we should not be shocked that they found it.
All the rest of us had to do was to moderate our behaviour. If we were careful not to make terrorists “really angry” about “this and that”, we would be safe.
Perhaps I am being too kind to Kerry. But I assume even he must have had one doubt buzzing around his empty head like a dazed bluebottle. An associate of the Islamist gang that pumped bullets into the staff of Charlie Hebdo also took hostages at the Hypercacher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes in the 20th arrondissement. There he murdered Philippe Braham, a sales executive, Yohan Cohen, a student, Yoav Hattab, another student, and François-Michel Saada, a pensioner. The dead had provided no “rationale” and created no “particular sense of wrong”. They were ordinary citizens, shopping for food, as we all do.
But when Kerry and those like him looked at their bodies closely perhaps they noticed that appearances deceived. They were not like the rest of us, after all. Hypercacher was a kosher supermarket and the dead were Jews. Few people were prepared to say what they were thinking openly, but a BBC reporter, Tim Willcox, showed no restraint. A Jewish woman in the crowd near the crime scene told him, “The situation is going back to the days of 1930s in Europe. Jews are the target now.” Willcox could not let the suggestion that Jews were innocent victims go unchallenged. “Many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest that Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands,” he said, interrupting her.
If you were a Jew, it was Israel’s fault that you were murdered, and possibly your fault too for not trying to pass as a gentile, or avoiding synagogues, and Jewish shops and restaurants, or changing your name and ditching your kippah.
If you are a freethinker satirising Islam, you are a “this” and there is a “rationale” to your murder. If you are Jewish, you are a “that” and there is a “rationale” to your murders too. Most people in the rich world are not satirists or Jews. They are neither “this” nor “that”. Indeed most satirists, who boast of their iconoclasm, are very careful never to become a “this” or a “that”. For all their poses as courageous men and women who tell it like it is, they do not follow Hebdo and mock targets who might respond by shooting them dead.
Open-minded liberals thus found the lesson of the Hebdo attacks was clear and surprisingly reassuring: the only people in danger were a few satirists “who went too far” and Jews who carried a new version of their ancient curse. The rest of the West could find a modus vivendi, a chance for life in the midst of death. “OK,” they thought, “terrorists are really angry because of this and that. But we are neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’ and the Islamist ‘other’ won’t harm us.”
The comforting illusion did not last more than 10 months. As even Kerry acknowledged, the mass murders in Paris on November 13 showed that it was not just satirists or Jews in the firing line but everybody and anybody. Islamic State targeted young fans at a rock concert, diners eating at restaurants, and spectators at a football game.
I have written before that the period after 9/11 has been a strange and neurotic time in Europe and North America. On the one hand, everyone knew that a murderously reactionary ideology mandated vast slaughter. On the other, actual Islamist slaughters were rare. Until the two assaults on Paris this year, there were just two large attacks since 9/11 on the rich world: in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005. Fear of violence without the experience of violence produces the ideal conditions for appeasement. You can imagine your own deaths and the deaths of those you love. But death never comes. You are not provoked into retaliation, but instead are overwhelmed by the desire to avoid danger by excusing and indulging. No one in Pakistan or Nigeria could engage in the wishful thinking of John Kerry. Only the nervous peace of a phoney war could produce the thought that we could have it all ways. We could carry on being good liberals respecting the rights of women and homosexuals, believing in freedom of speech and of religion, while conceding miles of ground to men who were against every liberal and democratic principle we avowed. As much as the admirable and essential desire to prevent our fellow citizens suffering anti-Muslim bigotry, as much as the narcissistic desire to indulge in Western guilt, the basic desire to save our skins and calm our fears has shaped contemporary culture.
In her new book In Praise of Blasphemy: Why Charlie Hebdo is not Islamophobic, Caroline Fourest wanted to show how much ground we have conceded. Instead, the treatment of her work by the publishing industry shows how much has been lost. No Anglo-Saxon publisher would touch it, and only fear can explain the rejection letters. The author is not an unknown. Fourest is an established writer and one of the few French intellectuals prepared to think for herself rather than parrot a party line. She worked at Charlie Hebdo, so she can provide a first-hand account of its struggles and thinking. An English translator has done her proud. Her book has an endorsement from Salman Rushdie on its cover, which any publisher would kill for: “Now more than ever this is a vitally important book.”
So it is, and readable too. To top it all, Fourest was offering the English translation to publishers as IS was preparing to attack Paris. Its topicality was beyond doubt. Publishers normally want topical books, but their refusal to publish Fourest shows that you can be too topical, particularly if your topicality incites a paranoid fear in a publisher’s mind that men in balaclavas might burst into his offices. All the cries of “Je suis Charlie” have turned out to be so many lies, as they were always going to be. The murder of Charlie Hebdo’s journalists reinforced the silent determination of every editor and publisher in the West that Charlie was the last thing they were going to be.
In Praise of Blasphemy is now available as an ebook on Amazon. This is an important book because it goes to the heart of a distinction between anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia that hypocrites who pose as anti-racists and religious sectarians who want to protect their oppressive theology from criticism have deliberately blurred.
Anti-Muslim bigotry must be fought, as must the denial on the Right that anti-Muslim bigotry even exists. If contemporary culture just asked us to fight it, I would not have a difficulty. Instead, it asks us to bite our tongues and mute our criticism of religious belief or risk being accused of Islamophobia.
After Islamists murdered the staff of Charlie Hebdo, elements of the British and American intelligentsia sank lower than even the severest critics imagined possible as they failed to insist on the distinction. They talked as if the cartoonists were the real criminals and the Islamists their victims. I remember sitting at King’s College London and listening as an academic — not some spotty student with hormones for brains, but a tenured professor with pretensions to intellectual integrity — explained that a Hebdo cartoon of Boko Haram’s captured sex slaves demanding benefits was racist. I pointed out that it was perfectly obvious to anyone who could read French that Hebdo was satirising French conservatives so lost in racist fears they imagined enslaved Nigerian women were threatening to come to France and steal their taxes. He would not retract. Because Hebdo criticised religious extremism it had to be racist. No other explanation was acceptable to him or to most of the multicultural Left.
When PEN in New York honoured the surviving journalists, Francine Prose, a former president of PEN American Center, denounced it for feeding “cultural prejudices”. Peter Carey said that a free-speech organisation should not be “self-righteous” about journalists who were murdered for speaking freely. The late Gore Vidal said the three saddest words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates”. Oates proved him right when she joined other “dissenting” Anglo-Saxon authors in repeating the lie that Hebdo mocked black African women for being black African women.
Among the many virtues of Fourest’s book is that she identifies the compromises behind the smears. Charlie Hebdo was a part of an honourable strain on the Western Left which is all but dead now. It opposed racism and fundamentalism at the same time, and, as I am fond of saying, for the same reasons. Racism is a superstition. You judge a man or a woman on the colour of their skin or the country of their birth, and adjust your behaviour accordingly. Sectarian religion is a superstition. You judge a man or woman by whether they share your taboos. One might have thought that a liberal intelligentsia that is loud in its determination to fight bigotry and lachrymose in its sympathy for the demonised “other” would oppose religious prejudice and ally itself with its victims. But a stand on principle would make dangerous men “really angry because of this and that”, as John Kerry so ineptly explained. Better to avoid “this and that”. Better to cover your conscience by condemning all who condemn religious oppression as “racists” or the possessors of a pathological anti-Muslim phobia.
Fourest shows what an honourable Left looked like before the hypocrites took it over:
“By naming things wrongly we add to the misfortunes of the world,” wrote Albert Camus. And the word “Islamophobia” does precisely that. Peddling the idea that the struggle against fanaticism is a form of racism has created one of the most dangerous political and semantic confusions of our time. What exactly is the issue here? Semantically this word does not signify a “phobia” towards Muslims but towards Islam: “Islamophobia” and not “Muslim-phobia”. Some people use it in perfectly good faith and others in totally bad faith. The fundamentalists use it to condemn all criticism of Islam, its dogma or abuses as being “phobic”, therefore problematic. Anti-racists use the same term to signify phobia towards Muslims, thus playing into the hands of the fundamentalists.
To put it another way, if opposing “Islamophobia” meant arresting the men who attacked women in the street for wearing a hijab, or arguing with the loudmouth who said that all Muslims were potential terrorists, there would be no difficulty. None at all. But fighting Islamophobia has come to mean banning criticism of religious beliefs and myths, including those myths that incite oppression and murder.
You would never guess it from the hatred it inspired, but only 4 per cent of Hebdo covers featured Islam. The satirists’ stock targets were the French National Front and the Catholic Church. But, as Fourest says, how could Hebdo use a cover picture of the Pope when Islamists were threatening to impose religious law in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, or were beheading people in Syria? And, she might have also asked, where lay the bravery in savaging the beliefs of Catholics who would not murder you or anyone else while giving a pass to Islamists who would do both?
The cartoons themselves were mild by the savage standards of French satire. To take one example, intellectuals and journalists said during the Arab Spring that there was no need to worry because “moderate Islamists” would come to the fore. Charlie Hebdo replied by asking what moderate Sharia would look like: stoning to death using fair-trade rocks? A religious law authorising homosexuality but forcing gays to wear the veil? For that, its offices were firebombed.
Although Fourest has many criticisms of French intellectuals, she reserves a special scorn for Anglo-Saxon journalists. Fourest describes an encounter between her friend and ally Fiammetta Venner and a “particularly vehement” BBC presenter. The BBC man damned her for failing to respect the taboo on producing likenesses of Muhammad. Venner replied that if he was so keen on respecting everything that is prohibited by Islam then he should also remove all the crucifixes and pictures of Jesus in churches in England, given that Jesus is also considered a prophet of Islam and that according to the Koran the crucifixion never took place. “The presenter thought he’d found the way to keep the peace, namely by respecting the taboos of each community. There was just one detail he had forgotten: the beliefs of some are nearly always considered blasphemous by others.”
After the November attacks on Paris, I doubt that these attitudes can continue. Europe’s free pass from the global terror wars feels as if it has reached its expiry date. It is impossible to see the future, but the relative peace that produced appeasement has been broken twice in Paris alone in 2015. If the assaults continue, we should look back on the years after 9/11 with some shame. Western countries fought radical Islamists with the most advanced weapons systems the human race has invented. They broke human rights law and the rules of war with a prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. They engaged in torture to an extent that even hardened observers found shocking. But they would not fight the religious ideas that inspired their enemies for fear of seeming insensitive, Islamophobic or racist.
To duck arguments while starting wars was the most extraordinary inversion of priorities. Instead of encouraging Muslims to break with extremism, we left liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims isolated. We adopted the language of the extremists, and censored the very arguments they needed to use against fundamentalism. Instead of damning religious totalitarianism, we invented rationales that obscured rather than enlightened.
As John Kerry showed, anyone can play the game. You can say the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon were a rational response to American support for Saudi Arabia and Israel. If America wanted to be safe, it should stop supporting Saudi Arabia and Israel. The British Left claimed that the 7/7 attacks on London were a rational response to British involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t true: Mohammad Sidique Khan, the terrorist cell’s leader, was training in Islamist camps long before the Iraq war. Nevertheless, the point still held: you can suppose that Western foreign policy provides a “rationale” for Muslims who become terrorists. You can say, as John Kerry implied, that if Charlie Hebdo had steered clear of Islam, it would never have been bombed. You can say that Jews would not be targets if they renounced Judaism. You can say that Islamic State would not have attacked Paris if the French had stayed out of Syria. You can say that the existence of Israel explains Hamas. You can say that IS would not treat Yazidi women as sex slaves if they had embraced its version of Sunni Islam. You can say there is a rationale for the Iranian subjugation of its Sunni minority and the Saudi subjugation of its Shia minority, for both are potentially dangerous to their respective states. You can say that Muslim countries would not persecute homosexuals if they went straight, or order the death of apostates if they remained good Muslims. There is no limit to the number of reasons you can find. Every time you rationalise, however, you miss the obvious and ignore an often openly fascistic ideology whose appeal lies in its supernatural certainties and totalitarian promise of a new heaven on earth.
Every step you take explaining radical Islam away is apparently rational and liberal. Each takes you further from rationalism and liberalism. In your determination to see the other side’s point of view and to avoid making it “really angry about this or that”, you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries. As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable, you become a propagandist for the men you once opposed.