On Wednesday, Jan. 7, terrorists attacked the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. These terrorists were angered by the disrespectful cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)* published by the magazine. This resulted in a global debate on free speech, with people tweeting and protesting in support of the magazine behind the banner “Je Suis Charlie,” which is French for “I am Charlie.”
Is the claim #JeSuisCharlie really what people should be advocating for?
On social media, some people took a different approach to the issue by using other slogans like #RespectforMuslims, and #IamNotCharlie, demonstrating other views as people began to question identifying with Charlie. Additionally, people tweeted with the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed in honor of the Muslim police officer who died protecting the Charlie Hebdo building. These hashtags advocated making the distinction between Muslims and extremists, recognizing that Muslims were also hurt in this controversy.
I will start by making it clear that I condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo, although I will not take responsibility for the actions of these terrorists, as they do not act on the principles of Islam.
As a Muslim, seeing that people are so fast to claim “I am Charlie” in defense of these cartoons of my beloved Prophet (pbuh) is frustrating. If I am true to the practices of my Prophet (pbuh), I only recall the story of how he visited his neighbor while she was ill even though she spent her days cursing him openly. All of the stories of the Prophet (pbuh) that I know stressed his kindness and compassion for others. Terrorists that claim killing staff members of Charlie Hebdo is in some way defending the honor of Islam do not have the slightest idea of what it means to be Muslim.
To claim “I am Charlie” is to identify with Charlie and oversimplify the situation instead of realizing the complexities of the thin line between freedom of speech and hateful speech. I see the double standards so heavily ingrained in the words “I am Charlie” as people point fingers at Muslims for being too sensitive and backward to appreciate a harmless satire. This so commonly painted picture of Muslims only adds to Islamophobia and the idea of a “Muslim other.”
As an American-born Muslim, I see this strong sense of Orientalism as a tale of the Muslim who cried blasphemy. In this tale, the simplistic Muslim cannot understand the beloved Western freedom of speech. Saying Charlie is the banner behind which freedom of speech should be upheld is largely a result of these ideas and not consistent with how Western onlookers usually see this type of expression.
Perceiving Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons similarly to anti-Semitic or racist depictions will help to combat Islamophobia. The magazine claims that the satire targets extremists, not Muslims. I would question what they view as hateful speech against moderate Muslims, as it’s the Prophet (pbuh) who is depicted, and he is a figure revered by all Muslims.
Charlie Hebdo stands as an institution that promotes the double standard of normalizing Islamophobia. In 2008, Affaire Siné drew a cartoon for Charlie Hebdo that was accused of being anti-Semitic. He was eventually fired by Charlie Hebdo editor Philippe Val. As Val stated, Sine’s cartoon and statements “could be interpreted as making a link between conversion to Judaism and social success.” Anti-Semitism calls for an apology, but promoting Islamophobia is freedom of speech.
To say “I am Charlie” creates the claim that in order for a society to truly have freedom of expression, even the most hateful speech must not only be tolerated, but also celebrated. Looking back, it seems, that the only way to truly progress is to move away from this double standard, and see Charlie Hebdo for what it is.
The perceptions of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo should be at the same level as any other stereotypical publication. It should be viewed on the same level as the anti-Semitic depictions of Jews throughout their history or blackface before the civil rights movement. These cartoons are propaganda and the acceptance of them as harmless acts of freedom of expression is ignoring the fact that, throughout history, progress away from hateful stereotypes comes with viewing these depictions as hateful speech. Whether or not people believe that the cartoons should still be allowed to be published, we can only move forward as a society by realizing the double standards ingrained in claiming “I am Charlie”.
I am a Muslim; I am not an extremist. I am progress; I am not Charlie.
*pbuh stands for “peace be upon him”
Rabab Jafri can be reached at email@example.com.