Features » Politics And Society


Nausea in Paris

Why is Islamism not seen as right-wing extremism? Frederik Stjernfelt on the media reaction to the arson attack on Charlie Hebdo.

It is with an increasing feeling of queasiness that I have followed the incidents surrounding the Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo and its special issue on the sharia, which was inspired by the political developments in Libya and Tunisia.

Early in the morning of November 2nd a window was broken and a Molotov cocktail thrown into the premises of the magazine, which subsequently burned out. By sheer luck nobody was hurt. Disturbing voices and events have presented themselves in the wake of the expectedly strong reactions against this attack on free speech. The asylum offered to the publishers of Charlie Hebdo by the daily Libération initially constituted a encouraging event - one voice of support against threats to free speech.

But the larger picture looks more alarming. Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but it would not be far-fetched to assume that it is linked to the publication of the special issue published by Charia Hebdo on the day the attack took place. The incident therefore constitutes a radical resurgence of the religious curtailment of free speech - 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 fundamental legal fact in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man - after a protracted and bitter decade-long struggle between the radical Enlightenment on the one hand and the Catholic Church and French Absolutism on the other - a history rife with burning books, which prefigured the burning piles of Charlie Hebdo copies on Tuesday night.

More disquieting still is the fact that the religiously motivated arson attack on a building devoted to free speech occurred simultaneously with additional religious pressure. 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 currently showing on the other side of Paris at the Théatre de Ville. The production has become the target of repeated daily attacks from fundamentalist Christians, who enter the theatre and attempt to prevent the play from being performed. These protests are organised by infamous Catholic groupuscules such as "Renouveau Français" and "Civitas", which can be clearly identified as far-right extremists. But in this case there are no centre-left commentators defending Christian "sensibilities" against "Christianophobia". In fact, it is such a confusing situation that very few commentators have realised to what extent the continuous Islamist pressure against free speech belongs just as much to the far religious right as do these small Christian groups. Large sections of the political left fail to grasp the far-right nature of Islamist ideology, which directly and explicitly aims to roll back the standards of the Enlightenment in politics. 

Perhaps this intellectual failure stems from the fact that Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are archenemies, despite having so much in common. But there is no reason to assume that movements on the far right automatically like or even support one another. Instead, the particularities of far-right movements often make them natural enemies, not unlike French and German right-wing nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The same goes for the terrible terrorist attack in Norway by Anders Breivik this summer, who proudly displayed a homemade far-right ideology combining the notion of a crusade, dreams of the Knights Templar, and anti-Islam sentiment with the idea of European superiority and, of course, anti-liberalism. 

Democratic voices and Western political parties must realise that we are now in a new situation of acute overcrowding on the far right not seen since WWII, where extreme nationalism, neo-nazism, ethnopluralism, and racism compete with many brands of Christian and Islamist fundamentalisms.

The conflicts between such groups should no longer blind us to the fact that they constitute far-right movements in their deep resentment towards the Enlightenment, liberalism and human rights. So the predominant picture that has arisen out of the past weeks shows an upsurge of radical religious pressure dominating the public sphere in Paris, once the Enlightenment capital.  

Aggravating the nauseous feeling this engenders are the sickening voices that have risen above what ought to be a chorus of support for Charlie Hebdo. The deeds of the terrorists are being relativised, if not explained, excused, or even directly supported by commentators, which effectively constitutes an intellectual barrage of support asserting the right of the arsonists to do what they did. One example is Time Magazine, whose Paris correspondent Bruce Crumley wrote a long piece entitled "Firebombed French Paper is no Free Speech Martyr", sympathising 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." It is a trivial fact that not everybody agrees upon what is funny, and incredibly this is viewed as a fair reason for arson. I, for one, do not find Crumley's charcoal joke witty in the least. Does this imply that I am entitled to throw a Molotov cocktail into Crumley's office at Time? I suppose so, if we were to follow Crumley's appalling argumentation: "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 - publishing a joke and burning down a building - are given equal moral footing, apart from the merely conventional issue of legality.

Crumley fuels his burning passion against free speech by throwing in the worn-out allegory of shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre. The analogy is also completely false - the danger of shouting something like this is, of course, causing misinformed people to panic. However, the criminals and adamant believers do not constitute a stampeding, uncontrollable herd running for their lives. To the contrary, in the cases in which the details are known we are confronted with meticulous, cool, deliberate and skilled planning in support of a 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 a display of jokes or even attacks against Muslims. The issue was explicitly occasioned by the introduction of the sharia in the debates on the political futures of Libya and Tunisia. This is an important international issue and is an equally worthy 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 addresses the delicate question of whether a "soft" version of sharia is possible - a version, that is, which refrains from stoning women for adultery, killing homosexuals and apostates - and merely excludes human rights and suppresses women through inequalities in family and civil law. Are these policies compatible with democracy? These are some of the more pressing political issues of the day. Criticism and satire that target the political ideologies of Islamism form a natural part of such a debate, and these kinds of "attacks" are in no way attacks on Muslims per se, just as attacks on Angela Merkel's policies are not attacks on Germans and their "sensibilities".

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

This combination of whimpering, death threats and arson has been employed by fundamentalists for years, and not without effect. For now it seems that Charlie will survive the pressure. However, the flames of Paris are already in the process of consuming another victim, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, well-known for its publication of the Mohammed drawings in 2005, later taken as a 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 in reprinting Jyllands-Posten's drawings five years ago. The strange piece of text is almost contradictory in its high praise and its conclusion not to return this act of solidarity - as if the editorial was originally written with the purpose of explaining the printing rather than the omission of the drawings. Jyllands-Posten editor-in-chief Jørn Mikkelsen sat blushing and sweating through a Danish television appearance on November 6, unable to present a coherent stance. He claimed that to give in to violence only produces more violence - while at the same time trying to present his decision not to reprint the Charlie images as an attempt to find a new way of defending free speech! Suspicions mount that the editors are under pressure from their board not to print the images. In any case, the Danish paper's strange decision marks the final victory after years of violent pressure against the newspaper's right to practise free speech.

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 lashes, if you do not die from laughter!" before the sooty ruins of its premises. But not a single English or American news media ran the image, as far as a quick net survey shows. At the same time, new threats against Libération are trying to force the daily to stop protecting 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 off by defeatist intellectuals talking about "sensibilities" - is slowly eating away at the heart of open societies.


Frederik Stjernfelt is a professor at the Center for Semiotics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. He has published numerous books and essays on semiotics, the history of ideas and literary theory. He also works as a critic for the Copenhagen weekly
Weekenavisen and the magazine Kritik.

The article originally appeared in Jungle World on 10 November 2011.

Translation: ls - let's talk european