Notes and Comment Blog

“The Muslim world was enraged”

May 10th, 2015 9:36 am | By

Ok now I’m curious enough about Rafia Zakaria to read her piece about Charlie Hebdo in Al Jazeera. It’s a relief that she does at least know how to adjust her style for a broader audience. The clarity is welcome.

She starts by summarizing the controversy, ending with a very odd description of its core event:

The question whether Charlie Hebdo needs to be valorized is contentious. It tragically lost eight staff members when gunmen affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Yemen stormed the magazine’s offices on Jan. 7.

Charlie “lost” eight staff members. So I guess when the gunmen stormed the offices, Charlie just somehow misplaced eight of its people and has never been able to find them? And that’s what all this is about?

What a weasel. Charlie didn’t “lose” any staff members. The Kouachi brothers, in masks and body armor, forced their way into the office and shot everyone they saw, killing eight people.

She’s a cowardly weasel about saying what happened to Charlie, but she makes up for it by being assertively blunt about the nature of Charlie – blunt but untruthful. She veils the truth and puts the untruth out into the glare of noon sunlight.

Those who are withdrawing from PEN’s gala support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish the material, but they argue that its racist and Islamophobic content should not be endorsed with an award.

She treats it as established fact that Charlie Hebdo has “racist and Islamophobic content” when she must be aware that that’s hotly contested.

The magazine has a history of singling out Muslims for jabs and ridicule.

Note the gross factual mistake, or pair of mistakes. CH doesn’t single out Muslims, and the jabs and ridicule are for the ideas and the bosses more than for “Muslims” in general.

Its editorial staff occupies a privileged position compared with that of European Muslims or Muslims in general, whom they have long targeted with irreverent satire.

Oh really? Muslims in general? So the staff occupies a privileged position compared with that of the rulers of Saudi Arabia for instance? Compared with that of the Saudi religious police? Compared with that of Daesh and Boko Haram? Privileged in what sense, privileged in relation to whom? In short, that’s bullshit; simplistic, self-pitying bullshit.

Over the years, PEN has done exemplary work in supporting and speaking out for persecuted writers. However, its award to Charlie Hebdo appears counterproductive to the ideal of literary truth by elevating Islamophobic and racist content that instead deserves condemnation. Although the magazine’s editors and cartoonists were victims of terrorism, their work reflected and fed into the collective sensibility that led to the mass slaughter of Muslims as a way to fight terrorism. I support freedom of speech, and I deplore the tragedy, but their work does not deserve honors.

Again – she’s just pretending it’s established fact that Charlie Hebdo is full of “Islamophobic and racist content” when that is at the very least contested.

Literary organizations such as PEN have often been too silent about Western interventions in the Muslim world and the mayhem they have caused. For example, while PEN regularly champions Muslim writers persecuted by foreign governments, it has rarely done this when Muslim writers are persecuted by the U.S government or its allies under its “war on terrorism.” Such silence or tacit support of U.S. foreign policy has led to the elevation of Islamophobia as an acceptable prejudice in the West.

She gives no examples. I would like to know what Muslim writers she has in mind.

And then she takes a turn for the completely disgusting.

Leading the countercharge in PEN’s defense is Rushdie. In 1988, when he published his fictional account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, “The Satanic Verses,” the Muslim world was enraged. Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accused him of blasphemy and issued a fatwa with death threats. More than 20 years later, Rushdie still enjoys worldwide acclaim.

Look at that. Look at it, and quail with disgust. For one thing, The Satanic Verses is not “his fictional account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad.” And then saying “the Muslim world was enraged” is completely ridiculous, and an insult to the very set of people she takes herself to be defending or justifying or speaking up for. It’s not the case that all Muslims were enraged.

And then, worst of all, is that glib callous brutal jump from Khomeini’s murderous fatwa to her apparent resentment that Rushdie still enjoys worldwide acclaim. I guess she wishes he were reviled and long-dead?

But it gets worse.

He has championed Charlie Hebdo. In addition to his comments on the authors behind the PEN boycott, he continues to castigate the writers who have raised objections about the award as “being in the enemy camp” and “fellow travelers” in the cause of Islamic jihad.

Rushdie’s accusations sound eerily similar to George W. Bush’s now famous mantra “You’re either with us or against us,” which has been a huge part of the U.S wars abroad. In March, on the 12th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, a report revealed that the conservatively estimated human cost of Washington’s military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to stand at 1.3 million people.

Yes really. She’s linking Rushdie to Bush (hey, even the names are similar) and thence to the body count of Bush’s war and the Islamist murder-campaigns. Really.

(Yes, Bush’s war created the vacuum that made the Islamist murder-campaigns possible. I’m not defending Bush’s stinking war.)

Questions about privilege and Islamophobia have been difficult to discuss in the U.S. literary sphere, not least because of the lack of diversity in this realm and the politics of the “war on terrorism.” While U.S. military interventions have altered the global view of Muslims for the worse, organizations such as PEN have remained silent. In this context, valorizing Charlie Hebdo’s pillorying of Muslims ignores the 1.3 million mostly Muslim casualties of U.S. operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Making jokes about Muslims and their identity in the aftermath of Washington’s wars serves only to reinforce the war’s propaganda.

What she seems to be doing here is conceptualizing Islam as just “Muslims” – and “Muslims” as all subalterns, parishioners, members, audience – ignoring imams and scholars, religious police and Islamist organizations, monarchs and dictators, madrassas and sharia courts. She is, in short, eliding the very existence of power relations within Islam, and of the millions of Muslims who are subject to theocratic power with no way of modifying or appealing it. What about the “identity” of the judge who sentenced Raif Badawi? What about the “identity” of the machete-wielders who murdered Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman? What about the “identity” of the heavily armed men who have enslaved thousands of Nigerian women and girls?

She doesn’t say.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Arnfred Olsen and G W Foote

May 9th, 2015 5:34 pm | By

One silver lining

Norway has scrapped its longstanding blasphemy law, meaning it is now legal to mock the beliefs of others, in a direct response to January’s brutal attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The proposal to rush through the change was made in February by Conservative MP Anders B. Werp and Progress Party MP Jan Arild Ellingsen, who argued that the law “underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to a special protection”.

“This is very unfortunate signal to send, and it is time that society clearly stands up for freedom of speech,” the two wrote in their proposal.

Quite right. To an American it seems strange to see a Conservative proposing it – conservatives here want to force their religion on everyone every chance they get. Or rather, some of them do, but the ones who don’t vote for the ones who do, because taxes, baby.

But the change will be largely symbolic.

The last time anyone was tried for blasphemy in Norway was back in 1933, when the writer Arnulf Overland was prosecuted for giving a lecture titled “Christianity, the tenth plague” to the Norwegian Students’ Society. He was acquitted.

The last time anyone was actually convicted was in 1912, when the journalist Arnfred Olsen was taken to court for an article criticising Christianity in the radical magazine Freethinkers.

Oh yes? Snap. G W Foote, The Freethinker:

Charles Bradlaugh, then the leader of the secularist movement, soon recognised Foote’s abilities and allowed him to play an increasingly important role in the British freeethought movement. Foote contributed many articles to Bradlaugh’s National Reformer and in 1876 founded his own magazine, The Secularist. This was followed by his major publishing success, The Freethinker, which began in 1881 and is still in existence today.

In 1882 Foote was charged with blasphemy for having published a number of biblical cartoons in The Freethinker. These had been modelled after a series of French cartoons that had appeared earlier.

Eerie, isn’t it.

And I have the honor of writing a column for that same The Freethinker. Last month’s was about Garry Trudeau and Charlie Hebdo.

After a series of trials Foote was found guilty in 1883 and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment by Justice North, a Catholic judge. (“The sentence is worthy of your creed,” Foote responded.)  The Freethinker carried the banner headline “Prosecuted for Blasphemy” during this period, probably increasing its sales.

Yes, persecution will do that.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: Zakaria is self-orientalized

May 9th, 2015 4:14 pm | By

Originally a comment by veil_of_ignorance on A sneer too many.

I have now read this obscurantist, condescending, self-indulgent essay several times, trying to find some sentence, which resolves its apparent, more than prominent contradictions.

Many other commenters have already pointed out that Zakaria never mentions Islamism, never speaks of the heterogeneity of opinion in the Muslim community regarding CH, regarding blasphemy, regarding religion and politics; instead she speaks of Muslim opinion and Muslim subjectivity as if there was only one. All while permanently lamenting the fact that Muslims are ‘otherized’ in Western society, i.e. viewed as monolithic group and represented in malevolent terms. The irony of this was of course not lost on me; and it struck me that ‘otherization’ is crucial for Zakaria’s argument. While she is certainly opposed to the malevolence against Muslims in Western society [let’s call it negative ‘negative otherization’], she fully buys into the [positive] ‘otherization’ of the ‘cultural studies’ variety, which is justified with the concepts of postmodern différence or contextual epistemology or contextual schemes or whatever. If you take away the idea of collective Muslim otherness and special treatment as a group, her essay would fall apart. Zakaria is self-orientalized.

Zakaria talks a lot about subjectivity and moral aversion/moral hurt (I see these terms as mutually redundant and also see a large congruence with Martha Nussbaum’s concept of moral disgust). She then uses the poststructuralist / postcolonialist commonplace that moral judgments – in these concepts the ones made by Western liberals regarding free speech, by Walzer regarding FGM and by Touraine regarding cultural rights – are always informed by subjective or cultural sensitivities and that our “universal moral values” are in consequence hegemonically Western. The main argument of the first half of the essay is then – in my view – that while Western liberals are allowed to present their “objective”, “rational” (a.k.a. subjective and affective) ideas about moral issues such as free speech, Muslims are not able to do so without being called irrational and illiberal.

A general critique of this idea was delivered elsewhere, e.g. by Jürgen Habermas in 1981. Specifically, the problem with the ‘Human rights / liberal ideas / universal values / objective ideas are imperialist/racist/hegemonic’ is that they are themselves based on universal normative sentiments (that imperialism, racism and hegemony are morally objectionable) and on objective truth claims and thus create a problem of self-reference. Why should I give a shit that Muslim subjectivity is branded as irrational while Western subjectivity is not? The answer to that question must necessarily be linked to some kind of universalized, moral “truth”.

While Walzer’s and Tourrain’s writing might be poisoned by the language of disgust, they provide arguments in the end. Walzer for instance invokes the harm principle (as Nussbaum did to contrast the morality of disgust). Zakaria on the other hand never even tries to argue beyond her call for the recognition of Muslim subjectivity.

The main point here is however, that even if Zakaria’s idea about the implicit subjectivity of moral statements would be true, the way that we treat Muslim interlocutors in this debate is not extraordinary all. Whenever we argue and strongly disagree with somebody, we tend to question their objectivity, the consistency of their ideas, and so on. The racist lady in the subway that Zakaria describes in the beginning was acting correctly according to her own subjective ideas (otherwise she simply would not have acted that way). When Zakaria criticizes the behavior of that lady, she deems the subjective opinion of that lady irrational. This is what happens in everyday discourse all the time – simple as that.

So when Zakaria laments that Muslims are treated like this, she is arguing in favor of a positive ‘othering’ – i.e. of a privileged treatment of Muslim subjectivity (the concept of which is absurd in itself) in discourse. Self-othering is central to Zakaria’s worldview. Accordingly, she is not even able to see this debate beyond the Hungtingtonian West vs. Muslim antagonism. She is not able to see Westerners and Muslims as heterogeneous political interlocutors who are defined by more than their religious identity. While she clearly realizes that the CH cartoonists and the many journalists in the MENA region were killed by the same political actors, she is unable to make a link between both because that would require a rearrangement of the political fault lines beyond her narrow conception of ‘otherized’ identity.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Which need trumps

May 9th, 2015 12:44 pm | By

Sometimes showing people the doors, showing them that the doors are not locked, that they can walk through them any time they like, can cause them pain. Sometimes people want security and enclosure so badly that they don’t want the doors to be open. They see us as violating their freedom to believe that there are no doors, by showing them so clearly where the doors are and how free of locks they are.

This is collateral damage. There is possible collateral damage with most things we can say and argue. Some people don’t want to hear that men are not the natural permanent superiors of women, or that white people are not the natural permanent superiors of everyone else. Some people don’t want to hear that their odds of winning the lottery are very low. Some people don’t want to hear that some other people think their favorite movie sucks. Some people don’t want to hear that the Tories won the election, and I don’t blame them.

But other people need to know the doors are there and unlocked, and the only way we can tell them that is by telling – potentially – everyone. We have to make it public, available knowledge. We have to accept the collateral damage.

The need to know how to escape trumps the need to believe there is no escape.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

We have to challenge the thrall

May 9th, 2015 11:57 am | By

The thoughts in the previous were prompted partly by reading Caroline Wyatt’s summing up of the Charlie Hebdo discussions at the BBC.

The deaths at the magazine prompted waves of soul-searching about free speech, and whether cartoons that deliberately set out to offend are worth defending – especially when they sought to mock and satirize a religion and a figure that so many hold dear.

That kind of claim prompts such thoughts. Yes, many hold their religion dear; yes, many hold particular figures – however long-dead – in their religion dear. Is that a reason to treat the religions and the figures as taboo? It can’t be, because that very holding dear is one of the mechanisms that keeps people in thrall to the religions and the figures. The thrall is a bad thrall. It could be a good thrall, in a different world – it could be one that motivates people to be more kind and generous and loving, and nothing else ever. But it isn’t. The thrall motivates people to feel rage at people who aren’t in thrall, for a start. It even motivates people to feel rage at people who are in thrall to a slightly different version of the figure, or a “wrong” descendant of the figure, or a different way of paying homage to the figure. We have to challenge the thrall.

Even the Pope weighed in that month, as he flew from Sri Lanka to the Philippines.

On the plane travelling with him, we watched transfixed as he responded to a journalist’s question about whether there were any limits to free speech.

Despite stating clearly and at some length that nobody should be murdered over what they thought or drew or wrote, Pope Francis had no doubt that there were limits.

Swinging his arm to demonstrate, he made clear that if his friend insulted what was most dear to him – his mother, for example – that friend could expect a punch.

It was not what many liberal fans of the Pontiff had expected.

Well that was silly of them, because the institution the pontiff is at the top of is in no way a liberal institution. Someone who climbs to the top of an illiberal institution is not very likely to be liberal, because the institution doesn’t reward liberality.

[T]his has been a testing week for those who care passionately about that debate, creating strange bedfellows in defence of free speech – or rather, the right to offend.

It even united the initiator of the controversial “draw the Prophet Mohammed” cartoon contest in Texas, where two gunmen were shot dead after opening fire on a security guard, with the rather more left-wing supporters of PEN, an organization that campaigns for freedom of speech for authors, writers and cartoonists wherever they may live and work.

No, it didn’t, really. We’re not united. Pamela Geller is what the addled protesters think Charlie Hebdo is. The protesters are wrong.

Before the 9/11 attacks, it is hard to imagine Texas having a “draw the Prophet Mohammed” contest.

And while few in the US will have much sympathy with the would-be killers, many ordinary people – religious or not – will be looking on in despair.

Because what is becoming clear is that the fundamentalism of this new generation of radical Islamists risks provoking an extreme reaction from some of those espousing the cause of unlimited freedom and liberty.

The danger is that tolerance and respect for our differences – and for each other – could be the loser; the very principles that many came to America and Europe to enjoy and uphold.

There are differences and then there are differences. Not all differences should be respected. The Texas shooters – and the Paris ones – were different; we don’t have to respect that difference.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

What shall we then do?

May 9th, 2015 11:00 am | By

So what are we supposed to do? If we accept the idea that challenging Islam inevitably means challenging the followers of Islam, i.e. Muslims, what are we to do about that? Stop challenging Islam, in order to avoid giving pain to Muslims or pleasure to people who like to bully Muslims?

The concern is a real one. It is of course true that challenges to a religion will give pain to some of its followers, assuming they are aware of them. We don’t know how large a fraction of those followers, or how severe the pain will be, but we can be reasonably sure neither number will be zero. It’s also true that challenges to a religion will give a nasty form of pleasure to people who like to bully its followers. Again we don’t know the numbers, but we know from observing people like Pamela Geller that they’re not zero.

So should we observer a precautionary principle, and just decide to refrain, to be on the safe side?

We could, but the trouble is, there’s harm in the other direction too. There’s harm in making a religion immune to challenges, because religions by their nature wield massive arbitrary unaccountable power over their followers. If nobody challenges a particular religion, its power becomes even more arbitrary and unaccountable. That power is most thoroughly exercised on its own followers.

Most religions are intended to be closed circles. It’s not supposed to be easy to leave; it’s supposed to be very difficult. Putting a religion beyond the reach of challenge makes it that much harder to leave; it also makes it harder to interpret in a liberal direction, or modify, or cherry-pick.

People who challenge religion can be a nuisance to religious believers but they – I mean we – can also be their allies. We’re on the outside showing them where the doors are and how easy it is to open them.

So I don’t think we do even devout followers of religions a real favor by refraining from challenging their religions.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A sneer too many

May 8th, 2015 5:47 pm | By

There’s another one. This article is much longer, and more “sophisticated” in what I think is a rather bogus way. What Rafia Zakaria says isn’t all wrong, by any means, but it’s…I don’t know what to call it. Academic, perhaps. Too sophisticated by half. Unfeeling. And, in places, just nasty.

My subject today is after all a philosophical one, dealing with my opposition to the PEN American Center’s decision to honor the French magazine Charlie Hebdo with the 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The star-studded gala, tickets to which cost more than a thousand dollars a person, took place on Tuesday evening, May 5, 2015. Thunderous standing ovations were given to the recipients. The fact that six writers and then eventually 145 others had objected to the granting of the award to a magazine that publishes Islamophobic content whetted the self-regard of the attendees. Their puffed presence at the gala stood for more than just literary renown or monetary privilege; it was a moral victory. It was they who really stood for freedom of speech, were truly sincere in their opposition to murder.

You’ll see what I mean, I think. The cold sneer is out of place. These were left-wing journalists discussing an anti-racism campaign in a shabby newspaper office; they were not her enemies. The two men who murdered them were not her friends. Her cold sneer is a sneer too many.

I believe the omission of the subjective and the sidelining of moral injury to Muslims as a result of Hebdo’s depictions of the Prophet reveal a double standard when set against examples of liberal moral outrage at certain practices found in the non-Western world. Judgment often exists at the intersection of reason and moral aversion; similar constructions by Western liberal theorists are permitted this hybrid, but not Muslims. Second, I believe that the application of this double standard and the valorization of Hebdo suggest an internationalization of the idea that freedom of expression is rooted in Western Enlightenment, and that all Muslims are opposed to the idea. Ironically, only Muslim extremists believe that Muslim authenticity lies in opposition to all that is Western.

Well I think it’s the opposite of that. I think the “valorization” of Hebdo suggests the belief that freedom of expression is a universal right and that far from all Muslims are opposed to the idea.

But I can’t do the whole thing. It’s too turgid, too long, too diffuse, too academic…much much too “sophisticated.”

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Satire and wit to demolish puffery and dogma

May 8th, 2015 12:49 pm | By

Stephen Eric Bronner, at the beginning of Reclaiming the Englightenment, talks about Horkheimer and Adorno and about the ethos of the Enlightenment and says that making sense of it

is impossible without recognizing what became a general stylistic commitment to clarity, communicability, and what rhetoricians term “plain speech.”

Horkheimer and Adorno thought they needed a very difficult style in their resistance to the culture industry.

Their esoteric and academic style is a far cry from that of Enlightenment intellectuals who debated first principles in public, who introduced freelance writing, who employed satire and wit to demolish puffery and dogma, and who were preoccupied with reaching a general audience of educated readers. [pp 8-9]

Who employed satire and wit to demolish puffery and dogma – that proud Enlightenment tradition.

We need to hang on to that, embrace it and cherish it, not revile it and reject it. It’s a heritage for everyone, and everyone needs it. The fanatics and theocrats are the ones who need it most.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Instead of listening to the minimally informed voice in your head

May 8th, 2015 11:29 am | By

There’s one compensation in all the stupid treacherous bullshit about Charlie Hebdo, and that is the discovery of new best friends. Mihir S Sharma is my new best friend for this morning. He has thoughts on The vanity of good souls:

I have already stated, in this column, my reasons for thinking that the highest duty of any writer – or indeed human being – is to refuse to ignore oppression and silencing, even if that silencing is ostensibly on behalf of a marginalised community. Without allies from outside, it is difficult for any stomped-on member of a community to escape. And the focus on that individual, instead of the community to which they are forced to belong by birth, is central to every progressive and humane development in the centuries since writers in France and Scotland created the Enlightenment out of little more than hope and anger. Everywhere the values of the Enlightenment are threatened, mocked and diluted – in our country not least. If you believe the values of the Enlightenment, which stress our common humanity and shared – but not communal – rights, are necessarily racist, European, or discriminatory, then naturally you will disagree with me. You are grievously and tragically wrong, but I cannot set you right in the 500 words remaining in this column.

Members of communities must always be able to escape. A community that locks all the doors is a bad community. A community has to be fully voluntary to be worth belonging to it. It’s much the same principle as that which says marriage should be chosen and not forced – what on earth can be the point of a form of “affection” or “loyalty” that is compelled?

I suppose an exception to that is the military, but then the military is an organization and an institution more than a community. The very word “community” is used to avoid the implications of force and institutionalization; communities are supposed to be cuddly and loving…which becomes a mockery when they are in fact coercive and harsh.

But what I can do is point out how, when it comes to honouring writers, the principle matters – but so does the text. I agree with the New York Six that even if you stand for free speech, you could still say that awarding racists is not necessary. You can defend them, protect them, march in their support. But you need not honour them. In matters of honour, the principle does not trump the example.

But the New York Six violate this, too. For they have indeed put a principle above the instance. The principle is anti-colonialism; and the instance is Charlie Hebdo, the anti-authoritarians. The Six have chosen to ignore a long history of provocation in order to focus on what they see as “selectively offensive material”.

Then he points out the facts. Charlie Hebdo is not lily-white, nor is it obsessed with Islam.

Third, French Muslims are not clinging to religion in the face of an oppressive state. Whatever their economic marginalisation, they are, in fact, the most rapidly secularising Muslim community in the world. According to one estimate, quoted by a Pew Survey, “the fraction of Muslims actively practicing their religion in France is only 10 per cent, which is very similar to that of practicing Catholics”. Eight of 10 French Muslims say they “want to adopt French customs”. Only as many French Muslims say they are French before being Muslim as American Christians say they are Christian before American. In other words, the New York Six have caricatured and patronised French Muslims, in a way Charlie Hebdo never did.

As we just saw that Jon Wiener did in the Nation, guessing at what French Muslims “must” feel about Charlie’s Mo cartoons.

Fourth, it would be wise to listen to the voices of France itself. Just because it is a Western country does not mean that the smug Anglo-American pretend-liberal can immediately understand it. Instead of listening to the minimally informed voice in your head, look instead to the anti-racism movement in France – and to men such as Dominique Sopo, the young president of the organisation SOS Racisme, who turned up to defend Charlie Hebdo at the PEN gala earlier this week. It was, he said, “the most anti-racist newspaper” in France … Every week in Charlie Hebdo – every week – half of it was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.” The magazine’s murdered editor, Charb, was about to publish a book attacking Muslim-hatred. (Read it, it’s awesome.) In fact, as Michael Moynihan pointed out on The Daily Beast, “when the shooting began, the Charlie Hebdo staff members were discussing their participation in an upcoming anti-racism conference”.

To choose to call these people racist, in the service of a half-formed anti-imperialist principle, shows the worst kind of Anglo-American arrogance.

The kind that already had a bad name from the early days of the fatwa, and is now even worse.

Political differences aside, this is what I say to the Six Authors in Search of Character: If you wish to slander the dead, it is your right. But you are a fool to do so. And far worse, you are unkind.

Let the final word go to Charlie Hebdo itself. On its latest cover, it gleefully makes the obvious pun – linking PEN, the organisation, to Le Pen, the racist family that runs the magazine’s favourite target, the National Front. Inside, Pierre Lancon – shot in the face in January – writes sadly of the New York Six: “It’s not their abstention that shocks me. It’s the nature of their arguments. That novelists of such quality … come to say so many misinformed stupidities in so few words, with all the vanity of good souls, is what saddens the reader in me.”

In me too also.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Goodbye George

May 8th, 2015 10:28 am | By

Wretched news on the UK election front, of course. The Tories got an actual god damn majority. All my UK friends are saying goodbye NHS. Miliband, Clegg and Farage have all resigned as party leaders.

The one silver lining is that George Galloway LOST to Naz Shah. The horrible Islamist bully from the “Respect” party lost to a Muslim woman from Labour.

Goodbye George. Become obscure.

Snaps from yesterday via Furqan Naeem:



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

He doubts, he imagines

May 8th, 2015 10:10 am | By

More provincial ignorant backstabbing from people on the left, this time Jon Wiener in the Nation replying to Katha Pollitt.

The headline is terrible, for a start.

Defend Charlie Hebdo’s Publishing Disgusting Cartoons About Muslims? Yes. Give Them an Award for It? No.

That’s probably an editor, because Wiener said “about Islam,” not Muslims. Bad editor. Bad headline.

It’s a simple distinction, but somehow it’s been overlooked by a lot of those who support the decision by PEN to give its “Freedom of Expression” award to Charlie Hebdo. Those who signed the protest against the award (I was one of them) agree that Charlie Hebdo had a right to publish cartoons about Islam, no matter how disgusting, and not be killed for doing it. The question is whether Charlie Hebdo should be given an award for publishing them.

I don’t think people did overlook that distinction. I think we understood that was what the anti-Charlie people were saying, and disagreed with them.

The issue is the cartoons. We are told we don’t understand them; Katha says they are really “indictments of the racist and anti-immigrant views of right-wing French politicians.” Others have said the cartoons “speak truth to power.”…

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Katha says, are really “the opposite of what they seem to American readers”; you have to be “immersed in French cartoon culture” to understand them. Maybe so—I’m certainly not.

So then maybe he should pay attention to people who are? Maybe he should stop trusting his gut reactions and listen to people who are immersed in French cartoon culture? Maybe he should grasp that the gut reactions of Americans who know nothing of French cartoon culture are not particularly useful or interesting?

No, apparently not, because he goes right ahead and insists on his own admittedly uninformed hunches.

Garry Trudeau and others criticized Charlie Hebdo for ridiculing the weak and the powerless in France today. In response, Katha argues that the cartoons in fact mock the powerful—fundamentalist Muslim authorities who oppress women. But take a look at those cartoons again; they’re not about defending Muslim women from fundamentalist imams; they are about “Mohammed” inviting anal sex. I doubt that secular or moderate French Muslim women would see these cartoons as representing their views or defending their position; I imagine it would have the opposite effect and draw them back into the fold to defend Islam.

So he apparently doesn’t even know enough about this to remember Zineb El Rhazoui. He thinks he gets to judge the cartoons without knowing anything about their context, and then surmise how “secular or moderate French Muslim women would see these cartoons” and then stab Charlie in the back based on that wild surmise.

And yes it’s true that Charlie Hebdo also ridiculed Christianity and Judaism. But they are not getting an award for ridiculing Christians—and PEN would never give them an award for having the courage to ridicule Jews.

Oh, maybe he did write that headline himself after all, given how easily and apparently unconsciously he shifts from ridiculing Christianity and Judaism to ridiculing Christians and Jews.

The left has to be able to think better than this.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A busy day for Ensaf

May 7th, 2015 5:48 pm | By


Justin Trudeau:

Justin Trudeau, MP @JustinTrudeau 7 hours ago
One year ago, #RaifBadawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison + 1,000 lashes by Saudi Arabian gov’t. @pmharper – it’s time to act. #FreeRaif

Il y a 1 an, #RaifBadawi était condamné à 10 ans de prison et 1 000 coups de fouet. @pmharper – il est temps d’agir. #libérerRaif

And news from Greystone Books:

Vancouver, BC – Greystone Books announces the acquisition of 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think (World, English language) by imprisoned Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi. The book gathers a selection of Badawi’s pivotal texts, in which he expresses his opinions on life in an autocratic-Islamic state under the Sharia and shares his perception of freedom of expression, human and civil rights, and tolerance. Badawi was imprisoned in 2012 for peacefully expressing his views on his blog.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of Badawi’s sentence of 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a fine of roughly $270,000 USD. Throughout the world, Amnesty International and other supporters are staging events and peaceful protests outside Saudi embassies.

Greystone’s publisher Rob Sanders says, “1000 Lashes is a resounding call to everyone who believes in the basic right of free speech. Greystone Books is proud to support Raif Badawi, his family, and people around the world who have taken up this important cause.”

Proceeds from the book will be donated to a non-profit organization in support of the author. Greystone will publish the book in July 2015. To learn more about Raif Badawi and the campaign to secure his release, visit

Also, #FreeRaif in Korea:

Also with MP Dr Amir Khadir:

And Luc Fortin – Député de Sherbrooke:

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: Those Who Say ‘We Cannot Poke Fun at Islam’ Don’t Get It

May 7th, 2015 5:03 pm | By

Guest post by Leo Igwe.

People across the world are slowly being coerced into treating Islam with ‘respect’ or, better, with fear. We are gradually getting to a point where criticising the Islamic faith is a form of death sentence.

The reason which some people give for this ugly development is that ‘Many people believe in Islam.’ They say: ‘There are over I billion muslims in the world’. And my question is: And so what? That billions of people, including children, youths, illiterates and semi illiterates, profess Islam or believe that something is true does not make it true, does it? Billions of people have held mistaken, absurd and irrational claims over the centuries and still do. Majority can carry the vote but not ‘the truth’

Personally I do not understand what ‘respecting’ religion or Islam in this case means.

If one does not profess a religion, how is one expected to respect it? If one has a different idea of a religion, what does respecting that faith mean? When people say one should respect a religion, do they mean one should embrace it? Or one should not question it? I guess they mean that nobody is expected to poke fun at that religion…or let us be specific, nobody is expected to cartoon or make caricature of Pr. Muhammad. Does that include those who do not profess Islam? Those who think Muhammad is not a prophet? Those who are of the view that Islam is founded on 7th century Arabian cultural mythologies?

The reason they give is that cartooning Muhammad is offensive to Muslims. What is interesting is that this time nobody bothers to find out which group of Muslims – the extremists or moderates – is being offended. Any one who tries doing today something that can be interpreted to be offensive to ‘Muslims’ may be killed. And to some people, this is justifiable. I mean, in which way is it justifiable to kill a human being for drawing Muhammad, for burning the Quran or for doing any thing that can be interpreted (most times by fanatics) as insulting Islam? How is drawing Muhammad an insult, a form of disrespect? If a person does not want to draw Muhammad out of faith, another person wants to do so out of curiosity or as an expression of art. What is wrong with that? Why should anybody be killed because of that?

For me this is arrant nonsense. This is lunacy masquerading as piety. This is barbarism being mistaken as civilisation. Why? Every religion is a caricature of other religions. Just try doing a reality check of religious teachings and you would find out that religious business thrives on absurdity, fantasy and contradiction. For instance, to believe that Jesus is the saviour of the world makes a caricature of the belief that Muhammad is the greatest prophet and vice versa. Believing that the Koran was revealed by God (Allah) ridicules the idea that the Bible is the word of God, and so on.

Actually all religions are in the business of making caricatures of themselves. So what is special about Islam in this case? What is special about Pr. Muhammad? What is special about the Quran? Islam is not the only religion in the world. Islam is not the first religion and will not be the last. Pr. Muhammad was not the first or the last prophet, though some Muslims would disagree. The Quran is not the only ‘holy’ book out there that thrives on treachery. The Quran is not the only ‘sacred text’ which humans finished writing at a time and later claimed it was revealed by Allah, just to make us believe what is written in it…even when some of the things contained in the text are not what a thinking and intelligent human being in this 21st century should believe.

More importantly, Christianity and Islam owe their growth and spread in Africa to poking fun at African traditional religious beliefs and practices. African traditionalists have not rioted or resorted to killing and burning embassies in protest because christian and islamic missionaries insulted their religion or made a caricature of their gods. I mean, making caricature of traditional religious ‘prophets’ and beliefs is the pastime of christian and islamic preachers and missionaries in the region. Just go to any of the churches and mosques in Nigeria or Malawi, Mali, Ghana or Senegal and listen to their pastors and Imams talk about traditional religious beliefs. Just try and listen to the sermons and preachings of people who are replacing a set of superstitions with another ridicule the ‘idols’ and ‘fetish gods’ which they say Africans worship. Many churches and mosques in Africa are built on traditional sacred sites, on the ashes of burnt sacred objects. Is that not desecration? Why has nobody categorised this as offensive? What muslim scholars, missionaries and their sympathizers in Africa and around the globe are telling Traditional Africans is this: ”We can make caricature of your religion, poke fun at your gods and prophets, burn and destroy your sacred sites and symbols, but if you dare poke fun at Islam, cartoon Pr. Mohammad, criticise or desecrate the Quran, we will kill you.

Personally I don’t get this. Yes I don’t. Do you?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: Simply the way of thinking of the Western tribe

May 7th, 2015 4:22 pm | By

Originally a comment by veil_of_ignorance on Myths about Charlie Hebdo.

There are quite a few voices from the Left who not only explain Islamism but who also downright justify it as the “will of the people” or voice of the marginalized. Irrespective of the fact that Islamism is as petty bourgeois as it can get. Beyond that, there are clear links between certain parts of the Left and Islamist organizations – Galloway is a good example, as is StopTheWar, as is Amnesty/CAGE.

On the other hand, progressive voices from the MENA region are oftentimes ignored or played down. The American Left’s solidarity with the Rojava cantons – one of the most impressive progressive projects in the last 20 years -, the PKK and the now staunchly feminist Abdullah Öcalan is for instance very limited to say the least.

I actually think that is circumstance – that parts of the Left ally with the Muslim Far-Right – is neither due to political pragmatism, nor due to a ideological or political misjudgement. The problem is rather that the identitarian Left – i.e. those lefties whose ideology is located at the boundary of postmodernism, post-colonialism, identity politics and cultural studies – share many ideological key concepts with the Far Right (not just the Muslim one but also the Western one). This includes cultural relativism, self-location in the anti-Enlightenment tradition, a mono-dimensional conception of national, religious or racial identity, a soft-spot for traditionalism and social conservatism (unless it’s in the West, see below), and a weakness for ethnopluralist thinking. In the view of the identitarian Left, left-wing ideology is simply the way of thinking of the Western tribe: this allows them to position themselves against the white reactionary but not the non-white reactionary without realizing the bigotry of this act.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Une fois de plus, bravo à #CharlieHebdo

May 7th, 2015 1:11 pm | By

Some more beautiful snaps from the PEN gala when Charlie accepted the award, via Alain Mabanckou on Twitter.

Alain Mabanckou @amabanckou · May 6
Une fois de plus, bravo à #CharlieHebdo : j’ai eu grand plaisir à présenter le prix Courage reçu à #NYC au #PENgala

[One more time, bravo to Charlie Hedo: I had the great pleasure of presenting the Courage prize, received in NYC at the #PENgala]

Embedded image permalink

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

What does it actually say?

May 7th, 2015 12:58 pm | By

The new Jesus and Mo.


The Patreon.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The outrage from the majority of the writing community has been unequivocal

May 7th, 2015 12:52 pm | By

The historian Amanda Foreman rebukes the calumnies against Charlie in a terrific op-ed on Charlie at the Wall Street Journal.

The heartfelt standing ovation for Gerard Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret—who accepted the Freedom of Expression Courage award on behalf of the magazine—had its own eloquence. Unusually, the many writers in the room didn’t need to say anything to make themselves heard. Simply being at the dinner was a statement, a Rubicon moment for those who believe that universal human rights is a cause worth dying for. Just as boycotting the awards has become the rallying event for those who believe that it comes second to other considerations.

I don’t much want to die for any cause, but if I had to that would be the one I would choose. Universal human rights, not local ones, not faith-based ones, not communal ones.

In the days since 204 writers including Peter Carey, Joyce Carol Oates and Francine Prose—roughly 5% of the membership—signed a letter outlining their objections to the award, criticism of their stance has been unending. From the liberal Nation to the conservative Weekly Standard, the outrage from the majority of the writing community has been unequivocal: Freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment, is a nonnegotiable right.

After the boycott began, it was met with a thorough demolishing of the claims by its supporters, especially the charge that Charlie Hebdo is racist. Whether through ignorance or malice, this self-appointed committee of public safety insinuated that the magazine’s writers had provoked their own murder by attacking Islam in general, and victimizing French Muslims in particular. Charlie Hebdo’s brand of humor, we were told, “intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”

That calumny has now been exposed as a lie in point-by-point repudiations by some of the most respected voices in France, including the author Bernard-Henri Lévy and Dominique Sopo, the head of SOS-Racisme. The facts are there for all to see, such as: the Hebdo staffers were murdered while planning a conference on antiracism, and only seven of 523 covers for the magazine in the past decade touched on Islam. The protesters can no longer peddle the libel that Charlie Hebdo is a modern-day equivalent of a Nazi propaganda sheet, as several have, including Deborah Eisenberg, whose letter to PEN asked whether it would next be “giving the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer.”

She goes on to tell an important story about the Dubrovnik conference, something I don’t recall being aware of before.

While denouncing the PEN boycott, Mr. Lévy referred to the “deplorable Congress of Dubrovnik of 1933, at which the predecessors of Peter Carey refused to take a position against the book-burnings in Germany.” The Dubrovnik conference, in what was then Yugoslavia, took place on May 10, 82 years ago.

The PEN president at the time, H.G. Wells, tried to maintain neutrality between those who wanted to speak out against Nazism and those who argued that politics had no place in a literary organization. His aim was defeated by the sole American delegate, Henry Seidel Canby, who forced through a resolution crafted by PEN America that restated PEN’s core mission as an advocacy organization.

Because of Canby’s courageous stand, the exiled German playwright Ernst Toller was able to make his own speech the following day—an impassioned plea on behalf of writers suffering Nazi persecution. The German delegation and others walked out. Toller’s speech persuaded the remaining delegates that the organization had to remold itself into the one we know today.

And who are the Nazi persecutors today? Not the staff of Charlie Hebdo, that’s for damn sure.

Like its 1933 counterpart, PEN today has decided it will not be neutral in the battle between free speech and the assassin’s veto. It may be that some members will never be fully comfortable with this decision. They should be let go without heartache or second-guessing. There are plenty of other organizations for which the dictates of personal taste, sensitivity and interpretation carry the day.

For those who believe in freedom of expression, the moment has come to make the choice between its defense or abandonment against a murderous movement that believes democratic values are subordinate to religious sensibilities. At the end of the evening on Tuesday, I spoke with Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo’s film critic. “There are just two options facing us all,” he said, “and we have to take a side.”

I’ve taken mine.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Myths about Charlie Hebdo

May 7th, 2015 12:40 pm | By

Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic writes about Charlie, with some useful information.

A subsidiary myth has grown up around Charlie Hebdo: that anti-Jewish hostility in its pages was forbidden. This false belief is offered as proof of the magazine’s “Islamophobic” tendencies (about the term “Islamophobia,” please read my interview with the prime minister of France, Manuel Valls).

This myth arose in part because of a controversy concerning the cartoonist known as Siné, who was fired from the magazine in 2008 after implying that the son of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy would “go a long way in life” after converting to Judaism. Critics of Charlie Hebdo point to this incident as proof thatCharlie Hebdo maintained a double standard when it came to Muslims: “Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column,” Garry Trudeau stated in his now-infamous anti-free-speech speech at the George Polk Awards ceremony in April. “Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another.”

I will put aside for now Trudeau’s dark insinuation about Jewish power—one that he embedded in a discussion concerning an extended terrorist siege that ended with the slaughter of four Jews of North African origin at a kosher supermarket—an example of Paris-style “Jewish privilege,” I suppose you could say.

Siné, of course, was not ridiculing a Jewish idea. Instead, he was deploying an anti-Jewish canard—that Jews maintain a protective cabal designed to advance each other’s interests—against an individual, living person. His comment was not a theological critique, but a libelous accusation. Siné was asked by the magazine’s editor to apologize to Sarkozy’s son, but he refused and was fired. (Siné, by the way, has described himself as a Jew-hater. “Yes, I am anti-Semitic and I am not scared to admit it,” he once said. “I want all Jews to live in fear, unless they are pro-Palestinian. Let them die.”)


Now there’s an example of speech that I would not like to see get an award from PEN. That right there – “I want all Jews to live in fear.” That’s a horrific thing to say.

Another myth: Charlie Hebdo is interested in advancing a “narrative” of “white privilege,” and therefore specializes in ridiculing powerless people.

The novelist Francine Prose, one of the writers protesting the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo, wrote recently that, “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.”

Prose’s coldness toward the victims of violence matches Trudeau’s. The 12 people killed at Charlie Hebdo were not extras in a George W. Bush-scripted imperialist narrative. They were human beings who were murdered because they offended the beliefs of theocratic fascists. It is not a narrative calumny to assert that white Europeans were killed by Muslim extremists at Charlie Hebdo’s offices on January 7. It is a sad fact. (It is also a sad fact that one of the Charlie Hebdo editorial staffers killed that day was a French citizen of Algerian extraction named Mustapha Ourrad. But I suppose acknowledging this fact would interfere with Francine Prose’s own narrative of majoritarian perfidy.)

And her own right-on-ness.

The power dynamic between the jihadists Said and Cherif Kouachi and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was quite unequal, but it did not tilt in the direction Trudeau believes it tilted. It was not the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who murdered the Kouachi brothers. Trudeau, and the critics of the PEN American Center and Charlie Hebdo, might not realize that they are captive of another, related myth: that terrorism is a weapon of the marginalized and the weak. Terrorism is most definitely not a weapon of the weak; it is a weapon used against the weak. The cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo never stood a chance against their killers.

It could be both. Terrorists do sometimes fight on the side of “the weak.” But when they have body armor and big guns and their targets have neither, yes, they definitely have armor and gun privilege.

One more myth concerns the way in which the Left understands Islamism. No fundamentalist interpretation of any religion deserves the protection and sympathy of progressives. Islamists—adherents of a politicized, radical strain of Islam—are misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-enlightenment, and possess no tolerance at all for members of religious groups whose beliefs conflict with their own. These are traits one traditionally associates with the far-right, but some on the left are happy to support Islamists—even Islamist terror groups—simply because they stand in opposition to the West. (Judith Butler, the Berkeley comparative-literature professor, famously described Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.”)

And there’s George Galloway. I hope he’s losing right now. The polls close in an hour and a half; I hope he loses.

In her anti-Charlie Hebdo op-ed, Francine Prose wrote, “Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.”

I hope that someone, someday, will explain to Francine Prose the work of Voltaire and Spinoza. I also hope that Garry Trudeau will one day understand that it is an act of bravery to write in opposition to religious fundamentalism in the face of fatal violence. And I’m glad that the PEN American Center has not capitulated under pressure.

I actually hope both of them learn better right now. I like the work of both of them, and have for a long time, and I would like to see them redeem themselves.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Town Hall next Monday

May 7th, 2015 12:01 pm | By

Hey all you Seattle and environs types – Jen McCreight is doing a talk at Town Hall next Monday.

What Makes Us Human: Decoding Our DNA

UW Science Now McCreight

(Why are those graphics always male? Do the artists not realize that the species is not all-male?)

What makes us human? Scientists and philosophers have been asking the question for years. This age-old query is also the subject of UW genome sciences student Jennifer McCreight’s research. She’ll compare the DNA of humans to chimpanzees, monkeys, and lemurs, sharing how genetic differences help paint a picture of how Homo sapiens walk, talk, and have larger brains.

That’s twice today that the word “lemur” has appeared here. Independently. What are the odds?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A conversation about the challenges to free expression

May 7th, 2015 11:07 am | By

Courtesy of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, the video of the forum on free expression and Charlie Hebdo on Tuesday morning.

Join us for a conversation about the challenges to free expression in France and Europe, the role of satire in open societies, the controversies that have surrounded Charlie Hebdo, and the tensions between respect for religious differences and protections for freedom of expression.

Charlie Hebdo’s recently appointed editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, and its film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, are visiting the United States for the first time since the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris, which killed eight of their co-workers and four others. On the evening of Tuesday, May 5, they will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Free Expression Courage Award at the PEN American Center’s annual Literary Gala in New York.

Panelists include the director of NYU’s Institute of French Studies, Ed BerensonCharlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gérard Biard; PEN Executive DirectorSuzanne Nossel; and Charlie Hebdo film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret. Journalist Maggy Donaldson will moderate.

Presented by the PEN American Center and NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

H/t Salty Current

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)