Charlie Hebdo's Sharp Editorial on Muslims Causes a Furore

The West's fear of being seen as Islamophobe undermines true secularism, says the satirical journal

A controversial editorial — in French and English — by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has caused a furore for its strong views; interestingly, the two pieces are not identical.

The French piece has been poorly translated, losing most of its tightness, punch and literary verve. But more importantly, significant lines have been amputated from the French text while a few incomprehensible lines have been added to the English version. Is this a case of lese majesté, incompetence or a desire by Charlie Hebdo to water down the editorial in English for fear of international opprobrium?

The article entitled How Did We End Up Here? (a more accurate translation would have been What The Fuck Am I Doing Here?) contends that it is western reluctance to criticise Islam for fear of being called Islamophobic, even racist, that has undermined true secularism or French laïcite, with its insistence on a total separation of Church and State, and led to the growth of extreme, fundamentalist terrorism in the name of Islam.

Most commentators have come down hard against Charlie Hebdo saying the satirical weekly has finally shown its true anti-Muslim colours. The editorial gives the example of several Muslims, all of them pious and observant but otherwise inoffensive and completely law abiding, who, by their insistence on publicly practising their religion (the traditional woman is veiled from head to toe; the devout Muslim baker, practising halal refuses to sell ham or rillettes sandwiches, while the scholar, Tariq Ramadan, asks western democracies to accept religious traditions imported by immigrant communities and refrain from criticising Islam) end up contributing to the retreat of secularism.

Ignoring the elephant in the room

You dare not tell the woman her veil bothers you, that it is a throwback to medieval times, an anachronism in a modern democratic state; you dare not tell the baker that in a secular republic he should not impose his religious beliefs on what food is sold in his shop and force his religious beliefs (literally) down your throat. For, says Charlie, if you call them out, you will be accused of Islamophobia and racism. And this retreat, the editorial argues, this attitude of ignoring the elephant in the room, that of growing, publicly exhibited religious fundamentalism, is what leads to three ignorant petty criminals planting bombs at Brussels airport. All these seemingly innocent people contribute in their own way to the terrorist construct as do all those who remain silent. “There is no terrorism possible without the existence of a generalised, silent fear”, Charlie says in the French original of its editorial.

Nigerian American writer Teju Cole in a Facebook post described the editorial as the final casting away of Charlie’s mask of “it’s satire and you don’t get it” to “clearly state that Muslims, all of them, no matter how integrated, are the enemy”. Describing the editorial as “the categorisation of an entire community as an insidious poison” he wrote: “it’s hard not to recall the vicious development of ‘the Jewish question’ in Europe and the horrifying persecution it resulted in. Charlie’s logic is frighteningly familiar: that there are no innocent Muslims, that ‘something must be done’ about these people, regardless of their likeability, their peacefulness or their personal repudiation of violence…”

Many newspapers and critics have quoted a somewhat convoluted line from the English version of the article, which is nowhere to be found in the French: “This is not to victimise Islam particularly. For it has no opponent. It is not Christianity, Hinduism, or Judaism that is balked by the imposition of this silence. It is the opponent (and protector) of them all. It is the very notion of the secular. It is secularism that is being forced into retreat.”

Ironically, Charlie Hebdo appears to be slamming the door after the horse has bolted. A discussion on the growing fundamentalist ferment in many of Europe’s immigrant, Muslim-dominated ghettos before the very first attacks by so-called Islamic terrorists in London, Madrid or Paris could have helped create a dialogue leading to a somewhat happier and less bloody outcome. Right now there is no silence. It has been shattered, and has been replaced by an ear-splitting cacophony of anti-islamic outpourings. To say that secularism is in retreat because the French are ashamed or fearful of being accused of racism or Islamophobia is sheer nonsense. Because France, like several European nations has turned very nastily Islamophobic. And it is open hatred, fear and hostility that are being expressed and not just by right wing extremist parties like the Front National. Even traditional right and centre-right voters see the Muslims as the enemy within, not to speak of former communists who are amongst the most virulent critics of immigrant Muslims.

In its editorial Charlie cites many contributory causes to terrorism and asks the reader to take his pick: from police incompetence, unbridled multiculturalism, unemployment, immigration, colonialism, urban ghettos or the financial crisis. It does not, however, include the unchecked Saudi export of radical Wahhabism or the fact that for over 70 years (since the infamous 1945 pact between President Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz) the West has mollycoddled the Saudis, ignoring Riyadh’s export of terrorism and jihadi ideology.

Be that as it may, Charlie’s editorial may be way off the point. But it throws up important questions: How could French or European secularism have been defended in the presence of such double standards – benign tolerance of an autocratic, cruel, regressive and fundamentalist monarch alongside the stringent imposition of laicité à la française? Would Charlie have us enact more draconian laws on the practice of religion in public life? Is it really impossible for different communities and cultures to live together? And if that were to be true, what happens to India?

In the wake of the Brussels attacks several Indian TV panellists smugly congratulated themselves saying “India is doing something right, because only 23 Indians have gone to Syria to fight,” blissfully ignoring the fact that Muslims are a part of India’s fabric and have been Indian ever since Arab traders first came to this country in the 8th century. The western experience with Islam on its soil is barely 65 years old with the first Muslim immigrants coming to man the post-War, Marshall Plan-fuelled industrial boom of the 50s. The tectonic plates are still colliding.

Charlie talks about the silence that accompanied the development of jihadist philosophy in the West. Is there a similar silence accompanying the rise of extremist Hindu fundamentalism in India?