Why are we all Charlie

Debate “Je suis Charlie”: No, we are not “Charlie Hebdo” ...

… And that's exactly the problem. A proposal for real freedom of expression while self-censorship takes hold.

Since the attack, millions of people have shown their solidarity with the sign saying “Je suis Charlie”. Image: Reuters

The tragic terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is scary in many ways. As after the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 or after September 11th, politicians are again using the Paris attacks to boast of their perfect democracy and free society and to emphasize that terror has nothing to do with Islam but only with sick individuals who instrumentalize religion as an excuse for their extreme ideas.

Citizens post expressions of solidarity on social media Charlie Hebdo, before being distracted by a video of a squirrel water-skiing or a cat playing the piano. In this way, they too become victims of the day.

Facebook and Twitter overflow with statements like “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) and “We are all Charlie”. No, unfortunately we are not. With a few exceptions, we're not Charlie. That's the problem. Let me give you three reasons why most of us are not Charlie.

criticized all religions and all politicians

First, most are defenders of Charlie Hebdo very new and selective fans of this satirical magazine. It's amazing how many Islamophobic and right-wing extremists are now declaring their love for a magazine that they recently thought was a communist bullshit (for example after the biting ridicule it poured out on their heroes: from Christ to Marine Le Pen. ) Like for example the heroic defender of freedom of expression Geert Wilders, who wants to have the Koran banned because it calls for violence.

Most people aren't Charlie because Charlie Hebdo criticized all religions and all politicians, regardless of race, gender or ideology. Hence became Charlie Hebdo also criticized by all politicians and parties, albeit only physically attacked by radical Islamists. This fact must not be ignored.

This does not mean that only radical Islamists attack their critics; two French members of the Jewish Defense League were recently convicted of placing a bomb on an anti-Zionist journalist's car. Even so, the uncomfortable truth remains that the majority of attacks are currently being committed by Islamists. This is not Islam's fault, because 99.9 percent of all Muslims are peaceful; Nevertheless, Islam plays a role.

Second, many are not Charlie because they think that democratic debates "should be conducted in a civilized manner and should not annoy anyone". The problem is that "civilization" is slippery terrain that means very different things to people. People can get upset about anything, why should religious sensitivity enjoy special protection? Who says that anyway Charlie Hebdos Criticism of Islam (ism) upset religious Muslims more than criticism of a football club hurts its die-hard fan?

Self-censorship is becoming more and more the norm

In addition, civilization has always been defined along the lines of the interests of the political establishment. Hence, this argument is almost always used opportunistically and selectively. Certain groups are protected from uncivilized discussion, others are not. In the long run, this hurts not only the critics, but also the uncritical. After all, you keep the opportunity to think about yourself and learn something new.

Third, many aren't Charlie because they're scared. Very many would never dare public criticism, at least not of relatively powerful people. But even among professional critics like comedians or intellectuals, self-censorship is becoming more and more the norm. Many treat Jews and Israel more cautiously than other groups and states because they fear sanctions. Equally worrying is the growing group of comedians, satirists and intellectuals who censor themselves about Muslims and Islam.

A few years ago Dutch intellectuals told me in confidence that they had stopped criticizing Islam (ism) out of fear for themselves and their families. Even a “fearless” satirist like Stephen Colbert does not show caricatures of Mohammed or other images that attack Muslims on his television show. Although he makes fun of his fear, he ends up censoring himself as well.

And when courageous souls dare to treat Islam (ism) satirically, they are often called back by their employers - “South Parks” Mohammed episode, for example, was censored countless times by Comedy Central!

Convenient and politically opportune

Of course, there are structural explanations for the high levels of anger and frustration faced by radical Muslims in Europe, as well as for the fact that some threaten or become violent. Nobody can excuse violent acts in democracies. Still, we can learn something from them.

It is convenient and politically opportune to claim that “we” have been “attacked” because “they” cannot handle “our freedom”, especially freedom of expression. Politicians preach “that Muslims have to deal with it”, that they “now live in a society in which everything can be criticized”. They refer to criticism of Christians and Christianity (also from the 1960s and 1970s). This is naive at best, insincere at worst.

Because often "acceptable" criticism of Islam and Muslims is considered unacceptable and illegal (!). Just replace “Muslims” with “Jews” or “Blacks” and consider when you think the criticism is appropriate. Many Muslims also consider freedom of expression to be just a lazy excuse. This has to do with the perception of European Muslims as powerless.

Some find that Muslims are discriminated against because they have no representative in the political system. Occasionally they also point to Jews and their success in suppressing anti-Semitic statements more effectively. And find that Muslims depend on the sympathy of non-Muslim elites, who are largely arbitrary in their support (including those of the left).

You are us

It should be reiterated that none of these explanations can justify the violence. Nevertheless, they have a factual basis.

If “we” expect “them” to respect freedom of expression, then this must either apply totally, or all sections of the population must be protected equally (which is not possible).

If “we” want “them” to accept democratic rules, then we have to accept “them” as citizens of equal value. Too often Islam or Muslims are treated as foreign and associated with migration or foreign countries and regions. But the majority of Muslims in European countries were born and socialized in Europe. In other words, you are us. Just as they have to deal with living in “our country”, we have to deal with the fact that it is also “their” country.

So how do we carry on in a productive way, how do we strengthen our democracies instead of weakening them with authoritarian, reflexive reactions? Instead of restricting freedom of expression by restricting "civilized" speech or by expanding anti-discrimination laws, we should live up to our slogans and actually live freedom of expression for everyone - it also applies to anti-Semites and Islam-haters.

We should criticize and make fun of everyone, from atheists to Christians, from Jews to Muslims, from the Greens to the radical right. This requires not only that we speak out against extremists, but also that we defend those who attack them - before they are threatened or killed.

The text first appeared in the web magazine openDemocracy. Translation from English: Ines Kappert