Commentary Magazine


Topic: blasphemy

Like It or Not, the New ‘Charlie’ Must Be Defended Without Caveats

The publication of the first post-massacre issue of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is a major event. But the new Charlie is provoking the same anger among Muslims as previous editions. By putting a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed on its cover, the surviving staff of the publication is making an important statement about the right to free speech. But the question facing us today is whether the West, which has rallied around Charlie in social media as well as on the streets of Paris, continue to defend it if Islamists resort to more violence, all committed in the name of preserving what they see as the honor of their faith. More to the point, will the intellectual elites who have tentatively embraced the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan continue to do so despite their qualms about its content or their discomfort about standing up to radical Muslims?

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The publication of the first post-massacre issue of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is a major event. But the new Charlie is provoking the same anger among Muslims as previous editions. By putting a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed on its cover, the surviving staff of the publication is making an important statement about the right to free speech. But the question facing us today is whether the West, which has rallied around Charlie in social media as well as on the streets of Paris, continue to defend it if Islamists resort to more violence, all committed in the name of preserving what they see as the honor of their faith. More to the point, will the intellectual elites who have tentatively embraced the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan continue to do so despite their qualms about its content or their discomfort about standing up to radical Muslims?

As David Brooks pointed out last week in his New York Times column, Charlie Hebdo is the sort of publication that if it had been put out by students on any American university campus, “it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds” before being shut down by the forces of political correctness. As he notes, the slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo journalists has caused many in the West to forget that they have been less than zealous in defending the rights of those who offend Muslims in the past. Indeed, since the Times is already reporting a new round of threats and anger emanating from the Muslim world about the new issue of the paper, we may be about to find out whether they are more serious about resisting a new drive to quash “blasphemy” about Islam than they were when Danish journalists or the producer of the film that supposedly provoked the 9/11/12 terror attack in Benghazi that took four American lives were in the cross-hairs of Islamists.

That is specifically why any further discussion of the sophomoric nature of Charlie Hebdo or the supposedly bad taste of a cartoon drawing of a historic religious figure is not only pointless but counter-productive.

Brooks may be right that in any civil society, pundits and writers can be loosely classified as denizens of the “adult’s table” where sages sit or of a “children’s table” were provocateurs and satirists dwell. That’s true even if the arbiter of the question of who is entitled sit with the adults—where Brooks and the other demigods of the Times op-ed page believe they belong—and who is a child may be a matter of opinion. But in a war of ideas in which Islamists are seeking to delegitimize anyone who offends them, that is a distinction without a difference.

Simply put, in the struggle to resist Islamist influence and its accompanying anti-Semitic hate, there are no adults and children. There are only those who are willing to tell Islamists upset about Western comments or pictures about their faith to like it or lump it and those who seek to appease or otherwise ignore the need to resist a hate movement.

Indeed, whatever one may think of the content of Charlie, which is characteristically long on silly satire and short on sober analysis, its surviving editors seem to have a better handle on how to deal with an Islamist movement that can claim tens if not hundreds of thousands of followers than President Obama or many of the inhabitants of the adult pundit table.

If, as Brooks rightly notes, teenagers who love to lampoon the beliefs of others eventually grow up and try to learn civility, the correct response to an attempt to suppress a certain kind of speech is an effort to ensure that this kind of speech is heard and read as much as possible. Indeed, what we ought to conclude from recent events is that a world in which it is not safe to publish Charlie Hebdo is also one in which no journalist—no matter how sagacious and measured they think themselves to be—is at risk as is every Jew whether they are ardent Zionists or not. The “offensive voices” as Brooks points out are not merely the exceptions that we must tolerate but are rather the canaries in the coalmine whose peril alerts us to our own danger. Any caveats or disclaimers thrown into a defense of their ability to work by government figures or journalists will only undermine those rights.

So whether we wish to embrace the “I am Charlie Hebdo” meme or not, let there be no doubt that the future of freedom is very much at stake in the survival of this French rag and the safety of its staff as Islamists make their threats. The sensibilities of the Muslim and Arab world are no more the concern of journalists than those of Jews or Christians. Any crack in the ranks of the defenders of free speech is the thin edge of the wedge for a victory by those who wish to stifle freedom.

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Turkish Pianist Sentenced for Blasphemy

Just over four months ago, President Obama stood beside Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and spoke warmly of the relations between the two countries and his personal friendship with Turkey’s leader. While they stood together, Erdoğan’s security forces were seizing yet another independent media company; it would soon be transferred to his political allies.

Alas, the situation is going from bad to worse in Turkey. From today’s Hürriyet Daily News:

World-renowned Turkish pianist Fazıl Say, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison for blasphemy in April, was again sentenced to 10 months by an Istanbul court today in a retrial. Say had received a suspended 10-month prison sentence on charges of “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of the society,” for re-tweeting several lines, which are attributed to poet Omar Khayyam… Say was convicted after tweeting the following lines: “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?”

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Just over four months ago, President Obama stood beside Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and spoke warmly of the relations between the two countries and his personal friendship with Turkey’s leader. While they stood together, Erdoğan’s security forces were seizing yet another independent media company; it would soon be transferred to his political allies.

Alas, the situation is going from bad to worse in Turkey. From today’s Hürriyet Daily News:

World-renowned Turkish pianist Fazıl Say, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison for blasphemy in April, was again sentenced to 10 months by an Istanbul court today in a retrial. Say had received a suspended 10-month prison sentence on charges of “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of the society,” for re-tweeting several lines, which are attributed to poet Omar Khayyam… Say was convicted after tweeting the following lines: “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?”

Perhaps senior diplomats—some former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and men like Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried, who downplayed Erdoğan’s Islamism and suggested his party was nothing more than the Turkish equivalent of a European Christian Democratic Party—might want to consider how they got Turkey so wrong. 

For Turkish liberals, businessmen, students, and secularists who are striving for a constitutional order where rule-of-law trumps any prime minister’s personal orders and an independent judiciary reigns supreme, the worst aspect of American behavior is that so many American figures are lending their endorsement not to Turkish-American relations but rather to Erdoğan’s agenda. Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, has made it clear that the Turkish government interprets membership in the Congressional Turkish Caucus as a sign of endorsement of Turkey’s anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-secularist, and anti-free speech agenda. And yet, despite everything, more than 130 members of Congress, continue to effectively endorse a government which engages in blasphemy trials with a frequency now rivaling Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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