Review: Oh Charlie

Three years after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, it is not too soon for a frank analysis of what happened and what it meant. Officialdom’s immediate reaction to the murders of 12 people, including an editor and policeman, was to observe the rituals of mourning and free speech.

The Prime Minister read ghostwritten remarks calling press freedom a “cherished democratic principle”. TV networks mused over whether to broadcast Charlie cartoons: CBC French did, CBC English didn’t. The Parliamentary Press Gallery did not even mention Je suis Charlie at its first directors’ meeting after the shootings, instead debating how to hustle up corporate sponsors for its annual wine and cheese party.

Nobody asked if it could it happen here, because it already did. Tara Singh Hayer, editor of the nation’s largest Punjabi periodical, was assassinated in a $50,000 contract killing in 1998 in Surrey, B.C. Most young journalists have never heard of Hayer; fewer still have any emotional investment in press freedom whatsoever. The honest ones shrug and mutter, ‘I’m just trying to make a living.’

The University of Toronto Press wondered if we might try a little harder. The resulting After The Paris Attacks is a compilation of commentaries and thoughtful analyses from a March 9 campus conference. Organizers asked, what happened? And, what did it mean? The answers are compelling.

Charlie Hebdo is an unfunny, racist periodical sued 48 times in 22 years for defamation and hate speech. “Everyone agrees, including Charlie Hebdo, that its form of satire is offensive, rude and scurrilous,” writes Prof. Simone Chambers, director of the U of T’s Centre for Ethics; “The debate is not about the right to offend, which is largely unquestioned, but about the ethical choice to offend.”

Even this is not a capital offence, though it appears a uniquely European interpretation of journalism and good taste. Charlie Hebdo staffers aimed to provoke. In an odd epilogue, editors this month suspended a columnist who criticized Islamic fundamentalists. Charlie management declined interviews on the suspension. So much for free speech.

More interesting is the response to the shootings. “The assault quickly became elevated from a crime, or even an ordinary terrorist attack, into a symbolic attack against the French Republic itself,” says Mohammad Fadel, an associate professor in the U of T’s law faculty. Foreign heads of state attended a Paris memorial; Je suis Charlie was embraced by Twitter commentators as a summons against Muslims with guns.

Interesting, writes Fadel, but what would happen if it was a Christian gunman? What if the ideals under assault were multiculturalism, tolerance, and freedom of religion? Then what? Here the commentary is electric.

On July 22, 2011 Norwegian white supremacist Anders Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo and shot children at a Labour Party youth camp. Breivik tracked his 72 victims like a hunter potting game. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison, the maximum in Norway, and left a hate-filled manifesto.

“Despite the magnitude of the killing, it did not produce a sense of crisis, emergency, or self-criticism among liberal European or North American political and cultural elites,” Fadel writes. There was no gathering of world leaders. Nobody Tweeted Je sui multiculturalism. The Norwegian killer’s obvious political motives were dismissed as the product of a diseased mind, and not a reflection of the white Christian community per se.

“Breivik’s attack was not taken to represent anything other than himself,” says Fadel. “There were no massive international rallies in support of Breivik’s victims, nor did international leaders fly en masse to Oslo to mourn the victims as martyrs to a noble international ideal, like multicultural tolerance, for example. While numerous articles pointed out the role that organized anti-Islam advocacy groups, particularly in the United States, played in supplying Breivik with the ideas he used to fill his 1500-page manifesto, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, the media were not filled with hand-wringing about radicalization among young white men, nor was there a call to establish systematic surveillance of right-wing websites or intellectual networks, or to shut down their sources of funding.”

Fadel continues, “How can we account for the differences in the cultural treatment?” To ask the question is to answer it. The reaction to Charlie Hebdo was revealing, and disquieting. In France, in Norway, in Canada, it is as though officialdom “can never be sure of Muslims’ loyalty,” Fadel explains.

Now that’s free speech.

By Holly Doan

After The Paris Attacks, edited by Edward M. Iacobucci & Stephen J. Troope; University of Toronto Press; 256 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-30017; $23.00

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