Plenty of people are keen to point out that the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo contributed to their own deaths earlier this month when they were gunned down by two jihadists. Not that they are responsible for what happened, mind you. No, of course the murderers are responsible for their actions. Nor would we say they quite ‘brought it upon themselves’. I suppose, just that… well if they hadn’t published such gratuitously offensive cartoons they might be alive today.
The more I think about it, the more this observation seems so utterly trivial. Yes, the victims of the crime acted in a way that provided motive to their killers. It would have been astounding if they hadn’t.
What is going on here? Are we so accustomed to ‘random acts of terror’ that we jump at the chance to identify the non-random nature of this massacre? Are we so deeply impressed by the long-standing notion that ‘they hate us for who we are’, that we get excited when, for once, they clearly hate us for what we do? Better still, that they hate someone for something that I don’t particularly like either?
This is called having sympathy for the perpetrators. Of course we do not share the terrorists’ murderous intent and we must decry their despicable actions; this is not a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, so the best I can do is just sit back and helpfully point out that perhaps if they hadn’t been so gratuitous and offensive and blasphemous, well perhaps they would still be alive today?
As shocking as that may seem, it is not entirely unnatural or even unwarranted. The killers didn’t like their religion being mocked. Well, I don’t like my religion being mocked. The killers weren’t impressed by crude and offensive satire. Well, who is impressed by crude and offensive satire?
The commentary I’ve read seems to be divided into two camps: “I am Charlie Hebdo”, and “I most certainly am not Charlie Hebdo”. The reality is that most of us are not Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is an ideologically driven publication with extreme anti-religious and anti-establishment political views. Its staff were not merely satirists with a crude sense of humour, like an off-colour version of The Onion. They were left-wing radicals, of an ideological stripe once viewed with trepidation across Europe.
But to stand in solidarity with the victims of the massacre is to nonetheless recognise that some expressions of extreme ideology are more tolerable than others. We can tolerate nasty cartoons. We can’t tolerate massacres.
The distinction between tolerance and support may be lost on many who take up the “I am Charlie” theme and view recent events as a more generic conflict between terrorists and cartoonists. But the distinction is equally lost on those who feel compelled to point out instead that the massacre would never have happened if the magazine had not engaged in such puerile and offensive satire in the first place.
This is, I think, an instance of allowing disdain for Charlie Hebdo to override and distort the broader context. After all, though disdain for crude anti-religious satire brings us into sympathy with the perpetrators, this sympathy is incidental to their deeper ideological perspective. Some have charged that Charlie Hebdo was an agent provocateur. Yet this implies that provocation was the driving force behind these terrorist acts. It might be more accurate, given the nature of Salafi jihadism, to view Charlie Hebdo as the first target in a broader campaign to impose a Salafist ideology by force.
It has become something of a cliché in conservative circles to retort to outrageous and offensive critics of Christianity, “you would not dare to thus offend Islam”. Charlie Hebdo did not discriminate in its offensive anti-religious propaganda — yet now the response is “they brought it upon themselves”. One might be forgiven for thinking that some Christian critics of Charlie Hebdo perceive natural justice at work in the massacre.
Aside from pointing out cowardice and double-standards among certain critics of Christianity, there is something unworthy of Christian charity in the subtext, “You’re lucky we’re not the type to go around killing blasphemers!” Likewise, if our disdain for offensive satire causes us to turn a blind eye to the moral agency of the Salafi jihadists, then we are letting our sympathies rule not only our reason but our better nature.
Like it or not, offensive satire is part of the French political and journalistic landscape, while terror and massacres have not been for quite some time. There are excellent ethical bases for not intentionally offending the religious beliefs of others but invoking baneful consequences is the lowest of them. Using a massacre as an opportunity to vindicate a consequentialist position against blasphemy is a pretty dismal offering from conservative Christian quarters.
Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com.