The Left Grapples With Charlie Hebdo
While the civilized world has united in outrage over the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo and resolved to defend freedom of speech, unity has quickly broken down over whether doing so also requires endorsing the newsmagazine’s inflammatory cartoons—and sidelining concerns liberals previously raised about anti-Islamic bigotry.
Cultural conservatives in the United States may have had the most dramatic intramural confrontation. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue scolded the dead French cartoonists for "intolerance" while arguing that the U.S. Constitution was not “written to facilitate the right to … insult people of faith.” Donohue was soon harangued on-air by radio host Hugh Hewitt, who said that Donohue doesn’t understand the First Amendment. ”You provided propaganda,” he added, “to every single Islamist in the world.”
Donohue seems to have few vocal backers within the conservative movement, let alone the Christian community. Republicans who have in the past joined Donohue to oppose public displays of Christian desecration, such as Rudy Giuliani, are more focused on excoriating liberals for supposedly being soft on terrorism.
Meanwhile, on the left, a debate is simmering over the value of Charlie Hebdo’s controversial comics. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait kicked up much dust when he criticized media outlets for refusing to show the cartoons.
“The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism,” he wrote. “One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.”
This sparked a rebuttal from Glenn Greenwald, who made his case that one can easily defend one’s right to speak without endorsing the speech by publishing Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamic cartoons along with a slew of anti-Semitic cartoons.
Chait elaborated in response, summarizing New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat’s view that “Vulgar expression that would otherwise be unworthy of defense becomes worthy if it is made in defiance of violent threats.” Therefore, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are no longer on par with Greenwald’s examples of anti-Semitism “because nobody is murdering artists who publish anti-Semitic cartoons.”
Bill Maher went beyond the encouragement of sacrilege to criticize Islam itself, in the name of liberalism no less. During an interview on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live the day of the attack, Maher insisted, “I’m a proud liberal … It’s not my fault that the part of the world that is most against liberal principles is the Muslim part of the world … We have to stop saying, ‘Well, we should not insult a great religion’ … we should insult them.”
Two days later on his HBO show Real Time, he was even more denigrating of Islam: “When there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard.”
In regards to the debate over publishing the cartoons, Maher slammed the Financial Times, whose columnist Tony Barber said publication was “stupid” for “purport[ing] to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.” In Maher’s eyes, “to a coward, courage always looks like stupidity.”
Chait, like many conservatives, extended his criticism to the Obama administration for chiding Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish depictions of the Muslim prophet back in 2012, while defending its right to publish them. But he only argues that two-step leads to de facto censorship. Conservatives tend to go farther and blame Obama for showing weakness and encouraging terrorism.
This line of criticism ignores that the Obama administration’s posture regarding the cartoons is coupled with an aggressive surveillance and drone attack strategy, not to mention the war being waged against the Islamic State. In that context, the disapproving rhetoric is not appeasement, but a pragmatic tack designed to mitigate any blowback from the White House’s military and intelligence operations. The more our actions are seen as a literal “War on Islam,” the easier it will be for terrorist organizations to recruit and the harder it will be for America to sign up Muslim coalition partners to fight the Islamic State.
Neither Maher nor Chait, in their most recent comments, explored how their positions on the cartoons could affect the success of Obama’s military strategy. Maher has been all over the map in his views on surveillance and drone attacks and once called NSA defenders “useless Obama hacks.” His eagerness to slander Islam combined with his hesitancy to embrace a specific counterterrorism solution is the worst of both worlds: fanning the flames with no plan for putting them out.
On the other side of the leftist coin, Greenwald’s long-stated desire is for Obama not to have a military strategy to fight terrorism, though he often tries to avoid discussion of alternative counterterrorism strategies to keep the focus on civil liberties.
Defenders of free speech can make legitimate arguments on all sides as to the best way to protect it in the face of the Paris terrorist attack. And there is plenty of disagreement to go around regarding the proper use of military and surveillance techniques in counterterrorism operations. But these issues need to be debated in tandem if we are to produce a thoughtful and effective response. How we voice our cherished freedoms has an impact on how successful we will be in keeping them.