Glenn Greenwald Versus Charlie Hebdo: On the Wrong Side of Freedom

Glenn Greenwald Versus Charlie Hebdo: On the Wrong Side of Freedom
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There has been no shortage of morally obtuse responses to last week’ massacre in Paris in which twelve staffers of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were killed in retaliation against the magazine’s cartoons of Mohammed. On the right, Catholic League leader William Donohue’s asserted that the victims had brought it on themselves with their “narcissistic” exercise of freedom to offend and that Muslims were rightfully angry. On the left, a chorus that includes Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast, Max Fisher at Vox, and Jordan Weissmann at Slate has decried the unseemliness of “white men” mocking the “marginalized” and the powerless. But dubious pride of place in this parade of free speech naysayers belongs to an ostensible champion of civil liberties: constitutional attorney and journalist Glenn Greenwald, best known for assisting Edward Snowden’s disclosures of American national security surveillance. Writing in his magazine, The Intercept, Greenwald managed to use the tragedy as an occasion for West- and Israel-bashing—and to troll Charlie Hebdo supporters with vile anti-Semitic cartoons.

The point of this offering was not only to mock expressions of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo—Greenwald’s article was titled, “In Solidarity with a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons”—but to convict Western public opinion of double standards in the defense of outrageous speech. “Anti-Muslim” cartoons are celebrated in the name of free expression; cartoons of repulsive, diabolical Jews manipulating politicians and the media and oppressing the masses are abhorred.

So trafficking in bigoted stereotypes of a group is equivalent to poking fun at a religion? For Greenwald, evidently so. In the same vein, he approvingly reproduces a Brazilian artist’s cartoon which indicts the alleged hypocrisy of Westerners who deplore mockery of the Holocaust but laugh at mockery of Mohammed.

Along the way, Greenwald casually smears Charlie Hebdo as racist (misrepresenting a much-maligned cover depicting Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens, which actually mocked immigrant-bashing far-right politicians). He also pooh-poohs claims that the magazine was an equal-opportunity offender: “Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do … the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims.” But Greenwald’s links lead to pro-Israel statements by Maher and Harris. That proves exactly nothing about Charlie Hebdo—which, according to left-wing French journalist Olivier Tonneau, “took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza.” Greenwald’s final proof of the magazine’s deference to Jews is that a few years ago, one of its columnists was fired for what many saw as anti-Semitic jibes about Jean Sarkozy, son of then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, getting engaged to a Jewish heiress.

Even as he complains about “anti-Islam obsessives,” Greenwald keeps turning the subject back to Israel and Jews, neither of which had any ostensible link to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Provocative cartoons? Western cartoonists, Greenwald asserts, would never dare mock Jews or Judaism. (Never mind that major European newspapers have run nasty anti-Israel cartoons which some Jewish groups have criticized as crossing the line into anti-Semitism.) Threats to free speech in general? None greater, says Greenwald, than the taboo on criticism of Israel in the United States. Not that you’d notice such a taboo reading the opinion pages of The New York Times, where just the other day an Israeli man wrote about refusing to serve in the army and where last month journalist Max Blumenthal argued that anti-Arab racists represent Israel’s true soul.

It is true, of course, that unpopular opinions are often stigmatized and that social pressure can chill speech, especially if it threatens careers and livelihoods. (It’s also true that anti-Israel opinion in the United States has to be pretty extreme for such pressures to kick in: one of Greenwald’s examples, the withdrawal of a university job offer to Professor Stephen Salaita last year, involved tweets that effectively endorsed deadly violence against Israelis and Israel supporters.) But informal censorship by social pressure, however troubling, remains a far lesser danger to free expression than the use of violence—by governments or by terrorists—to stop undesirable speech and silence the speakers.

Today, radical Islamism is a major driving force behind such extreme forms of speech suppression. The Charlie Hebdo massacre is a stark reminder of this reality; so is the horrific punishment meted out in Saudi Arabia to Raif Badawi, a liberal blogger sentenced to prison and repeated floggings for insulting Islam. One would think that any advocate of civil liberties would be concerned about this danger. But to Greenwald, all concerns about radical Islamism are merely a smokescreen for the West’s alleged relentless war on Muslims.

And there is another telling detail. At one point, Greenwald correctly asserts that Muslim extremists have no monopoly on violent responses to offenses against religious sensibilities. As evidence, he cites a couple of cancellations—one of them promptly reversed—of American productions Terrence McNally’s play about a gay Jesus, “Corpus Christi,” because of bomb threats. Yet there is a far stronger example: Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where three young women from the Pussy Riot punk activist group were jailed in 2012 for a protest performance in a church. What’s more, in recent years, violence by Russian Orthodox vigilantes—from vandalism of “blasphemous” art to beatings of gays and assaults on Pussy Riot supporters—has been occurring with disturbing frequency and impunity. While none of this even comes close to the level of religious repression in Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Pakistan, it is still a stark example of state-sanctioned faith-based coercion under the color of Christianity.

But this goes unmentioned by Greenwald, who in the past has whitewashed the Kremlin’s suppression of dissent in the Russian media. Apparently, it’s strictly “see no evil” when it comes to anti-American movements or anti-American regimes.

Greenwald’s agenda does not invalidate Snowden’s disclosures, which raise troubling questions about acceptable levels of domestic snooping by United States intelligence and about accountability and oversight. Yes, we should be concerned about the national security state’s impact on our liberties. But with friends like Greenwald, liberty needs better friends. 

Cathy Young writes a semi-regular column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at

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