Charlie Hebdo & the importance of nuance

Paris unity march, 10th Jan 2015 Photo from

I’ve been thinking a lot about absolutes and nuance lately. Today marks one month since two brothers attacked the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and slaughtered twelve people, including four cartoonists, the editor and two policemen. Two days later, they were cornered by police, while their accomplice (who had killed a policewoman the previous day) took hostages and demanded their release. All three were shot dead, but not before four of the hostages had also been killed. Twenty people dead, three of whom won’t be much mourned (though some will no doubt hail them as “martyrs”), and for what? Because they didn’t like some cartoons.

That mentality is terrifying – that anyone could feel justified in committing such inhuman brutality over a cartoon they find offensive defies all reason and decency. It is tempting to think it all comes down to religious ideology, the warped and self-serving distortion of Islam akin to that of ISIS or Boko Haram (which was quietly massacring 2,000 people in Baga, Nigeria as the world was focusing on Paris). But to me, it is something deeper, more elementary and more general than that. It is a glorified bully mentality – the enforcing of your beliefs on others through violence or the threat of it. Their menace might be greatly enhanced by their numbers and weaponry, but it is still the mindless mentality of bullies and thugs, the egotistical and absolutist conviction that their viewpoint is the only valid one.

People are perfectly entitled to be offended by a cartoon of Muhammad, and even perhaps feel bullied themselves. We are all offended by something or other from time to time, but the vast majority of us can handle that offence without resorting to violence. We teach our children that to respond to insults with violence is a sign of weakness; to ignore and rise above a sign of strength, of maturity. As these men committed their vicious crimes to supposedly defend God from insult, they yelled ‘God is great’ in Arabic. If that is true, if God is great, surely he can take a joke, even a tasteless one, with the maturity of an adult rather than the spiteful violence of a petulant child.

All is Forgiven?

Nuance is lost on those who think in absolutes. Absolutism is easy. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to consider or respect the thoughts, opinions, beliefs and interests of others – especially those who disagree with ours. Once we take an absolute stand on anything – from religion to free speech – we refuse to listen, refuse to acknowledge other viewpoints, we refuse to think. We convince ourselves that we are all that matters. And that is always dangerous. To me, it is perhaps the greatest and most overriding challenge our societies face.

Image: Lucille Clerc

So I’ve been thinking in the month since the Charlie Hebdo massacre (and the Baga massacre) about the different responses there have been, and about how we should best respond to such crimes and the absolutist bully mentality behind them.

At first, there were understandably huge emotive responses, expressive of grief, of horror, of solidarity and of resilience: the millions who thronged the streets of France; the ubiquitous Je Suis Charlie memes and hashtags and placards; the many deeply moving tributes from cartoonists the world over; the reprinting of Charlie Hebdo cartoons by other media in defence of free press, free speech and free expression.

Charlie Hebdo’s own response – admirably – was to keep going, unbowed. Its so-called ‘survivors’ issue hit the newsstands in Ireland last week, the cover depicted a weeping Muhammad holding a Je Suis Charlie placard under the banner Tout Est Pardonné – All is Forgiven. For a magazine known for its broad lack of subtlety, it was quite a nuanced statement. It could be interpreted variously as a gesture of survival and fortitude; a poignant tribute from the remaining staff to their colleagues; a determination to continue to exercise their right to free expression; or a declaration that, despite their violence, the killers had failed to achieve their aims. It also perhaps suggested that the killers did not represent true Islam, had betrayed their faith, that Muhammad himself denounced their crimes and stood instead with their victims.

A cartoon by Makhlouf in Egyptian newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm. The Arabic caption reads: “In support of Charlie Hebdo.”

To many, it will be seen as a proud statement. To others, it will seem belligerently provocative, repeating the same offence that provoked the attack in the first place. Some Muslims will take it as offensive to them or to their faith. But however different people take it, they are all valid interpretations, all being subjective opinions that people are free to agree with or disagree with. Which is as it should be.

In an interview in last Saturday’s Irish Times (and opposite a report on Boko Haram’s own breed of absolutism), John Sweeney, who faced intimidation himself for investigating the Church of Scientology, said: “Along with the right to belief, there is also the right to be a sceptic, to be mocked, to scrutinise and to criticise.” Satire will always offend someone, but what is essential is that satire doesn’t offend for the sake of it. It’s not about insulting. It offends for a purpose – to provoke thought, debate, even change. “In the hands of the best comics, laughter… acquires a moral purpose,” Alain de Botton writes. “Jokes are a way… of creating a more equitable and saner world.” However else you interpret it, Charlie Hebdo‘s response to its violent loss was a statement of that purpose in the face of the unthinking absolutism that misses the point.

Absolutist views & nuanced alternatives

Other responses have been more uncompromising, even absolutist themselves, and in that they run the danger of entrenching divisions and perpetuating the conflicts. When right-wing pundits denounce the entire Islamic faith for the actions of a fraction of a miniscule fraction of the most unrepresentative elements of that faith, they encourage the same bigotry and division they say they are denouncing. When national leaders simply dismiss extremists with such superficial platitudes as “they hate our freedoms”, they ignore and neglect the essential deeper analysis needed to address extremism properly. And when the staunchest free-speech advocates fail to distinguish between a right and a duty, they end up undermining the very principles they are purporting to defend. When one absolutist viewpoint meets another, there is no hope of any resolution, no possibility of any true understanding.

It is heartening however to see that for all that uncompromising dogmatic rhetoric, there has also been a great deal of prudence and judiciousness, reason and sense. Nuance has found its way into the analysis, and alternative opinions have made themselves heard not just on the fringes but across the board.

While the attacks prompted plenty of Islamophobic kickbacks, there were many voices cautioning against such lazy prejudice. Twitter users lampooned the Fox News ‘expert’ who ‘mistakenly’ passed off the whole city of Birmingham as a “no-go area” for non-Muslims. Similarly, UKIP skipper Nigel Farage was deservedly taken to task by Prime Minister David Cameron for his craven, shameless and disingenuous attempt to point the finger at his personal bugbear of multiculturalism instead of at the murderers who pulled the triggers. And as millions declared Je Suis Charlie, there were others who, without disrespect, told why they were not Charlie, and still others who declared instead Je Suis Ahmed, in reference to Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman shot point blank in the street by one of the killers.


It was the response of Ahmed’s brother Malek that started me thinking about all of this, who highlighted the dangers of absolutism and challenged us to consider the nuance. In his press conference, he encapsulated every opposing facet of the atrocity. He embodied the victims and their families. He stood as a adherent of the Islamic faith but also an opponent of Islamist extremism. He spoke of his brother’s  commitment to the values of the French motto: liberté, egalité and fraternité, his brother whose job was to protect those who satirised his faith and their right to do that. And yet he also castigated those in the media and online who broadcast the video of his brother’s death, those whose absolute exercise of their right to free expression made a cavalier viral spectacle of his murder with little consideration for his family’s grief.

Malek Merabet: “Don’t tar everybody with the same brush… You are attacking people.” Image/video: The Guardian.

“How dare you take this video and broadcast it?” Malek Merabet said. “I heard his voice, I recognised him, I saw him being killed and I continue to hear him every day.” Who could argue with him?

This last point is crucial. Those who broadcast Ahmed’s killing may have considered it was their right to do so, but did that make it right to do so? Some commentators suggested that the media has a duty to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad, and accused those who didn’t of capitulating to the demands of the extremists. In their own absolutism, they fail to distinguish between capitulation and consideration, between censorship and sensitivity. Not publishing out of fear or surrender is one thing; choosing not to publish because you don’t see a reason or benefit in causing needless offence to other people is quite different. They might have the same outcome, but there is nuance in the motives and the context is crucial. In just the same way, there is a crucial distinction between publishing out of satire (the Charlie Hebdo rationale), publishing out of solidarity – and publishing out of spite. To some – to those determined to think in absolutes – they are the same because they look the same. They are not.

Free expression is essential to any democracy. But it is a right, not a duty, and it is important see the nuance, to distinguish between the two. The only duty with freedom of expression is to know how to use it responsibly and in consideration of others’ competing rights, and that may mean choosing not to exercise certain rights. We can stand for freedom of expression, but still be sensitive to others feelings. We can denounce religious extremism but remain respectful of other people’s religious beliefs. And we are fully entitled to choose not to publish material others might find offensive by the very same principle of free expression. When it came to the video of Ahmed Merabet’s murder, some media outlets (The Irish Times among them) placed a sense of decency and consideration ahead of their own right and  refused to share the video. As with any right, just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean we always should.

I can’t help thinking that the wisest and best response to the irrationality of absolutism might be encapsulated in France’s own national motto, in those values that Malek Merabat said his brother stood for: liberté, egalité and fraternité – the liberty of expression, the equality of all others, and the fraternity to consider and respect other people when we choose how to act. Unless we can be open-minded enough to consider the nuances, to look at and acknowledge other people’s viewpoints – even if we disagree entirely, even if we find them offensive – then this will continue to be a world of conflict and inequality.


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