“What I’m about to say is maybe a little pompous but I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.”
— Stéphane Charbonnier (a.k.a. Charb), Editor of Charlie Hebdo, Interview with Le Monde, September 20, 2012
Just over two years after making that statement, Charb would be murdered along with 11 other people by the Kouachi brothers at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in what was France’s deadliest terrorist attack in decades until the ISIS attacks in Paris just 10 months later. Of the dozen killed that day, eight were members of the Charlie Hebdo staff.
Within hours of the attack, Twitter went alight with the meme #JeSuisCharlie and rallies would be held all over the world (including one I attended here in Boston and wrote about in this dispatch). The largest rally, of course, took place in Paris that was attended by an estimated 2 million people including many world leaders with the notable absence of President Obama or any of his cabinet members. More on this later.
A week after the attacks, Charlie Hebdo came out with a commemorative issue featuring Mohammed holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign with the caption reading, “Tout est Pardonné” (“All is forgiven”.) Charlie Hebdo, which in a normal week printed 60,000 issues, published nearly 8 million copies in six languages. Freedom of speech had prevailed. Or so it seemed.
At the beginning of 2015, less than a week before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi caused a stir when he called for “a religious revolution” within Islam. President al-Sisi declared, “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? This umma (Islamic world) is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.” Yet scarcely two weeks after his speech, al-Sisi saw fit to ban any foreign publication considered offensive to Islam. This meant Charlie Hebdo. President al-Sisi chose to live on his knees. So much for that religious revolution.
While perhaps it was lot to expect Egypt to freely disseminate issues of Charlie Hebdo, one would think a fellow cartoonist would have greater sympathy. However, this was not the case with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. During a speech at Long Island University where he was being honored with the George Polk Career Award (in honor of a journalist who died because he exercised his freedom of speech) he blasted Charlie Hebdo for “punching down”:
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila — the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.
Well, 89 people were murdered at a Paris concert hall for an evening of music. ISIS would describe those present at the Bataclan last November as “hundreds of apostates (who) had gathered in a profligate prostitution and obscenity.” If Trudeau believes that the Charlie Hebdo cover was a provocation for Muslim violence, then surely so was the Eagles of Death concert. If we take Trudeau’s argument to its logical conclusion, an argument can be made that we ought to ban music (as the regime has done in Iran) because it too is hate speech and a form of “punching down.” But by doing so we would be effectively surrendering our values out of fear and thereby submitting to Sharia law. To do so would be to live on our knees.
Some of America and the West’s most prominent writers also proclaimed that it is easier to live life on one’s knees. Writers such as Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Ondaatje took issue with PEN America’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo last April and signed an open letter to that effect. Echoing Trudeau’s “punching down” critique, the letter argued, “Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire.” Arguing that France’s Muslims are “already marginalized, embattled, and victimized,” the letter makes the case that Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cartoons “must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”
What an utter load of rubbish!!! I very highly doubt that any of the writers who objected to PEN America honoring Charlie Hebdo have ever had a moment’s misgiving about “punching down” on white, Evangelical Christians who bitterly cling to their religion and their guns. At least Salman Rushdie still refuses to live on his knees. Rushdie, who was forced to live in hiding following the publication of The Satanic Verses the late 1980s, blasted the writers who criticized the honor for Charlie Hebdo by calling them “pussies.” Rushdie went on to call these writers fellow travelers” of a “fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well-funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” To PEN America’s credit, it was undeterred and honored Charlie Hebdo as planned.
This country very nearly had its own Charlie Hebdo attack in May 2015. As with Charlie Hebdo, two Islamist gunmen set upon the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland, Texas with the intent of committing murder and mayhem. Instead, the two perpetrators were confronted by a good guy with a gun and were the only casualties.
Yet in the aftermath of Garland, most of the ire was directed at exhibit organizer Pamela Geller, not the perpetrators. While much of the ire came from the familiar left-wing precincts, perhaps the harshest critic of Geller was none other than Donald Trump. It seems hard to believe now with Trump being at the forefront of the Muslim immigration and travel ban. But when he appeared on Fox & Friends last spring, Trump blasted Geller for “taunting” Muslims:
What are they doing drawing Muhammad? Isn’t there something else they can draw? They can’t do something else? They have to be in the middle of Texas and on Muhammad?
In all honesty, it’s pretty hard to tell Donald Trump and Garry Trudeau apart here. I hate to break it to Trump supporters, but when he had a choice between standing up for freedom of speech and being Sharia compliant, he chose to live on his knees.
Of course, there are some figures who have spent their entire careers on their knees. Hello, Secretary of State John Kerry. After the Paris attacks in November, Kerry spoke to U.S. Embassy staff and excreted the following:
There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was sort of a particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of — not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people.
I’m sure Kerry’s words are tremendous comfort to the families of the Charlie Hebdo staff, the police officers and maintenance man who died on January 7, 2015. I’m sure they are glad to know that there was a rationale, if not a legitimacy, to their killers’ anger. Does Kerry honestly think those who died at Charlie Hebdo headquarters were any less terrorized than those who perished in Paris 10 months later? The fact that Kerry thinks there was a rationale to the deaths at Charlie Hebdo goes a long way in explaining why neither Kerry, President Obama, nor any cabinet member saw fit to be present at the Paris solidarity rally. Their absence confirmed not only their contempt for Charlie Hebdo, but their contempt for freedom of speech. They truly believe that this century does not belong to those who insult Muhammad much less those who believe in the First Amendment. It appears this century belongs to those content to live on their knees.
Perhaps saddest of all is that Charlie Hebdo too has fallen to its knees. Back in July, its new editor Laurent Sorisseau announced there would be no more Muhammad cartoons because he did not want Charlie Hebdo to be “possessed by Islam.” Sorisseau claims this decision has nothing to do with last year’s attacks. “We have done our job,” says Sorisseau, “We have defended the right to caricature.” Those sound like the words of someone would rather caricature those who won’t fight back with guns. To mark the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the cover features God carrying a machine gun with the caption, “1 ans après: L’Assassin Court Toujours”(“One year one: the assassin is still out there.”) But now Charlie Hebdo will no longer call the assassin by its name.
While 2015 started out as the year of freedom of speech, it would end as the year we lived on our knees. With a few honorable exceptions, I believe 2016 will be much the same.