The shock and pain of the recent terror attack in France has led to an outpouring of sympathy for the magazine Charlie Hebdo. With slogans like #JeSuisCharlie, the satirical French magazine is being turned into a symbol of liberal democracy and western values. Many have called on magazines to republish their most provocative cartoons, and already hundreds of people have taken to share these images online. As a Muslim American watching all this, I can’t help but be uncomfortable. The loss of any life is a tragedy, and the attack in France needs to be categorically condemned, but the idea that we need to rally behind what are not only offensive, but also racist cartoons regularly published in Charlie Hebdo is misguided.
The magazine regularly published images mocking people of all faiths and backgrounds, often featuring a number of crude stereotypes in doing so, including big-lipped Africans and hook-nosed Arabs. The most notorious of these illustrations were depictions of the Prophet Muhammad which were designed to be intentionally degrading and offensive to Muslims. The editors at Charlie Hebdo, and the numerous other magazines which regularly feature racist and Islamophobic cartoons were and are well within their rights to do this. By rallying behind the magazine and its images, though, I feel like too many people online and in the media are forgetting that we can defend the right to express offensive ideas and condemn those ideas as well.
One of the people who died in the attack was a police officer named Ahmad Mehrabat, a French Muslim who died defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to ridicule his own faith. Ahmad was one of millions of North and West African Muslims whose families have immigrated to France in recent decades after nearly a century of French Colonialism left their home countries decimated. In France, these Muslim immigrants now make up a poor community which faces systematic racism every day. It is this community that had been mocked in magazines like Charlie Hebdo and which now finds itself under attack in the aftermath of a crime they did not commit or support.
French officials have counted nearly 60 Islamophobic attacks in the past few days including mosques being vandalized, shot at and firebombed. Whether we choose to believe in Islam or not, by blaming a religion followed by about 1.5 billion people (the massive majority of which are completely peaceful) for attacks like the one in France and encouraging its disrespect, ridicule and belittlement, we contribute to an Islamophobic culture that further marginalizes France’s Muslims and justifies violence against them. France’s Muslims, like Ahmad Mehrabat and his family, deserve better.
Mohsin Mirza is third-year sociology and black studies student as well as the Director of A.S. Lobby Corps for State and National Affairs.