A Response to “The problem with ‘Je suis Charlie’” (LA Times 1/18/15)

I generally look forward to Op-Ed pieces by Prof. Makdisi.  They are rich sources of rhetorical blunders I can show to my students, proving that even tenured English professors have trouble making sense in print.  His latest foray into the thickets of rhetoric, “The problem with ‘Je suis Charlie’” (LA Times 1/18/15), takes a more hateful turn as his self-righteous finger-pointing turns, ironically, on himself.  He scolds us for the racist mote in our eyes and can’t see the beam in his own (Matthew 7:1-5). 

As an example of the French hypocrisy about free speech, he points out that “the Cameroonian French satirical comedian, Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, has been repeatedly charged and convicted of anti-Semitic hate speech because his stand-up routine contained material that is no doubt offensive to some . . .”  “Offensive to some!” –Really, Prof. Makdisi, can’t you see that anti-Semitic speech is hateful to all, to humanity?  Or is it only Jews and their sympathizers who might object?  Who has the double standard here?

Nor does Charlie Hebdo itself escape Prof. Makdisi’s dreadful finger: “Even Charlie Hebdo has it limits. In 2008 it fired one of its cartoonists, Maurice Sinet, for what was taken to be an anti-Semitic slur.” M. Sinet’s cartoon included the old anti-Semitic canard that Jews control the financial world, yet Prof. Makdisi tells us that this lie is only “taken” by some to be anti-Semitic, leaving open the possibility that it might be true.  Prof. Makdisi seems overly eager to lift the opprobrium from anti-Semitism.

Perhaps Charlie Hebdo understands, as Prof. Makdisi does not, the difference between hate speech and satire.    It is hate speech to insinuate the lie that Jews control finance.  It is not hate speech to satirize religious dogma as barbaric and outdated.  In fact, Charlie Hebdo has never satirized Muslims, nor has it satirized Christians or Jews.  What it has satirized is religious dogma and has done so in uncompromising terms wherever it is found.  To whatever extent your sense of religion depends on unquestionable dogma, to that extent you will be scandalized by Charlie Hebdo.  If Islam is more scandalized than other religions by satirical attacks on religious dogma, that is not Charlie Hebdo’s fault.  Perhaps Prof. Makdisi can explain to us why Islam is especially touchy about attacks on dogma.  It is true that the Spanish Inquisition also had no sense of humor about attacks on religious dogma, but Christianity has gone through a reformation since then.  Islam has not. Might Muslim touchiness about dogma have something to do with the fact that Islam has never gone through a reformation, as have Christianity and Judaism?  Is it racist to point out that fact?

Prof. Makdisi most wants to excoriate the “Je suis Charlie” sayers for playing into what he calls the post-colonial “’us’/’them’ binary lines: ’We’ in the West are rational, good, modern and free (just don't bring up the sordid legacy of colonialism, slavery, religious wars, etc.), while ‘they’ are backward, bad, irrational and violent.”  But Prof. Makdisi has created his own false binary, dividing the world up into victims and victimizers.  We Westernizers are the evil victimizers who unjustly “revile persecuted minorities,” and whose virtue is destroyed by the terrible things we do in his parentheses; while they, the unjustly persecuted victims, are pure and innocent because they are a “reviled and vulnerable minority.” 

Never mind that he is begging the question by inferring that outrage over the Charlie Hebdo massacre necessarily plays into this supposed post-colonial binary, he needs to be more careful about including parenthetical remarks in which a list of historical wrongs vitiates whatever virtue is being claimed. (My students will point out that in his parenthetical remark, Prof. Makdisi has simultaneously accomplished a false equivalency fallacy, a straw man fallacy, and thrown in a red herring for good measure.)  Such parenthetical remarks can also vitiate the supposed virtue and innocence of his “reviled and vulnerable minority.”  (Never should we mention the brutal Arab conquests, the forced conversions, the enslavement of and violence against infidels throughout Islamic history, the particularly brutal nature of the Arab slave trade that decimated black Africa in which males were castrated, the persistence of slavery in some Muslim countries even today, the denigration of women in the Muslim world, female circumcision, the selling of girls into marriage slavery, the sale of the old, Czarist anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in state run bookstores throughout the Muslim world, etc.)  Creating false binaries is a foolish game, and Prof. Makdisi should be more careful before attempting, Gulliver-like, to jump over this particular cow dung.

Prof. Makdisi lectures us on the true nature of satire, telling us that “The great satirists, including Swift, Byron and Molière, didn't direct their barbs at reviled and vulnerable minorities . . .” He seems not to know much about Swift, or at least has never read Swift’s “A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit” in which Swift reviles Puritans in no uncertain terms and even makes them look funny, or the brutal religious satire of “A Tale of a Tub.” (Have qualifications for tenure in English departments sunk so low?)

Would it be racist to satirize the lack of outrage in the Muslim world for a Saudi pro-democracy blogger’s being sentenced to a thousand lashes for blasphemy?  (Yes, that’s right, a thousand lashes!)  The Saudis have mercifully allowed him to recover from the first set of fifty lashes before they apply the next set.  Is my ironic use of “mercifully” to emphasize Saudi religious barbarism an anti-Muslim racist taunt because they are a “reviled and vulnerable minority” (all 1.7 billion of them)?  Prof. Makdisi would have us believe so.  Do I find Saudi dogmatism revolting only because of my tainted Western imagination full of false “Western values?” Have I lost the right to criticize the cruelty and barbarism of Wahhabi dogma because the Inquisition burned heretics at the stake?  To all these propositions, Prof. Makdisi has argued yes.

But that Muslim indifference to the cruelty of dogma is real, and that makes it a legitimate target for satire that opposes religious dogma.  No post-colonial binary will make it less so.  I hope whoever might satirize this Muslim yawn before the cruelty and barbarism of their own dogma will make that satire as brutal and hard-hitting as Swift’s treatment of the Puritans.  It deserves nothing less.

Here’s another serious problem with Prof. Makdisi’s take on the matter.  By claiming that “Je suis Charlie” is an anti-Muslim racist taunt, he’s denying the possibility of a space where Muslims and non-Muslims can come together to protest the corrosive effects of religious dogma in the Muslim world and denying a voice to those Muslims who want to make that protest. He’s making the political Left an inhospitable place for making that protest, and lending aid and comfort to the reactionary powers in the Muslim world who exploit that dogma. 

Prof. Makdisi believes that the existence of his binary makes hypocrites of us all and that “Je suis Charlie” is itself a racist taunt.  In his mouth, “Western values” becomes a pejorative merely because they are Western, and anti-Semitism is possibly justifiable and is only a problem for those who object to it.  It seems Prof. Makdisi has some false binary problems of his own.  So I say without embarrassment and with enthusiasm, in solidarity with those who satirize religious dogma, “Je suis Charlie!”