“I am Charlie and I guard the Master’s house”

by | 13 Jan 2015

Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

We condemn the Charlie Hebdo killings. We wholeheartedly and unreservedly condemn the killings and believe that no justification exists or can ever exist for them. We feel it necessary to make our condemnation explicit because we have found that there is a tendency to read an absence of condemnation into any discussion that does not halt at the point of condemnation. If you do read an absence of condemnation of the killings into this piece, ask yourself if what you truly demand of us, between your declarations of “Je suis Charlie” and your unyielding and uncompromising defence of free speech, is silence on this issue beyond a condemnation of the atrocity and those who enacted it.

Charlie Hebdo defended its publication of racist cartoons on the grounds that it was exercising a perfect form of free speech, adhering to an idealised secular liberal vision of free speech with no limits.  Except of course the limits imposed by the French state and the particular sensitivities of its friends and allies. For while Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobic cartoons have been fervently defended on free speech grounds, Charlie Hebdo itself fired one of its writers for refusing to apologise for making an anti-Semitic joke about President Sarkozy’s son, France last year became the first country in the world to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and around the supposedly free world we can face criminal charges and imprisonment for tweeting or posting a Facebook status. This poorly defined, often contradictory vision of free speech is significantly easier to exercise and laugh along with for those whose identities do not render them vulnerable to hate speech, police harassment and other forms of structural violence.

The most popular and celebrated means of defending ‘free speech’ in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings has been through the use of the #JesuisCharlie hashtag as a means of showing solidarity not only with the victims but also with Charlie Hebdo and what the magazine stands for; that is, as all those incessantly quoting Voltaire this week will tell you, not the actual content of Charlie Hebdo, but its right to publish that content. This show of solidarity with, or more accurately, identification as the magazine at a time when its writers have been subjected to lethal violence, sends a signal of unwavering defiance—the collective raising of a middle finger to the perceived threat that terrorism presents to western societies’ hard-won and hard-defended liberal freedoms, a statement that says “we are not afraid”, “we will continue to exercise our freedoms in the face of your attempts to destroy them”.

The #JesuisCharlie hashtag and its social media strategy of solidarity through identification with the victim is also an appropriation of what was a creative and subversive tool for fighting structural violence and racist oppression, perhaps most famously in the “I am Trayvon Martin” campaign. When young black men stood up and said “I am Trayvon Martin”, they were demonstrating the persistent and deeply entrenched demonisation of black men which not only sees them killed in the street on their way to the local shop, but also deems their killers innocent of any wrongdoing. When predominantly white people in France and around the world declare “Je Suis Charlie”, they are not coming together as fellow members of a structurally oppressed and marginalised community regularly subjected to violence, poverty, harassment and hatred. Rather, they are banding together as members of the majority, as individuals whose identification with Charlie Hebdo, however well-meaning, serves to reproduce the very structures of oppression, marginalisation and demonisation that allowed the magazine’s most offensive images to be consumed and celebrated in the first place. These are the same structures that saw Parisian police massacre hundreds of Algerians attending an independence protest in 1961 (it is hard to say exactly how many were killed because, as police later boasted, many of their bodies were thrown into the Seine); the same structures that breed the racialised poverty and police harassment that led to the 2005 Clichy-sous-Bois riots; the same structures that allowed the ban on the burka and have all but enabled a ban of the hijab.

Along with the Je suis Charlie tag, another has emerged, that of “Je suis Ahmed”, Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer who was killed by the Charlie Hebdo attackers. The tag celebrates the heroism of the officer in dying in defence of Charlie’s right to ridicule his faith and culture. This is in line with and feeds the assimilative discourse surrounding the place of Muslims in the French state. The good Muslims can stay. The good Muslim is she who assimilates, she who apologises, she who hangs her head in shame, condemns her Jihadi compatriots and makes herself as little identifiable as Muslim as possible on a day to day basis. The best Muslim, the perfect Muslim, however, is the martyr—a martyr for the French state—a martyr who dons a police uniform and dies protecting the country’s glorified liberal values.

The dominant discourse can be captured as such: good Muslims behave like this and bad Muslims behave like that. Muslim scholars around the world have made clear that the Paris attacks are “un-Islamic”. So why are the Charlie Hebdo killers identified primarily as Muslim killers rather than as individuals who affiliate with and propagate a murderous and dangerous political ideology? Why are white supremacists, such as Anders Breivik, who in his manifesto describes himself as “100% Christian”, not portrayed as “bad Christians”?

With the commitment of 1 million euros to keep Charlie Hebdo up and running, down comes the already loose and slipping facade that the French republic is built on the principle of “égalité”, except in the most formal sense. Here is the state explicitly and publicly sponsoring a vision of free speech that sees no structural oppression, that sees no power, that sees no abuses of that power, that sees no silenced and marginalised minorities, no victims of imperialist wars, such as those waged by France in Algeria, Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq.

How neat for the French state to be able to spin the Charlie Hebdo killings into a fairytale in which it plays the role of the knight on horseback riding onto the scene to rescue western civilisation from barbarity. An unprecedented number of world leaders and state representatives joined the French in proclaiming western liberal values on a solidarity march through Paris last Sunday, including those from countries in which press freedom is elusive. How convenient this atrocity has been for the state. Its prize for ingratiating itself with “Je suis Charlie” is the legitimation and expansion of its power, and for Hollande himself, a steep hike in his popularity. Lost in the cacophony of “Je suis Charlies” at Sunday’s demonstration is any sense of what is truly at stake here: not our purported freedoms, but an understanding of how the hypocrisies of the liberal state keep us trapped in a system which perpetuates violent structures of oppression.

Nadine El-Enany and Sarah Keenan are Lecturers in Law, Birkbeck Law School, University of London


  1. Dear writers, excuse my poor English.
    Some valid point (French muslims, as jews… are not perceived as 100% french by most of the Frenchs), but the foundation of the article stood on a wrong premise : the supposed racism of Charlie Hebdo. Sorry you can’t apparently see it, but Charlie Hebdo is strongly anti-racist.
    Humour, especially provocative one, is difficult to export…
    Mostly people unfamiliar with the weekly, can’t see his target his bigotry, but see it as targeting religion and then by some transposition property, alien to French culture, confuse religion and race. The jewish jokes on Sarkozy son target a race and not a religion.
    One the side note, to prove your point you use shortcut/white lie : pro-Palestinian protest are not ban in France, as are hijab.
    And I don’t get how France is conducing an imperialist war in Irak by bombing (with our conviction) Isis…

    • read
      bombing “without conviction” Isis

    • The trouble is that while race and religion are technically distinct in theory, in practice there are significant overlaps. Not complete and concrete overlaps in every instance, but overlaps nonetheless. This is one of the many factors that makes it such a difficult issue to universalize and export, which is the main point I took away from this article.

    • Regarding what you call a confusion between race and religion as targets, what is lost on many French is that if you insult, debase, persecute or kill someone because of their race or their religion, you’re doing as much harm in the first case as in the second. CH was as much anti-religion as some people are racist, that is, they had a vile disregard for believers. And I don’t buy the claim that they weren’t racist either. Given that they embrace a corrupt Left mixed with extreme right and liberal ideology, all their attacks amount to pot/kettle.

      • Chortle
        Charlie Hebdo – the corrupt left, far right, liberal magazine for the anti-religious racist.
        Now THAT’S satire, Alessandra, unintentional though it may be.

        Keep the posts coming. They’re making me smile.

  2. I’ve read several comments in various media stating CH is not racist… But, apologies in advance, if a depiction of a monkey-looking black man with a banana stuck up his arse is not racist, I no longer know what is racist then. Perhaps not all the covers/contents were/are racist, but he banana one? Just to mention one…

    • another tragic thing is: CH sold only 65000 copies and was almost dead by itself. now 3000000 copies are printed & next to a dozen lawsuits by christian org: ‘In 2007, a Paris court dismissed a lawsuit filed by two Muslim organizations to sue the paper for representing the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons. In 2006, the French Council for the Muslim Faith brought a lawsuit against Charlie Hebdo for publishing caricatures of the prophet. “Just because Muslims refuse to portray the prophet, there’s no reason why non-Muslims should feel compelled by the same restrictions and fear retribution if they go ahead with picturing Islam’s founder,” the Independent wrote in 2013.’ & in france and in the netherlands too where i live this was broad in the media http://www.france24.com/en/20131113-france-racism-black-minister-taubira-monkey-banana-magazine-cover/ nasty (lots of work to do) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2656141/France-outrage-racist-French-police-black-eat-bananas-scratch-like-monkeys-party.html & (among many more) http://www.thelocal.fr/20130429/named-and-shamed-frances-most-racist-ministry -some of the shooters were black by the way. tnx, bye

      • & a true bad joke: shave a monkey and she or he is white- this all has nothing to do with the (philosophical) freedom and (active) right of freedom of speech, and democratic opportunities, allowance to procedures and courts and ‘the 198’ non-violent methods for every citizen to follow within fundamental law when having the perception of being disadvantaged. of course this should be for all, sometimes. so, where is the united nations passport (among others)? no borders is interesting too-

    • Maria, I assume you are referring to the Hebdo cartoon of Dieudonné with a quennelle (not a banana) stuck up his backside. It appears you are not familiar with Dieudonné nor his quennelle gesture (and it’s unspoken meaning), nor even what an actual (edible) quennelle is. I urge you to inform yourself of these matters before ignorantly diving in with inferences of racism.
      Your inference that the man depicted in the cartoon is “monkey-looking” is a worrying projection all of your own.

      • The fact that the meaning of this cartoon is impenetrable outside a certain circle should give Gavin Hoey pause for thought — imagine how it might look, for example, to a resident of the banlieu with ties to Algeria or Mali.

        • A certain “circle” such as “France”? I’m not even French and I know all about Dieudonné. The pre-massacre print run was a mere 65000, hardly world wide, so anyone seeing this would also be aware of Dieudonné. As for the ‘banana’ issue, it doesn’y look like one. And the word ‘quennelle’ is printed clearly next to it in 2 inch high letters.

      • I’ve only seen a few CH cartoons, but everything I’ve seen indicates that CH did not mock/insult “everyone.” It’s clear they reserved their most offensive pornographic insults to very few targets, and second, there are plenty of groups (especially powerful ones) in France or related, that it appears they have never attacked, exactly because they defended several of them – being part of this corrupt French Left. Third, I find this “but they insulted different people, not just one group” excuse laughable, since two wrongs never have made a right.

        • How can one argue in the face of such empirical evidence?

          • Has anyone actually run an analysis of the targets of this satire?

            I’m not a big fan of Charlie’s satire. I don’t think it was particularly funny or intelligent, and it’s targets were easy ones (if dangerous to provoke).

            However, in order to decide whether it was significantly biased, it would be nice to know the proportion of satire aimed at each target. Has anyone done this, or does anyone have access to all the back issues for an analysis?

    • The one you are describing is a picture of the notorious racist comedian, Dieudonne, with his trade mark “quenelle” nazi salute stuck up his ass. Not a banana.

      see? context.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the charge of hypocrisy. The French state maintains among the most expansive limits on public discourse. Many have already noted the irony of the “Charlie Hebdo” outrage. The question arising from any charge of hypocrisy – i.e., of two or more mutually incompatible premises – is: if we are to eliminate the hypocrisy, then which, if any, of the clashing premises are we to choose? Which premises are we to accept, and which are we to reject?

    One way to eliminate the hypocrisy is to abolish all penalties on expression uttered within public discourse, insofar as those penalties are justified with reference to any given speaker’s worldview, be it racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. If I am reading Nadine’s and Sarah’s piece correctly, however, that is not the premise they accept. They make clear that, in their view, some such speech should be penalised.

    The second way to eliminate the hypocrisy is, then, to admit such penalties. The problem then, as countless scholars on the law of speech have noted, is that no line can be drawn without perpetuating the same hypocrisy. To penalise, without inconsistency, all speech demeaning of all disempowered groups would require penalties exponentially more vast than those already in place even in the most vigilant democratic speech regimes, such as France, Sweden, Germany, or Norway, each of which exhibits well-documented inconsistencies, far beyond the scope elicited here by Nadine and Sarah. (Writers like Rae Langton and Mary Kate McKowan, in a broadly post-Wittgenstinian and socio-legal vein, appear to concede as much.) Moreover, that hypocrisy is far from limited to the “liberal state”. To the contrary, massive scholarly evidence shows how, for decades, it runs far, far deeper in non-liberal states.

    A third option is that we accept that such regulations will entail hypocrisy regardless of how such lines are drawn, but that we must at least become aware of them and discuss them. But then why on earth would it be hypocrisy, of all things, we are impugning here as the decisive fault? (Not to mention the fact that such an option, of course, is the quintessential liberals’ response, quoted almost chapter-and-verse from the likes of John Stuart Mill and even – dare we say it? – Voltaire.)

  4. For writers who profess to condemn the murders, they have written a piece that victim-blames the journalists. Regardless of how offensive or otherwise Charlie Hebdo publications may or may not be, regardless of the power structures in France, regardless of laws with which they may or may not agree, there is no justification or excuse for murdering those individuals. This piece, like much of what has come out of the left-wing community (within which I and many others increasingly feel excluded) is seeking to victim-blame or to find ‘excuses’ or ‘justifications’ for these murders.

    I am a Jew and I do not murder individuals who publish anti-semitic cartoons (of which there are countless around the world, including in our newspapers) every week. I am from a religious minority that has been systematically slaughtered, marginalised and persecuted in countries around the world throughout history, and we do not use terrorism to seek vengeance. (And if anyone tries to equate Jews and Israel then they are sorely wrong — I am a Jew and I am British). There are many other religious minorities that are persecuted, marginalised and oppressed around the world, and they too do not use violence or murder to respond to words or drawings on a page.

    It is disappointing to read yet another article that seeks to ‘excuse’ or ‘justify’ such murders, or to blame the victims.

    • “We condemn the Charlie Hebdo killings. We wholeheartedly and unreservedly condemn the killings and believe that no justification exists or can ever exist for them. We feel it necessary to make our condemnation explicit because we have found that there is a tendency to read an absence of condemnation into any discussion that does not halt at the point of condemnation.”

      “For writers who profess to condemn the murders, they have written a piece that victim-​blames the journalists…It is disappointing to read yet another article that seeks to ‘excuse’ or ‘justify’ such murders, or to blame the victims.”


    • I totally agree. I think this article is rubbish. Laws regarding freedom of expression and freedom of religion (which includes freedom from being compelled to be religious) are the result of bloody centuries of warfare through which European states slowly developed a respect for individual conscience & freedom of expression & belief.
      You don’t like it? go live in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, etc.
      People come to the West because they are looking for freedom. If you don’t value what you have, you will lose it.

  5. ‘So why are the Charlie Hebdo killers identified primarily as Muslim killers rather than as individuals who affiliate with and propagate a murderous and dangerous political ideology? Why are white supremacists, such as Anders Breivik, who in his manifesto describes himself as “100% Christian”, not portrayed as “bad Christians”?’

    not for the law, that is, in the western world: breivik is convicted as a gone mad citizen, as would these terrorists have been, i suppose.. fortunately it’s not (fastlane) public opinion in the seat of the judges, that’s something to protect, i, again, suppose

  6. Although I respect and somewhat agree with the underlying message of the article, some of the facts mentioned are incorrectly reported. Firstly, the pro-palestinian demos in France were banned only in Paris for security reasons, which proved to have been a valid reason when such illegal demos degenerated in Sarcelles on more than one occasion. Secondly, the ban of the burka in public spaces was approved by the Conseil constitutionnel and later by the ECHR and has in no way enabled the ban of the hijab. Thirdly, France’s approach to secularism is very different to that of any other – anglophone – country, which is anchored in our own history.
    The purpose that Charlie Hebdo serves is too often misunderstood by foreign press and too often criticised by people who never once opened a single page of the news paper. Just like any other news paper in France, it is independent and does not serve the purpose of the government. Since the killings, too much attention has been given by the media to the anti-islamic cartoons and not enough on all the other cartoons published by the weekly. The Charlie Hebdo is the embodiment of anti-racism. But people who are raised by the “politically correct” values will most definitely be prone to making the amalgam.
    The solidarity march (Marche républicaine) became a march against terrorism, thus completely altering the initial purpose of the march, when all these world leaders decided to join. This is where the hypocrisy originates.
    And this is where I join Professor Heinze. Let us not forget that this hypocrisy, though guilty as charged, is already accepted by all the High Contracting Parties to the ECHR as enshrined in its article 8.

  7. A curiosity of Nadine’s and Sarah’s view is that it retreats into the self-same element of liberalism that it purports to challenge. The authors merely suggest that we need to balance certain conflicting interests differently than we are doing. They thereby re-affirm the classical liberal approach of “balancing” interests. Of course, it may well be that the authors assume some alternative to liberalism; after all, every type of regime must in some sense balance competing interests. However, if some alternative regime is envisaged, it is left unexplained within the terms of the argument (presumably due to lack of space). As presented, the argument merely restricts itself to identifying a supposed hypocrisy within liberalism, which is, even at its worst, scarcely different from the hypocrisies one would find under any other existing or conceivable regime.

  8. Let’s leave aside the casual slur of the magazine as publishing ‘racist’ cartoons (one might think basic respect for recently-murdered journalists would entail not thus accusing them without citing a shred of evidence, but never mind). Let’s consider instead the astonishing shoddiness of the attempt to conflate near-opposites through simple assertion in the following: ‘the very structures of oppression, marginalisation and demonisation that allowed the magazine’s most offensive images to be consumed and celebrated in the first place…are the same structures that saw Parisian police massacre hundreds of Algerians attending an independence protest in 1961….’ (Let’s leave aside the inconvenient fact that President Chirac explicitly condemned, rather than ‘celebrated’ the magazine when it reproduced the ‘Danish cartoons’).

    Perhaps I’m not thinking ‘critically’ enough when I say this, but it seems to me that the ‘structure’ that allowed such images to be consumed regardless of offence has to be France’s guarantee of press freedom and free speech, which it shares with every liberal democracy in the world. And yet, we are told, it is this ‘structure’ – which is part of a bigger structure of basic civil liberties, which also of course includes freedom to demonstrate – that saw the police massacre Algerian demonstrators. Thus conflate ‘guarantee of a human right’ with ‘gross violations of multiple human rights’ as part of the same ‘structure’ and call it critical thinking. (Perhaps its now so taken for granted on the ‘critical Left’ that human rights (but also the violation of human rights) are part of a structure of oppression that no-one feels the need now even to set out any argument on point).

    Do the authors favour a system of state censorship over any images deemed offensive by any religion (or perhaps only of ‘oppressed’ religions, whichever they are? Scientology, anyone)? That seems to be the logic of the piece, since allowing publication is apparently part of a structure of oppression. If so the argument would be that prosecuting journalists for offending religious feelings would help liberate us from a ‘system which perpetuates violent structures of oppression.’ We’re not told how this would help, but the picture of blasphemy prosecutions in countries such as Iran and Pakistan, curiously nearly always undertaken in those countries on behalf of the dominant religion of Islam, rather than on behalf of persecuted religious minorities, is, shall we say, not especially encouraging, and indeed, might itself be thought to have the flavor of ‘a violent structure of oppression’ about it.

  9. Gavin Phillipson rightly notes that a sheer reference to ‘structure’, by meaning more-or-less anything a state does, not only present but even decades in the past, becomes vacuous. Just two years before the Algerian war, Che Guevara spearheaded racist and homophobic (and any number of other) summary executions as integral to the formation of the current Cuban state. (The homophobic ones are of particular interest for that trained physician working decades after progressives had begun challenging anti-homosexual attitudes.) If I am correctly interpreting Nadine’s and Sarah’s theory of the operation of the state ‘structure’, then that is the ‘structure’ which, in their opinion, reveals Cuba’s overall approach to human life ever since. Many observers will surely agree with Nadine and Sarah on that interpretation of the Cuban state ‘structure’, but they are not the types who spend much time on the pages of the present website. At the very least, Nadine and Sarah, at least applying their own criteria, will certainly condemn, as a brutal and murderous ‘hypocrisy’, the fact that anyone would wear a Che Guevara T-shirt.

    • very good link, thank you

    • Bravo, Ian, wonderful piece, thank you! One might also add this link, which Rosa above shared elsewhere, showing a string of anti-racist, anti-colonial cartoons by Chalie Hebdo:


      Perhaps if ‘left wing’ commentators took a little time to actually research the magazine they are judging, they would be less quick to so casually slur as ‘racist’ the work of the very brave, very dead journalists of Charlie Hebdo.

      • Thank you, thank you

  10. Unsurprising perhaps that this is published on a forum which last year published calls for an academic to be sacked and denied a public platform because some people disagreed with her intellectual work. Complete political and moral bankruptcy.

  11. Victim-blaming apologism for theocratic totalitarianism dressed up in fancy language.

  12. Stating that Charlie is islamophobic and racist is wrong. First, it means not having doing enough research on Charlie’s cartoons. Second, it means not knowing their fight for atheism.
    Charlie’s cartoons aims at any kind of religious fundamentalism. Take a look at these Charlie’s cartoons against christians and catholics:
    Should we say that they are “cathomophobic”? No less and no more than they are islamophobic. Rather, it would be more intellectually honest to say, tout simplement, that they are “religiophobic”.

    • C est juste, Ticketpusse, mais pour rester dans le tmreopel, il faut reconnaeetre qu il est loin le temps of9 le ministre de l inte9rieur en personne, par ailleurs gardien des cultes, interdisait aux kiosques harakiri-hebdo (l anceatre de Charlie) pour avoir titre9 bal tragique e0 l Elyse9e : un mort

  13. What you’re effectively saying is that religion=race (not true) and therefore it’s racist to poke fun at a particular religion?

    By the way, no one who isn’t a Muslim doesn’t really care about drawing pictures of people, and the more you say we can’t – the more we’ll do it!

      • Really?

        Treating women in that way is about their subjugation. I fail to see how Charlie Hebdo subjugated Muslims?

  14. I just thought I should express my surprise at finding the comments to an article vastly superior to the article itself. All too often the reverse is true.

    Of course, this isn’t really about Charlie Hebdo or cartoons. The murder of Jews shopping in a supermarket by the same cell shows that. Charlie Hebdo provided a ready target for these extremists, but it could just as well have been another media outlet (Libération has also been targeted). It isn’t about “us”, it is clearly about their clearly defined Islamist ideology, which is no friend of the left.

  15. I can’t believe people are blaming Charlie Hebdo. Sure, they are racist, insensitive, vulgar and without a redeeming feature. So Muslims get to KILL them? If I don’t like something I can take up arms and kill people? I don’t like paying taxes to corrupt politicians. Would you defend me and blame them if I attacked the federal govt? I don’t care for the strip club a few miles away. Can I kill them and have you blame them? What if I don’t agree with abortion, can I kill those working at clinics?

    Some Muslims have refused to participate in moments of silence OVER MURDER. They are supporting terrorism by doing so and helping foster the idea that what the gunmen did was justified. The Muslim community allows the terrorists to dwell within their communities and support them. How is any Muslim human being not condemning this?

    If dog bites people in public it gets put down. The west is quite capable of violence and aggression too. Maybe it’s time we reminded Muslims of that fact.

    • Once again, please either back up the ‘racist’ assertions or withdraw them.

  16. I am French and I really regret that academics like you just decide to write an article like this one without verifying information first.. Charlie Hebdo is the most anti-racist newspaper in France, they have been working alongside anti-racist organizations like the MRAP for years, the illustrators have been going in schools in difficult neighborhoods; everything you say in this article is so wrong. Charlie Hebdo is racist? islamophobic? Charlie Hebdo makes fun of extremists, fanatics, meaning people who have nothing to do with the real Islam.
    And yes, I am proud that in France’s secularism journalists can make fun of ALL religions.

  17. apologist crap from nutty far leftwingers


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