For a semester I’ve co-taught a class in which we ask students to examine rhetorical strategies used by media, politicians, and groups that want to start revolutions. The Charlie Hebdo attacks happened a week into the new semester. Without prompting several students made Glenn Greenwald’s point in their capstone projects:
Q: You’ve written a lot about the controversy over the PEN “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” being given to Charlie Hebdo, which has inspired a lot of writers to speak out in opposition. Why do you think this story is so important?
A: It’s actually kind of a complex issue. I think any decent person is torn by the fact that what happened to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is obviously vile and repugnant. They are obviously people who were exercising what should be their right of free speech … and they were killed because of it. And that’s a bad and dangerous thing.
On the other hand, the way in which that incident was seized on was designed, I think, to bolster a very tribalistic and dangerous narrative, which is that we in the West are the advanced, progressive, enlightened people and there are these kind of marauding hordes, who are primitive and violent and threatening to all things decent, called “Muslims” or “radical Islam.” And this incident was seized on to bolster that narrative as kind of propagandistically and powerfully as anything that I can recall probably since the 9/11 attack.
Katha Pollitt responds to this “narrative” stuff:
I don’t agree that Charlie is racist, and not just because Muslims are not a race. Charlie is against all forms of authoritarian religion (Le Monde analyzed ten years of Charlie’s cover stories and found far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam.) Indeed, it is blasphemous. Is that not an honorable left-wing thing to be? It used to be so, before we became so hopelessly confused about Islam: half the time we’re reminding each other that violent fundamentalists like the ones who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders are a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who are ordinary, nonviolent people of good will, and the other half of the time we talk as if the murderers are out to redress real wrongs—and understandably so, even if the target is poorly chosen. Which is it? I’m not sure that latter view serves Muslims well—it’s a bit like saying people who assassinate abortion providers represent Christians, and West Bank settlers represent Jews.
If I were to teach this class again, I’d ask students to spend time with several months worth of cartoons. Does their “context” become clearer? Do the cartoons reflect the point of view of the rightists whom the magazine often skewers?