A sense of confusion has emerged among the political left in the wake of the terrible attack against satirists at Charlie Hebdo earlier this month. The attack has been universally condemned and millions of people around the world have shown solidarity. Yet on the left their exists a kind of schism on the issue.

Editorials from media outlets around the world have framed the attack against Charlie Hebdo in two ways. As an attack against the very foundations of liberal democracy; against freedom of the press, association, and speech. Values that are also at the heart of progressive political discourse. And alternatively as a response to a racially insensitive magazine which has little, if anything, to do with ‘our freedom’.

There exists uncertainty among many in the left as to how to react and understand such a terrible tragedy. The issues around Charlie Hebdo are not straightforward and involve competing value systems. The magazine is satirical, but also offensive. If the left decides to embrace Charlie as the last great stand for press freedom, as many have done, they must do so with the knowledge that principles and consistency matter. In other words, the left must be prepared to fight for these values across the board, and not only on the back of a horrible tragedy and when politically expedient.

There exists today two competing intellectual traditions among progressives. The first can be categorized as the liberal tradition, this includes the right to express oneself unencumbered by pernicious moral conventions. This is a robust political tradition following in the footsteps of Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire and takes inspiration from the Enlightenment. The second tradition can be categorized as the new left or critical tradition. It draws from a more recent political heritage, a growing consciousness of centuries of racism and western hegemony. Such an awareness inspires a more circumspect and sensitive approach in light of hundreds of years of repressive history. These two traditions each have their merits and in recent weeks have been placed in stark contradistinction to one another as progressives discuss, editorialize, and attempt to understand the events of the past month.

It should be stated that Charlie Hebdo is a distasteful magazine, its depictions are provocative and even racist – but by no means does that warrant the attack, nor does it bring us any closer to understanding the horror of that day. When framed as a matter of free speech, there seems to be a sense of duty attached to publication, the image of the profit must be printed! Yet what if the image was altogether different, perhaps it was grossly anti-Semitic, would one still feel compelled to print? If we permit the first scenario but not the latter, are we not guilty of double standards?  These are the question which underwrite the debate.

Where then should we stand? Should we brandish a pen and exclaim that we too are Charlie, as so many did in the French unity march. Should we criticize western governments for their decades of disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East, and the predicable blowback it has caused at home? Should we decry the insensitivities of a magazine that prioritizes provocation over constructive political debate? The answer must be to choose integrity and consistency over hypocrisy. If freedom of expression is indeed the issue, if freedom of expression is what brought nearly four million people onto the streets of France in solidarity, if journalism was attacked, let us make sure that these values are universally protected. Let us hold to account those who would undermine our freedoms, not just religious fundamentalists, but politicians at home who preside over massive security states. Let us demand that our leaders respect the pen. To shirk this responsibility would be to expose Charlie Hebdo as nothing more than a political project, it would render the argument vacuous, our ‘last stand’ another political talking point.

The French unity march was, as aptly described by Jeremy Scahill of the Intercept magazine, ‘a circus of hypocrisy’.  Upwards of 40 world leaders marched under the banner of liberty while many of them preside over crackdowns on freedom of expression at home. Among the world leaders was David Cameron, ‘who ordered the Guardian newspaper to smash with a hammer the hard drives which stored the files provided by Edward Snowden’. Other world leaders included King Abdullah of Jordan,who had Palestinian journalist Mudar Zahran jailed for over 15 years after exposing the King’s embarrassing political dealings with Israel. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry of Egypt was present, despite three Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy, and Peter Greste being arrested last year for illegally reporting inside the country. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu of Turkey, where the now infamous 301 laws have been used to arrest and prosecute countless writers for the dubious crime of ‘insulting Turkishness’ was there. Likewise, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who has systematically intimidated and jailed journalists throughout the occupied territories during his tenure in government, also participated in the march. Last but not least, Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland, where the 2009 blasphemy laws continue to curtail freedom of speech, made an appearance.

The answer to the left’s confusion is a matter of intellectual consistency. If we believe in freedom of expression we must hold our own governments to account as well as those who seek to intimidate us from abroad. If we are all truly Charlie, the hard work is ahead for us not behind us. Indeed, the greatest threat to our open societies may not come from the Islamic world, but from the centers of power right here at home.




DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.