Is Charlie Hebdo racist?

People all over the world are jumping into debates about 'censorship versus freedom of speech' without really understanding what Charlie Hebdo is all about. So let’s make it clear, Charlie Hebdo is not 'racist', 'homophobic' or 'islamophobic'. In fact, the magazine exists to mock and satire those who are. For an audience outside the Francophone, myself included, it is difficult to understand this particularly French, particularly crass sense of humour.  Taken out of context these cartoons can be deeply offensive.  

This magazine cover (shown above) published in October 2014 refers to the 200 missing Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram back in April 2014. The cover is accompanied by the message “BOKO HARAM'S SEX SLAVES ARE ANGRY, DON'T TOUCH OUR BENEFITS!” Now, whilst without context, the cover might be seen to mock the kidnapped young girls, it is in fact doing the very opposite. To the French reader, it would sit fairly obviously within French domestic debate at the time about ‘Welfare Queens’, women who have children for the sole purpose of claiming benefits. Charlie Hebdo, an openly leftist magazine in support of the Welfare system in place in France, is in fact mocking the French far-right who they predict will already be moaninthat the kidnapped girls will be arriving on French shores any minute, arms open for French money. This cover, which is commonly being cited as proof of Charlie Hebdo’s ‘racism’, isn’t really anything to do with the kidnapped school girls at all. They are just a pawn to criticise the far-right.  

But this cover, even with the context in place, probably does offend.  There are other ways of getting the message across without bringing 200 enslaved girls into it and it is not really something to joke about. But whilst this might offend, there is nothing innately 'racist' or 'islamophobic' about it. There is a difference between offending and say, attacking. This cover might offend you, but, I’m afraid, it’s allowed to do that. 

Now we enter murky water, visual representation of Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo used cartoon representations of Muhammad as part of their satirical attack against extremists. As a follower of Islam, you might make the personal choice not to have any images of Muhammad. Consequently, any visual depictions of Muhammad might offend you. But just because you are offended, again, that not does make them overtly racist or islamophobicThese types of images, articles, whatever it is that might be offending people, if they fall in the boundaries of ‘offensive’ and not ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’ or ‘islamophobic’ or whatever it might be, then they must remain published.  Life in the free world is built on the principle of free speech, and it must stay that way – as distasteful as you may find some publications to be. 

As a global community, the Western world needs to move on from being scared to offend; and scared to offend religious people in particular. Being religious does not make you exempt from mocking and satire. Offending someone isn’t nice; but it’s not a crime either. If Charlie Hebdo published anything which suggested imposing on anyone’s freedom or human rights, then of course, this should not be published.  But the intention of the magazine is to criticise dogma and reproach fundamentalists and extremists. If Muslims, Catholics and whoever else in its trail are offended, then so be it. The only people the magazine attacks in a way that moves from ‘offensive’ to something else, are fundamentalists and extremists. And quite frankly, I am glad.  In a world where extremism is on the rise, we need to have a serious dialogue about why, and how to tackle it. A start would be to stop worrying about who we might offend. It is hindering real debate.  

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