(First published in The Guardian)
Yesterday, Australian right wing think tank the Institute for Public Affairs used the Charlie Hebdo massacre as a stepladder from which to mount one of its hobby horses. The IPA’s Twitter account posted an image featuring two of the French magazine covers and the IPA logo, with the caption, “You are not Charlie unless you support the repeal of section 18c.”
The dead cartoonists and journalists were yoked to the IPA’s campaign to get rid of the hate speech provisions of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. This started back in 2011 when action under the act was taken against Andrew Bolt, and ended in any practical sense when Tony Abbott’s government hung the Institute out to dry, abandoning any plans to change the act, whose provisions and intent the vast majority of Australians support.
Quite apart from its ghoulish appropriation of the victims of terrorism, this grubby little meme makes no sense. Its implication is the same one trotted out by the Australian and other right wing organs: that Australia’s laws effectively prevent the religious satire that the right have been pretending was the whole of Charlie Hebdo’s output.
Leave aside the fact that the French magazine has a long record of ruthlessly mocking the racial obsessions of their own hard right counterparts to Bolt. The fact is that section 18C doesn’t cover religion or religious identity, and the following section 18D offers broad exemptions for artistic work and fair comment. Precedent suggests that cartoonists enjoy extremely broad immunity from even the racial provisions.
Bolt came a cropper not simply because he went after people on the basis of their racial identity, but because he engaged in “sloppy journalism”. He still regularly criticises Islam without any adverse consequences. On the other hand, Charlie Hebdo published material that was offensive to some despite France’s own hate speech laws, which do protect religion, and which are in this and other ways even more encompassing than the Racial Discrimination Act. The comparison in “free speech” arguments between terrorists and people pursuing their rights under the law is as incoherent as it is hysterical.
The IPA’s flourish is doomed: Abbott will not be taking time out from righting his listing ship to reattach the barnacle that is 18C. The only real support they received was from Cory Bernardi. But the very crudeness with which they’ve co-opted this atrocity allows us to highlight the broader effort on the political right to hijack the meaning of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
From the moment the bodies hit the floor, there has been an attempt to integrate these murders by adherents of reactionary Islamism into Anglospheric culture wars. In particular, the right has attempted to police reactions to the murders, and to conscript all of us into sharing a response that furthers a political project that has little to do with freedom. The underlying message is the same sinister one that French police and soldiers have taken to giving journalists in Paris: you are with us or you are against us.
In Australia, as elsewhere, there has been an insistence that outlets show “courage” and “solidarity” by republishing cartoons that some Muslims found offensive, and charges of cowardice for those who would not. There’s some bleak mirth to be derived from the fact that the loudest demands that newspapers go out of their way to offend people are coming from journalists with a record of responding with legal action when they themselves are slighted.
The Australian’s Chris Kenny is all for offending as many Muslims as it takes to assert our freedom; when satirists offended him, he called in his lawyers and trousered taxpayer’s money in a settlement with the ABC. Tim Blair has been urging media outlets to robustly antagonise an entire religion, but he pursued legal action against Crikey and several independent bloggers when his own feelings were hurt.
There’s also been a demand that media outlets across the board fall into line with the hyperbolic conflation of terrorists and Muslims in general that has characterised News Corporation’s response from the top to the bottom. Any attempt to offer nuance by a consideration of the social position of French Muslims, or to point out that these were in fact French-born citizens, is presented as appeasement.
It’s all nonsense, and at best it is a distraction from, at worst an attempt to justify, the emerging western response to Charlie Hebdo. Large sections of the English-speaking left are preoccupied with a debate over whether or not some of Charlie’s cartoons were racist.
Meanwhile the most pressing threat to political freedom, and the most penetrating enactments of racism, are coming from the direction they always do: above. Francois Hollande was able to pose as a figure of reason and a defender of freedom with a mind-bogglingly hypocritical bunch of VIP guests at last week’s rally; this week his government has made dozens of arrests in crackdown down on “pro-terrorist” speech. France is revamping and extending surveillance and policing. The events in Paris are being cited in David Cameron’s proposal to ban messaging services that use encryption, and George Brandis’s project of storing all of our metadata. The “special treatment” currently being visited on Muslim migrant populations in France and elsewhere colludes with what Juan Cole has anatomised as the essence of the Islamist project: alienating these communities from the society surrounding them.
We should not repeat the mistake we have made over and over again since 9/11 by letting Charlie Hebdo become another pretext for the further development of the security state. The assault on political rights is not just being carried out by the terrorists, but by our own governments. We should be especially wary of those who claim to stand for freedom, but urge us to make scapegoats of particular groups. And we shouldn’t trust the right to carry any part of this forward.