12 Jan 2015

#JenesuispasCharlie: ‘What if I’m not Charlie?’

‘Je suis Charlie’ became the rallying call for those who stand together in defiance and solidarity. But as Paris reflects on the tragedies of last week, Kunal Dutta asks: is it still appropriate?

Je suis Charlie. Within hours of Wednesday’s barbarous murders in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, this had become the defining sentiment of defiance and solidarity that bounced around social media and across the world.

Its literal translation: I am Charlie. Its call is for unity. For people to stand together in grief and condemnation.

But the phrase raises deeper questions about where the country wants to go from here. While some found solace in the phrase in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there are others who see it as constraining: a reductive digital shorthand that may not be suitable for everyone.

‘I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed’

There were signs of this last week (see above). Freedom of speech, the argument goes, can only truly happen if we allow people to opt out of a consensus view.

As one person tweeted “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.”

On a deeper level this means facing the uncomfortable prospect of considering that while Charlie Hebdo had its fans and remains an arbiter of a perfectly permissible satire, there were also many who saw their cartoons as racist, deeply offensive and often unfunny. It means freeing up space for greater debate and nuances of opinion, however unpalatable that may be.

But how permissible is it? The cultural commentator Peter York told Channel 4 News that it is difficult to be both anti-cartoon and anti-murder. “If you’re a 21st century person living in a western democracy, you absolutely believe in the right to cartoon anything.

“Part of cultural assimilation is buying into this agreement. And so that means a lot of France is Charlie – by very virtue of residing there.”

The musician Billy Bragg told Channel 4 News: “The right to offend remains a right of liberty. Some of the Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons have been in terribly bad taste – however, they are ultimately attacking ideas rather than people.

“If they were singling out Muslims every week, they’d be no better than the BNP. The fact is, they weren’t then and they aren’t now. But everyone is free to dislike oppose them. That too is their right.”

Where now?

So what to conclude? In essence, this: in 2015 Charlie Hebdo remains perfectly within its right to draw pictures of Muhammad if it chooses to. And likewise it is entitled to be irreverent, shocking and offensive.

But by those same virtues, those living in a society of muscular secularism and free speech also have the right to question that taste and decency without fear of reprisals or being collectively silenced.

Yet no-one – ever – can resort to violence. And all should heed the cultural history that has led us to this point – regardless of whether they choose to let it influence them or not.

So rather than holding on to collective identity of “Je suis Charlie”, France is about to face deeper question. Who are we now? Charlie? Or a patchwork of people whose lone voices in a tapestry of millions have never been more crucial. Voices that are prepared to stand in defiance and fight extremist ideas with the only real weapon we have: our absolute right to challenge everything.