In January, twelve people were killed in an attack on Charlie Hebdo's Paris office by gunmen shouting "Allahu Akbar"( ("God is great"). The magazine continued to publish, which should have ended any reasonable debate whether Charlie Hebdo courageously demonstrated the Western principle of freedom of expression.
Alas, it did not and six members of the PEN American Center boycotted the recent ceremony at which the organization awarded its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French publication.
That prompted conservative cable news pundit Will Cain, on a "Real Time" panel (video below) with former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee and MSNBC host Alex Wagner, to call Trudeau a "coward," a characterization with which host Bill Maher agreed.
The description was a little harsh- and inaccurate- but perhaps turnabout is fair play, or at least nearly so. In an article published mid-April in The Atlantic, the Doonesbury creator had contended
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence.
We thus have the spectacle of one cartoonist boldly condemning a publication for itself boldly condemning the extremism variously manifested in a religion claiming between 1.6 billion and 2 billion adherents, and whose more radical elements have not always taken kindly to criticism.
The charge that Charlie Hebdo has been afflicting the afflicted while comforting the comfortable does not hold up under scrutiny, Following the Paris attack four months ago, Jason Karaian and Gideon Lichfield wrote
But Charlie Hebdo is not anti-Islam as much as it is anti-religion and broadly anti-establishment. It defends its “right to blasphemy,” in the words (and drawings) of Bernard Velhac, known as Tignous, one of the cartoonists killed in the shootings today. “We publish caricatures every week, but people only describe them as declarations of war when it’s about the person of the Prophet or radical Islam,” cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb,told Der Spiegel in 2012. He was also killed in the shootings today.
Around the time of the 2011 controversy over its Muhammed issue, the magazine’s editor noted that the publication had been sued 13 times by Catholic organizations but only once by a Muslim one.
Going after organized religion generally is what we in America call being politically incorrect, which Maher practiced until 13 years ago he offended the crowd all caught up in the anti-Muslim hysteria of its time. He is not interested in riding the waves of public opinion.
Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the stand-up comic, still resisting the emotion of the moment, is seeing things far more clearly than his detractors. He is among many who have tried to distinguish the radicals from the moderates, as when on Friday he asked rhetorically "Why don't we get on the side of those Muslims- who want to live in the 21st century- rather than getting on the side of those who want to live in the 7th?"
Trudeau argues "Charlie Hebdo,which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. " The perspective, Maher notes, "assumes we just have to accept that Muslims are unable to control themselves the way we would ask everyone else in the world."
Still, Maher's major contribution to the debate lies elsewhere, though nearby. Unlike most individuals critical of radical Islam, he does not deny terrorism which has come from the right. Moreover, he acknowledges homegrown fanatics, including Pamela Geller, "a loon" with whom he's "not a fellow traveler."
That includes, also, Westboro Baptist Church. But Maher adds an appropriate distinction: "They always protest my (standup comedy) shows but it never ends in a gun battle." There are extremists, and then there are extremists.