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Scholar Tariq Ramadan, Harper’s Rick MacArthur on Charlie Hebdo Attack & How the West Treats Muslims

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France is in a state of mourning after the deadly attack on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. A massive manhunt is underway for the suspected gunmen, two French-born brothers of Algerian descent. Charlie Hebdo had come under threat and was firebombed in 2011 after publishing controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. We begin our coverage of the Paris attack with a discussion between two guests: Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and one of the most prominent Muslim intellectuals in Europe; and John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, which in 2006 became one of the first U.S. publications to reprint the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked international protests.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: France has declared a day of mourning as a massive manhunt continues for two brothers suspected of killing 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. On Wednesday night, thousands of people took part in vigils to condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Many held signs reading “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.” The attack killed several prominent cartoonists, including the magazine’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier, who was better known as Charb. He was placed on al-Qaeda’s most wanted list in 2013. The paper had come under threat before and was firebombed in 2011.

In a televised address to the nation, French President François Hollande said the “message of freedom” of those killed in the Charlie Hebdo shootings would live on.

PRESIDENT FRANÇOIS HOLLANDE: [translated] This shooting of extreme violence killed 12 people and injured several more. Greatly talented cartoonists, courageous journalists are dead. They left their mark on generations and generations of French people through their influence, through their insolence and through their rare independence. I want to tell them that we will continue to defend this message, this message of freedom, in their name. This cowardly attack also killed two police officers, the same who were responsible for protecting Charlie Hebdo and the editorial staff of this newspaper, who were threatened for years and who defended freedom of expression. These men and women died for the idea they had of France. That is to say, freedom. Today they are our heroes, and that is why I have decreed that tomorrow will be a day of national mourning. At 12:00, there will be a moment of contemplation across public services, and I invite all the population to take part in it. The flags will be half-mast for three days.

AMY GOODMAN: French authorities identified the gunmen as Chérif and Said Kouachi. Their whereabouts are unknown. An 18-year-old student named Hamyd Mourad turned himself in on Wednesday at a police station in northern France after he was publicly named as the third suspect. According to French TV reports, he told police he’s innocent.

The two brothers were known to French intelligence services. In 2008, Chérif Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in a network of sending volunteer fighters to Iraq to fight alongside al-Qaeda. At the time, Kouachi told the court he had been motivated to travel to Iraq by images of atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Abu Ghraib prison. There are reports the two brothers, who were born in Paris, returned from fighting in Syria last summer.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tension in Paris heightened this morning when a policewoman was shot dead, but it’s unclear if the shooting was linked to yesterday’s attack. French officials said several mosques have also been attacked over the past day.

Earlier today, the remaining staff at Charlie Hebdo announced it will continue publishing on schedule. In a statement, they said, quote, “We have all decided, the journalists who survived and their ex-colleagues, that we are going to have a meeting tomorrow to publish the next Charlie Hebdo, because there is no way, even if they killed 10 of us, that the newspaper won’t be out next week.”

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the rest of the hour on the Charlie Hebdo attack. Later in the show we’ll be joined by the legendary cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel Maus, and the Lebanese-French academic Gilbert Achcar. We begin with the leading European Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, author of a number of influential books on Islam and the West, including Western Muslims and the Future of Islam and In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad. Ramadan was named by Time magazine as one of the most important innovators of the 21st century. He’s joining us from Doha, Qatar. And here in New York is John “Rick” MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine. In 2006, the magazine became one of the first U.S. publications to reprint the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked international protests.

We begin with Tariq Ramadan. Can you respond to what has taken place, the attack on the magazine and what has ensued over these last hours?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Look, thank you, first, for giving me the time to respond to what we are listening to these days. And I think, as I repeated, we have to condemn what is happening, and nothing can justify what happened in the killing of the cartoonists and now the police officer in France. What is important for us is to make it clear that we stand by our principles. And while I was debating, you know, the journalists in France about the cartoons and the way they were coming to or nurturing controversies about, you know, insulting the prophet, insulting Islam, I made it clear from the beginning this is your freedom to do so, I don’t think it’s good, I don’t think it’s an intelligent and decent way to deal with freedom of expression, but you need to be protected as to your right to do it. And I said to the Muslims, right away, in the States as well as everywhere, even in the Muslim-majority countries, that we need to get it right, that we are not going to convince our fellow human beings or fellow citizens that we are a religion of dignity and freedom and responsibility if we start by censorship. That’s not the way it has to be, neither in the West nor in Muslim-majority countries.

Now the point is that we stick to our principles, and there is a second principle that I want to make clear, make it clear about here. It’s really, for all of us, while we are shocked about what is happening in the West in the killing of cartoonists or innocent people, we should stand also by the same principles when it comes to things that are happening around the world in Muslim-majority countries, because the most important number of victims of violent extremism are Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. And very often we are—you know, you have a government saying we are not counting bodies, where they are dropping, you know, bombs on people, and then we are shocked by other things. So I think that our principles also should be, we stick to our principle, innocence and innocence and the dignity of any life, it’s the same dignity, and there is no difference.

And then the third thing that I would add to this now is that we have to come together in the West as Western citizens and understand that it’s not a Muslim business. We are not talking here about, you know, these are murderers, and it’s only Islam that has—or Muslims who have to talk about this. We have to come together to understand that we have a common enemy, which is, of course, violent extremism, and all the reasons and causes that are upstream nurturing this, when it comes to supporting dictators, not giving the freedom for the people to find their way in the future. We need to be consistent as to our condemnation of the consequences in our analysis of the causes and the principles we stand for.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rick MacArthur, you’re the publisher of Harper’s, and Harper’s Magazine made the decision—it was one of the first publications to publish excerpts of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and then also published, perhaps more controversially, the cartoons from the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2006, and now. So, could you respond to what’s happened now and how you feel this ought to be dealt with, this issue of freedom of speech versus what some construe as hate speech?

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Well, this is a long-term fight. This goes on for centuries, remember? We did this with Rushdie. We excerpted The Satanic Verses. We took the heat. We led the counterattack, actually, after the fatwa was declared. And we’ve been fighting this for a long time at Harper’s. We’re not alone, but it’s always a beleaguered minority that fights for freedom of expression, unfortunately.

And you hear, in the responses to a lot of well-meaning—by a lot of well-meaning people in the aftermath of this horrible, horrible murder, these qualifications: “Well, we agree with the right to do it, but we disagree with the way it was done.” And as Art is going to say, I think, more articulately than I can, later, the provocation itself is part of the discussion. And if you can’t have provocation, you can’t have an authentic discussion. And the reason we published the images was so that Art Spiegelman could critique them in front of an audience, to explicate them and to give people a chance to draw their own conclusions in an intelligent way. If you can’t show the images, you can’t have the critique. You can’t have the discussion. So, I’m a little uneasy with the response of some of my well-meaning liberal-minded colleagues who are condemning the killings, who are at the same time saying, “Well, but I wouldn’t have done it that way.” Well, how else could you do it? The New York Times today, in their main story, reproduced two images, two cover images from Charlie Hebdo, neither of which was one of the ones that offended the Muslims.

Now, second point I want to make, which is essential, is that to say—to back off and to say, “We don’t want to offend Muslim sensibilities,” is to generalize to the point of caricature of Muslims, as if all Muslims agreed that this was offensive or offensive enough to merit murdering people, when in fact a vast—the vast majority of Muslims disapprove of this, think it’s the wrong thing to do, think it’s the wrong response, as did a lot of Iranians at the time of the Rushdie crisis. I know a lot of Iranians. I’m very close to the Iranian world. And so, I am—I’m troubled by the response. And I feel reinforced when I talk to my friends, like Art, and the people who fight for these kinds of things over the long haul.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ramadan, when we spoke yesterday, just as all this news was breaking, you said you knew, is that right, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes. Yes, I knew him, and I debated him in, I think, two TV programs in France and were disagreeing. You know, I think that—

AMY GOODMAN: He was one of those killed.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes, and I think—I’m sad about this. And once again, you know, straightaway, I send my sympathy to the victims’ families. And I think that this is something which is unacceptable. Now, once again, I think that the freedom of expression and the way we are dealing with this, it’s a serious matter, and we cannot just, in any way, justify what was done. And my own take, you know, I was one of the first in the West taking the position by saying the fatwa against Salman Rushdie is a political fatwa, is not a religious fatwa, I am not supporting this. And I think that, really, we have to come to this understanding. And by the way, if you look at the Western Muslims today, the great, great, great majority of the Muslims today are quite clear on this: They are not supporting in any way even censorship. They are not going that way. So there is a trend, which is very important now.

What is problematic is that sometimes in even the statements, some of the people who are living in the West, they don’t know the impact of what they are saying, not on Western Muslims only, but on Muslims around the world, that are now using the frustration of some Western Muslims, in fact, to instrumentalize Islam by saying, “Look, at the end of the day, make it as you want. Be whoever you want. Try to be invisible in the West. You are targeted by people.” So I think that we should be very clear on even the double standards, that there are things that you can say about Muslims today that you cannot say about Jews. Let it be clear, what we can’t say about Jews, which is anti-Semitism, it’s completely wrong. Islamophobia is wrong. Don’t have these double standards and just target the weak people. And this is why I said to the chief editor of Charlie Hebdo, “What you are doing are is”—you know, in French, I said, “This is the humor of the people who have no courage. You have a lack of courage in the way you are dealing, because you know who you are targeting.” So my point is not your freedom of expression. It is the freedom that you have to target the people who are weak within your society, and I don’t think that this is the right way of using your freedom of expression. Now you have the right to say whatever you want to say. Principles are principles, but decency and responsibility are also important in this discussion.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick MacArthur?

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Yeah, well, the important thing to remind you, again, is that—well, I didn’t say it at first, was that in Art Spiegelman’s essay in Harper’s Magazine, we made a point of including anti-Semitic caricatures, anti-Semitic imagery, so that Art could make the point that this all depends on whose ox is being gored. And he takes the position, uncomfortably, as a Jew who’s written brilliantly about the Holocaust and about Auschwitz—

AMY GOODMAN: And he will speak for himself in one moment.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: He’ll speak for himself—that, you know, we are Catholic in this, in our approach to this, we’re open-minded. And we understand that as journalists and as writers and as critics, we have to be able to take the worst offense ourselves in order to be able to justify on principle offenses committed against other people. My example is always the Nazis marching in Skokie, which to me is vastly worse, more offensive to my sensibilities, than these caricatures of the prophet. But I stood up, and so did a lot of other people, for the right of free expression, so that the Nazis would be permitted to march in Skokie, which is a place where a lot of Holocaust survivors live. That’s how seriously people like Art and I take freedom of expression.

TARIQ RAMADAN: And can I ask you a question about that? If you look at the situation in the West, really, now, if you are, you know, a citizen, as I am a citizen, when you speak here about equal citizenship and equal rights for each, can you—can you feel the fact that there is a double standard, that there are things that we can say in the West and things we cannot say, and, for example, this is also part of the frustration? It’s as if today whatever you want to say about Muslims, you can say.

Once again, I come to the principles. I will be the first to defend this right to say whatever you want to say. But the reaction, the emotional reaction, is a selective reaction. And it’s not the same depending on what you are talking about. You are very—if you are targeted as anti-Semitic, it’s over for you. But when you are having Islamophobic statements, that’s fine. That’s the normalization of this discourse. And the problem is that it’s not only coming from the far-right parties. The problem that I have in the West now, wherever you are—look at the demonstrations that we had in Germany recently—is the normalization in the political discourse of Islamophobic statements. So don’t you feel that there is a double standard? Don’t you feel that we are talking about freedom of expression targeting the Muslims more than others? This is at least the feeling of Western Muslims, and you cannot just drop it and dismiss it as if it’s not existing.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Well, I’m uncomfortable with the expression “the feeling of Western Muslims,” because, again, I fear generalization, as opposed to what specific Muslims are saying, what specific newspapers are saying.

TARIQ RAMADAN: I’m talking about your feeling.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Yeah, yes, of course—yes, but of course there are double standards.

TARIQ RAMADAN: About your feeling. Talk about—tell me about your own feeling.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: But of course there—but of course there are double standards, and all over the place, but that doesn’t change the point that I’m trying to make, which is that we should be striving to defend the most extreme examples of satire and provocation as a matter of principle, and not apply a double standard. Of course, as I said, I was more offended—I’m more offended by Nazis marching in Skokie than I am by the Prophet Muhammad being satirized in Charlie Hebdo, but it doesn’t change my commitment to defending both forms of provocation as a matter of principle. It doesn’t mean I approve of them. And I’m just nervous about people starting to back and fill and say, “Look, if you had just done it in a nicer way, it would have been acceptable, or a less offensive way.” Well, how do you—how do you address these questions?


JOHN R. MacARTHUR: You can’t.

TARIQ RAMADAN: You know, at the end of the day, I agree with you on the principles. Now, we are living in pluralistic societies, and you cannot just—I understand your point: You cannot generalize on feeling, and you are right.


TARIQ RAMADAN: But still, if you say the only—just the statements that you made right now, saying, “Of course there are double standards,” that’s the “of course” of it which is problematic, that this is why we have to stand together. It’s not—we are not going to live together only by principles and rights; we also have to deal with, you know, feelings, sense of belonging. And this has to be built on in a responsible way. I don’t think it’s just, “Oh, give me my rights. I should be able to say whatever I said.” You know, you have sometimes the right to say silly things, but silly things in time of controversies, of tensions, are idiotic. It’s not the way forward. So I would say, yes, the right of freedom of expression, but one of the—the right of freedom of expression should also be the responsible way of using it.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: If I could—

TARIQ RAMADAN: And it’s not—it’s about human dignity. It’s about living together.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: If I could just quickly interrupt you, because I—to say at the end that there’s a political question here which we’re not dealing with, which I keep trying to deal with, while separating it from the principle of freedom of expression, and that is, yes, there’s a huge Western, violent Western presence in the Middle East and in the Arab world that didn’t exist 25 years ago. When we sent troops to Saudi Arabia before the first Gulf War, we tore something in the Muslim world. We outraged people. But this is a political question that you should also be talking about. The American Army sending troops to holy soil in Saudi Arabia is a different issue and a different provocation from a French magazine publishing satires of the Prophet Muhammad. And if people don’t begin to look into—make the connections or discuss the political context of the Western presence in the Middle East, the military presence, I think we’re going to have a hard time getting around this roadblock.

TARIQ RAMADAN: I really—I really agree with you on this. I think that this is essential. It’s essential for us, as Westerners, and Western Muslims should be involved in this discussion. We cannot cut this discussion from the big picture. And the big picture is, yes, the way, for example, our Western governments are dealing with dictatorships, are dealing with Gulf states, and by being silent about freedom, about dignity, and even supporting regimes where there is no freedom of expression. And this is the right point to make, but this is part of the whole discussion. And you and me, as Westerners from the United States as well as from Europe, we have to be clear: We are not going to defeat anything which has to do with violent extremism, if we are not dealing with justice, with freedom for the people, with the real reform—reformist approach in the Muslim-majority countries. And what is happening today is exactly the opposite. We have the West supporting the worst dictatorships and coming to us, as Western Muslims, say, “OK, now apologize for the consequences of what is happening.” So, we should stand to principles, but we cannot avoid talking about the big picture, and a political one is essential.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave, and also Rick MacArthur will be leaving us, Rick MacArthur who’s publisher of Harper’s Magazine, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, published the Danish cartoons as well as the excerpts of Satanic Verses when a fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. But he will be replaced by the man he invoked, Art Spiegelman, the famed Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, editor, comics advocate, best known for his graphic novel Maus. We will also be joined by Gilbert Achcar, the professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and Tariq Ramadan will stay with us. This is Democracy Now! We’re back in a minute.

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Comics Legend Art Spiegelman & Scholar Tariq Ramadan on Charlie Hebdo & the Power Dynamic of Satire

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