This piece is cross-blogged on Medium.

Although I’ve been swamped with other work since the new year began, a couple of weeks ago I began scribbling ad hoc notes for a piece about the Armenian genocide of 1915. I knew very little about that atrocity till I read Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece in the 5th January issue of The New Yorker, except that Turkey had long denied it took place and even outlawed mention of it. I didn’t know the numbers. I hadn’t a clue about the putative ‘rationale’ for this extermination, nor the means by which it was undertaken. As for Armenians as a people, for me they loom largest in my work in the classical music world where they are notably well-represented on the international stage in the ranks of both orchestras and soloists.

While the story – constructed around the writer’s grandfather and the rebuilding of the Armenian church in southeastern Turkey where he had lived – was gripping, what struck me most about Khatchadourian’s essay was its grisly familiarity. It was the way the context and mechanics of that genocide echoed those of every other effort I know of to wipe out an ethnic or religious group. A declining power desperate to shore up its dwindling prestige. Promulgating notions of superiority based on a nostalgic fantasy of purity, set against a dehumanised Other. Peddling claims that this Other constitutes a fifth column working from within to hasten the aforementioned decline, ‘a deadly illness whose cure called for grim measures,’ as Khatchadourian writes. The recruitment of fanatics and mercenaries to the cause. And then the denial that any of this occurred.

Twenty-four years later there was deja vu in Nazi Germany, but this time it was ‘different’ because Jews were ‘different,’ their mysterious rites a sinister metaphor for an inscrutable heart. And then came the Zionist logic that the Jews being ‘different’ made the Palestinians in turn ‘different’, at first merely an obstacle on the road to Nirvana and then, decades later, a metastasis to be excised, to be disappeared by any means. (As my late sister Darya Farha wrote in her poem My Breath is a Problem for the State of Israel ‘Like a murder scene / You’ve tried to clean up / You scrub and scrub / As long as we’re alive you are destined to scrub and / clean, to take a thousand showers.’)

All this was on my mind when Charlie Hebdo happened, and with it the realisation of our worst fears, according to politicians and media pundits. You see, it truly was ‘different’ this time, for while we liberals were wringing our hands over dead Palestinian children and condemning mass data collection, two Frenchmen of Algerian origin were plotting the end of free speech as we knew it by means of the murder of a group of cartoonists. Debates about the limits of speech were instantly verboten. The content of Charlie Hebdo cartoons was immaterial. The blood-soaked history of French colonialism in Algeria, including the hundreds of murdered protestors whose bodies were chucked into the Seine in October 1961, was deemed relevant only to woolly-headed apologists. The murder, incarceration and harassment of writers, artists and cartoonists in Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the US (viz James Risen of The New York Times) a distraction, remarked upon primarily by those of us who spend too much time on Twitter.

We grasped quickly that it wasn’t enough to sympathise with the grieving families of the French satirists who had been ruthlessly murdered, nor to decry these violent acts committed in the name of a religion the huge majority of whose adherents are peaceful. I’ve always believed that the commitment to free speech created a negative obligation, a requirement not to hinder. Instead, I learned from Charlie Hebdo that my liberal credentials resided in my embrace of the magazine’s heroic racism. Indeed, newspaper editors queued up to announce their intention to reprint the cartoons that had supposedly inflamed the murderers, as though ‘a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend’, as Mehdi Hasan of The Huffington Post UK put it. So while the vast majority of Muslims had either ignored these and other offensive cartoons, or at least tolerated them, they were presented with the obscene prospect of having their noses rubbed in them once again, like an adolescent hazing ritual aimed at smoking out illicit thoughts. Indeed, for Muslims, defending Charlie Hebdo – rather than simply denouncing these murders – had instantaneously become a de facto oath of allegiance.

This frenzy culminated in last Sunday’s #ParisMarch when anyone who could find their way to Charles de Gaulle or Orly or the Gare du Nord, from dictators to demagogues to war criminals, could cleanse themselves in the purifying waters of liberte. Alongside France’s grieving citizenry, vulgar opportunists like Benjamin Netanyahu manoeuvred to convert the spirit of the murdered cartoonists into votes in his upcoming election and a recruitment drive for his settlements, while the Saudi Ambassador enjoyed a break between grotesque lashings of the blogger Raif Badawi to feign common cause with the leaders of nations which supply his country’s weaponry. The cocktail of cynicism and hypocrisy that cast a dark shadow over this display of ‘unity’ was profoundly unedifying, and on Monday morning I switched off the radio.

A few years ago, I went through a period of intense anxiety that often left me feeling as though a heavy object was lying on my chest. No amount of effort or concentration could budge it, and no intake of breath could completely fill my lungs, constrained and compressed as they were by this immovable weight. It was like suffocation. This is how I have felt since the Charlie Hebdo murders took place, capable only of shallow, panicky breathing, adrenalin pushing hard against limbs struck dumb. Fortunately, though, over the past week I’ve found some oxygen in the media in the form of writers who’ve refused to lose their heads over Charlie Hebdo. They’ve refused to be bullied into spouting the facile dualisms embraced by even the most ‘progressive’ journalists, alongside the hysteria and racism that underwrite them, instead deploying wit, courage, poetry and critical reasoning to the case of Charlie Hebdo and our response to it. This is free speech.

Besides the piece I re-blogged when all of this began here’s a selection of the comments that have kept air in my lungs, with brief excerpts and links. Many thanks to my dear friend, the poet Nyla Matuk, who helped me put these together.

1. Moral Clarity by Adam Shatz (LRB blog)

‘The slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ expresses a peculiar nostalgia for 11 September, for the moment before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, before all the things that did so much to tarnish America’s image and to muddy the battle lines. In saying ‘je suis Charlie’, we can feel innocent again. Thanks to the massacre in Paris, we can forget the Senate torture report, and rally in defence of the West in good conscience.’

2. As a Muslim, I’m Fed Up With the Hypocrisy of the Free Speech Fundamentalists by Mehdi Hasan (Huffington Post UK)

‘[W]hy have you been so silent on the glaring double standards? Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark? Were you not aware that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would “provoke an outcry” and proudly declared it would “in no circumstances… publish Holocaust cartoons”?

You ask Muslims to denounce a handful of extremists as an existential threat to free speech while turning a blind eye to the much bigger threat to it posed by our elected leaders.’

3. In solidarity with a free press: some more blasphemous cartoons by Glenn Greenwald (The Intercept)

‘Defending free speech is always easy when you like the content of the ideas being targeted, or aren’t part of (or actively dislike) the group being maligned.

Indeed, it is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.’

4. Charlie Hebdo: Paris attack brothers’ campaign of terror can be traced back to Algeria in 1954 by Robert Fisk (The Independent)

‘[T]here’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week, the “history corner” that many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore: the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs and French to this day.’

5. On debating dead moral questions by Fredrik deBoer (blog)

‘We’re debating, in other words, dead moral questions, and for the same reason we always do: because that debate allows us to ignore the ones that might lead us to a different place than the celebration of our own liberal righteousness.’

6. Charlie Hebdo: Now is the time to uphold freedoms and not give in to fear by Simon Jenkins (The Guardian)

‘[After 9/11] in the more belligerent states – the US and Britain – habeas corpus, private communication, legal process and even freedom of speech were curtailed or jeopardised. The forces of state repression suddenly found themselves singing the best tunes. Bin Laden was handed his triumph…

Today’s French terrorists want a similarly hysterical response. They want another twist in the thumbscrew of the surveillance state. They want the media to be told to back off. They want new laws, new controls, new additions to the agenda of illiberalism. They know that in most western nations, including Britain, there exists a burgeoning industry of illiberal bureaucrats with empires to build. This industry may be careful of public safety, but it is careless of the comfort and standing it offers the terrorist. There will now be cries from the security services and parliament for more powers and more surveillance.’

7. Charlie Hebdo: Understanding is the least we owe the dead by Hari Kunzru (The Guardian)

‘Today I feel tired. I feel depressed and afraid. Above all I feel old. Somehow this attack, with its mix of the grotesquely familiar and the unforeseen, has brought home to me in a way other recent atrocities have not, how much of my life has now been lived inside this war trapped in its logic of permanent emergency. I never want to see another man kneeling in an orange jumpsuit. I never want to stand in another security line wondering if today will be the day. I am hollowed out by disgust. I am worn down by outrage. I want to get off the damn bus.’

8. Unmournable Bodies by Teju Cole (The New Yorker blog)

‘…at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation…

Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen.

We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.’

9. Charlie Hebdo: This Attack Was Nothing To Do With Free Speech — It Was About War by Asghar Bughari (blog)

‘The elites’ narrative was simple, a left-wing magazine, had produced ‘satirical cartoons’ about all religions and politicians, some of them about the Prophet of Islam — Only the Muslims took offence (subtext because their backward barbaric religion was alien and intolerant)…

The Muslims today are a demonized underclass in France. A people vilified and attacked by the power structures. A poor people with little or no power and these vile cartoons made their lives worse and heightened the racist prejudice against them.

10. In an Unequal World, Mocking All Serves the Powerful by Saladin Ahmed (The New York Times)

‘The belief that satire is a courageous art beholden to no one is intoxicating. But satire might be better served by an honest reckoning of whose voices we hear and don’t hear, of who we mock and who we don’t, and why.’

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