If social media is anything to go by, the chattering classes have been preoccupied with only one question for the past week: to be or not to be Charlie? All agree the Paris killings were horrific, that nothing French Muslims have suffered, past or present, could justify them. But what does "Je suis Charlie" mean and should we join the chorus?
We can summarise the original sentiment as follows: "Je suis Charlie. I will defend freedom of expression against terrorists who to try to close it down". But few Charlies (who range from Islamophobes to liberals) in the Anglophone world had read the magazine, or seen its infamous cartoons. The non-Charlies, generally on the left, soon found their voices. They denounced the cartoons as racist, and told the Charlies that they should fly another flag to signify their defence of freedom and communal defiance. '[I]t is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech', wrote Teju Cole in the New Yorker, paraphrasing Voltaire.
The Charlies' response came in two forms: the measured and the accusatory. Many argued that cartoonists/satirists should enjoy a sort of cultural diplomatic immunity, protection from politically correct critique. To those who take offence at cartoons, they would say 'Chill out! Don't take yourself too seriously'. Besides, they observed, the magazine lampooned Islamists not Islam, as well other religious dogmas.
But time and again online discussions curdled into a sort of 'with us or against us' fundamentalism, with the Charlies angrily claiming that, in criticising the magazine, the non-Charlies were appeasing the terrorists, seeking the mitigate their crimes. Given they were purporting to defend 'free speech' it was ironic how many Charlies have tried to shout down the non-Charlies' attempts at nuanced commentary
A colleague said 'Je suis Charlie' even though she accepts the non-Charlie arguments. We need to observe a mournful pause, she said, because things are too raw for analysis. To offer cultural critique, of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, at this time is profoundly heretical. But why should those with something to contribute hold their voices just as global attention is so powerfully focussed? It should be possible to talk about the poverty of the Parisian Banlieues, the implacable cultural assimilation of the French nation, the brutal history of French colonialism in Algeria, without being accused of apologising for terrorism.
It should also be possible to debate whether writers and artists, have a responsibility to be more careful and culturally sensitive towards minorities, including Muslims who are, after all, mostly poor, marginalised and alienated (by contrast with followers of other religions targeted by Charlie Hebdo's satire). There is now enough experience– in the form of the Rushdie case, the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, and the Danish cartoons – to illustrate that most Muslims are deeply offended when writers and artists lampoon them and their faith. Satire doesn't translate well.
The liberal response to the murders has been to defend free speech. But liberalism flattens all representation into 'speech' and there is plenty of speech in the west that we condemn or even prohibit: news images that might distress grieving relatives; excessive invasions of privacy such as those practiced by the Murdoch press; and in Australia it is a crime to incite racial hatred.
Why should cartoonists be immune from the charge of racism? Most comedians don't tell mother-in-law or dumb blonde jokes anymore, because feminists brought them to book. Those of us who have the privilege of being able to publish our words, perform or exhibit art– mostly from the white middle class – should be obliged to try to see the point of view of the other.
This is often difficult to achieve at moments of crisis or moral panic, where public anger and anxiety are crystallized, folk devils identified, and the world divided along Manichean lines. Moments of great tragedy that play out in ordinary public places – the Paris magazine office, the Lindt Café in Sydney- tend to grasp the imagination ('that could have been me') But many of us in the west still don't register many of the atrocities in the non-western world and the plight of other citizens. This suggests that the global village is an as yet unrealised project. The territory of our empathic imagination is still metropolitan and populated by people with white skin.
So how will the French Muslim community be affected by the events in Paris? Firstly they are now enduring enormous pressure to disavow the acts of terror, even to join the Charlies. Young radicals and would-be radicals are likely to view community leaders who declare national allegiance, as having been colonised by the people who slight Islam. This will drive more youth towards Islamism and thus forward in a vicious cycle.
Most of us are heartened by the outpourings of communal solidarity in the wake of tragedies like this – the flowers, the candlelit vigils. But in the wake of such events there is always a struggle over the meaning and 'Je Suis Charlie' does not represent the lesson I would wish to take from the Paris massacre. I understand the libertarian roots of Charlie Hebdo's anarchic satirizing spirit but I don't endorse their lampooning of minorities. So in conclusion #Je ne suis pas Charlie but #I Will Ride with You.
He is editor (along with Scott Poynting) of a new book Global Islamophobia to be published by Ashgate in early 2012.