The Worm in Charlie's Apple

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jan 16, 2015 12:01 AM
The Worm in Charlie's Apple
An atrocity is a terrible way to increase a magazine's circulation, but that's how Charlie Hebdo got its current run of 3 million copies or more up from 65,000. Satire, once regarded on Broadway as "what closed on Saturday night," now sells, and this week in Paris it sells out.

The Islamist terror attacks on its offices in Paris have wrought a new and different attitude toward mockery of religion. Instead of calling the magazine's caricatures of Muhammad "Islamaphobic," some previously outraged Muslim organizations, looking to distance themselves from their own past, now describe them as legitimate free speech. Instead of blaming the victims for their venom against the Prophet as driving the violence, they're telling the Islamists that they've misread Muhammad's teaching.

"We strongly condemn this brutal and cowardly attack and reiterate our repudiation of any such assault on freedom of speech, even speech that mocks faiths and religious figures," a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations says of the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead. "Nothing is more immoral, offensive or insulting to our beloved Prophet than such a callous act of murder," says the Muslim Council of Britain.

These are unlike past "denunciations" that were not so much denunciations as exercises "explaining" responsibility for Islamist violence, dwelling on other causes. Gone for the moment are the condemnations of Israel as the "legitimate" source of Muslim rage in these murders. Poverty and joblessness were duly noted as the plight of many Muslims in the "no-go" ghettos of Paris, where "infidels," even if in police uniform, are warned to avoid. But for once "root causes" have not been widely cited as rationalizations for massacre.

Some commentators and activists, of course, rounded up the "usual suspects" -- high unemployment in the banlieues (suburbs), the turmoil of dispossessed Middle Eastern and North African immigrants with ill-fitting Western values imposed on them and, of course, anything that Israel does. But the usual suspects haven't gained traction. Blaming the victims hasn't worked, either.

The severest criticism of the satirists is that they were guilty of "childishness" of the nose-thumbing variety, but even that is defended as freedom of speech. Not only were there few demands to dilute the printer's ink, but critics who cried, "hush," if not "shut up" put on the ubiquitous lapel button proclaiming "Je suis Charlie" -- "I am Charlie."

A few newspapers even reprinted the cover of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, depicting the Prophet Muhammad in tears, holding his own "Je Suis Charlie" sign. They argue that it isn't "deliberately" offensive, but Muslims will consider it blasphemy. The bar of what's offensive falls.

Nevertheless, there's a worm in the apple. Everyone holding hands and singing a verse of "Kumbaya" isn't a solution for shattered national unity. Lurking among the hand-holders in the march down Avenue Voltaire was the specter of an uninvited guest, who was actually watching the pageant on television and perhaps thanking her aligned stars not to be there. Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front, the third-largest political party in France and daughter of its notorious founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, was pointedly not invited to march in the parade.

She has distanced herself from her father's anti-Semitism but retains his anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, anti-euro rants. She claims in New Yorker magazine that she represents the only party with "no responsibility for the present situation." Since the massacre, her party has attracted thousands of new followers, and she makes no secret that she aspires to be the president of France. She thinks the massacre moves her agenda closer to the mainstream.

This turn of events would no doubt offend the dead cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo if they could get a supernatural glimpse into the impact of their deaths on French politics. As equal-opportunity offenders, the cartoonists often reflected the satirical sensibilities of the National Front in ridiculing the reigning center-left party of President Francois Hollande and the center-right party of former President Nicholas Sarkozy, and the dead cartoonists would likely not appreciate Marine Le Pen gaining political status at their expense.

The cover story of Charlie Hebdo, on the day of the massacre, was about "Submission," a dystopian novel set a decade in the future. An Islamist party wins the French election, edging Marine Le Pen in a runoff, and installs Sharia law. Michel Houellebecq, the author, is a fantasist, neither fascist nor Islamophobe, but some Parisians fear he may be a fortuneteller. Marine Le Pen finds the novel plausible. She clearly hopes the fantasy will help her win votes. Indeed, it might.