Last Wednesday, engaged in my ordinary morning busyness, I saw the TV screen change from the bright background set of The View to a red screen of “Breaking News.” The President was about to speak about the Paris shooting attack. My stomach dropped. Living in Denver (arguably the shooting capital of the U.S.), I felt sick, imagining another senseless attack on innocents — in Paris of all places, a city whose politics I do not always agree with but which I otherwise adore immensely.
I was sadly right: 12 had been killed and several more would die days later. What I didn't anticipate was that the tragedy would soon have many of us sympathizing with a publication that, frankly, often offended. Violence like the attack on Charlie Hebdo was despicable — and the right to make your art and express your truth (whatever that may be) is sacrosanct. That said, unlike many on social media posting #JeSuisCharlie, I am not Charlie.
I am an American Muslim woman, a writer and an attorney — and I can imagine the comic that the obstreperous minds at Charlie Hebdo would make of me: a cartoonish girl with a big smile, a Statue of Liberty-esque crown, large breasts under a see-through burqa, with the Twin Towers disintegrating behind her, or probably something worse. I can't claim to know the whole ouevre of Charle Hebdo, but what I’ve seen, with a few exceptions, is crass and offensive — and sometimes flatly racist. [Ed. note: Here's a giant-nosed Muslim man making out with an Hebdo editor, or a take on ISIS-style executions.] The best satire is honest; it exposes our flaws in a shocking jolt of realization sparking that most sincere of reactions: the laugh. Did Charlie Hebdo accomplish that? Maybe sometimes in the opinion of some, but not for me.
The magazine reminds me of those annoying boys I knew in school, who clowned around with no great purpose in mind other than to be obnoxious and difficult. We've all experienced some form of that mocking from the back of the classroom. Every once in a great while, one of the boys would say something brilliant, almost by accident. Charlie Hebdo had those moments, too: There's a cover where a turbaned, bearded figure is crying into his hands, his thought bubble stating, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots,” with the headline “Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalism." That cartoon — whose creator, Jean Cabut, was among those killed — got a smile from me. It exposes the divergence between what Muhammad stood for and what the extremists do in his name. Helpfully, this particular depiction of the Prophet Muhammad did not resemble or contain any genitalia or pornographic poses. But, that issue was again filled with cartoons that seemed to exist for no reason other than to aggravate Muslims, even moderate ones like me.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that the right to free expression is not absolute, but that it comes with a duty toward others who may be affected by my speech. I don't want to vilify the dead, for whom I mourn as my fellow expressionists, lost to violence. I don’t feel the need to glorify them posthumously, either: My parents didn’t leave their entire lives behind in early 1970s Pakistan so that I could defend obnoxious humor. This is where I diverge from those who have declared #JeSuisCharlie on my social feeds, and I'm not alone: A new tag "I am Not Charlie" has appeared, and along with it, lots of smart responses to this feeling of hating what happened, but not loving Charlie.
That's partly because, as a Muslim, my speech doesn't always feel free. It’s greatly dictated by others. In a writing like this, I have to make the required (though sincere) condemnation of terrorism. Otherwise, I'll be lumped in with the terrorists themselves — just for not condemning vehemently enough something that no rational person approves of. If I do not, I am a part of the great “deafening silence” of the Muslim world, that, if it is not loudly protesting, in Western-approved format, must thereby be in quiet, resounding approval. When the French say what they want and I don’t like it, they say they're just joking. When I say what I feel, and it doesn’t meet the unilaterally declared guidelines of the “good Muslim”, I'm sympathizing with terrorists.
I shouldn't be pushed into the same corner as the extremists because we both happen not to like the cartoons — or that we want to disagree with France banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves — or because we call for less discriminatory treatment of minorities in Europe and elsewhere. Expressing these views does not make me a terrorist, and I have a free speech right to make them too. I certainly don’t agree with the extremists on anything else — one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen spared the life of a female writer telling her that he does so only on his assumption that she will start wearing the veil, which clearly I do not.
People used to throw animal feces at the Prophet Muhammad and smear dirt on him as he walked through his town. He forgave and simply walked on without fighting back. When one of his tormentors failed to dump her daily supply of goat innards on him, he became alarmed at her absence and knocked at her door to ask if she was okay. It turned out she'd fallen sick. He visited with her, much to her shock, and prayed in her presence for her health and recovery. Free speech — for artists, for Muslims, and for everyone — is worth striving for. But, so is that spirit of tenderness and understanding.
Asma Hasan is a lawyer and writer living in Denver. She's the author of two books, Why I Am a Muslim and American Muslims: The New Generation. You can find more of her work here.