Recently, the satirical French weekly paper Charlie Hebdo, a publication which became well-known internationally due to the horrific event of the mass shooting of its staff by two French gunmen of Algerian descent in January 2015, has once again hit the headlines around the world, this time not as a victim, but as the perpetrator of a different crime: intolerance towards the Muslim community in France.
In an editorial from 30 March entitled “How did we end up here?”, Hebdo argues that there is an environment of fear of criticizing Islam in France. All the Muslim migrants or second generation citizens are tacitly and indirectly responsible for this climate through their cultural practices, contributing to the silencing of critique. The article implies that it is the complete acceptance and tolerance by society of cultural norms different to theirs, without any controversy that has created this state of affairs.
Negative criticism poured down on Charlie Hebdo, with some stating that the publication went too far and mixed up healthy discussions on democracy with a rant on religion. The editorial certainly has many problems. It is forcefully argued and uses far-fetched examples; to suppose that the non-Muslim, non-migrant French people are the ones in a weak position because of their being “forbidden” to speak out is ludicrous. Yet perhaps the most important problem has not yet been singled out by the critics of the article. The editorial misses the most important point, a very delicate and fundamental matter, namely, that we do need to debate cultural difference and its implications for migration. The editorial instead slips into instrumental explanations of why attacks happen.
Yet we can say that Hebdo’s editorial had the courage to bring up one controversial theme: the anxiety generated in the contemporary Western, liberal consciousness regarding what is allowed in terms of criticizing culture and religion. In Sweden, the third EU country that most received non-EU asylum seekers in 2015, it can be difficult to have a critical stance towards different cultural values. Sweden is a country whose surface shines of ultra-liberal and democratic values, but whose underneath is riddled with prejudices and a reluctance to acknowledge actual problems. Anything that diverges from what is acceptable in Swedish public discourse will be scarred, especially due to the fear of being called racist. It is not uncommon that incidents such as the sexual harassment and assault of young women in Köln, Germany, last year, are discussed by opinion makers as a matter of gender relations solely, disregarding the cultural aspect. Some do acknowledge that culture had a role to play in it, but to a small degree.
Other voices in Sweden, however, have managed to touch on the issue of cultural differences to varying degrees. Commentators have highlighted the history of “denialism” among the Swedish political class and mainstream media when it comes to debating the challenges of the migration crisis; the role of the consensus tradition and homogeneity as contributing to Sweden’s difficulty in dealing with cultural diversity; the basic psychological fear against the other, among other aspects. Some present a complete spin on the idea that others are different; research has found that it is the Swedish society that is “too distinct” in comparison to the average ideas and values in other parts of the world.
Hebdo’s editorial is a good backdrop to understand the difficulty that progressive liberals have in openly discussing cultural difference. The editorial blames Muslims for this anxiety, but, as the article goes, “the first task of the guilty is to blame the innocent”. Hebdo has picked the wrong scapegoat. It is not all the Muslims that are to blame for this anxiety. The woman in a hijab in Hebdo’s article – “the woman who forbids you to admit that you are troubled by her veil” – is not forbidding anybody from being “troubled”. It is the Western liberal consciousness itself that harbors this anxiety, anchored on a denial of acknowledging cultural difference and anything else that contradicts a moralist view of the world and people as they should be rather than they happen to be. This is likely due to concern that a possible critique of culture would fuel the far-right. Indeed, the cultural difference argument can be used with an implied judgment that the other’s culture is different and one’s own naturally better. That is the kind of ethnocentric view that ruins the argument on the importance of acknowledging cultural difference in a multicultural society. Many, including perhaps the Hebdo crew, fail to understand that.
There are definitely rich contributions that are bringing much needed light to the culture debate, as the articles linked above. It is critical to be vigilant and not end up defending the right to bigotry instead of the right to dissent. This is a slippery line to walk, one that many in the progressive arena in Sweden have refused to walk down, but a discussion that nevertheless must be put forward. Otherwise, the consequences are public debate and policies – by policy-makers who are not immune to public opinion, especially when the refugee crisis and immigration are the most important issues for Swedish voters – that would simply become devoid of contact with how these cultural differences play out on the ground, subsequently failing to notice tensions brewing under the surface, which are part of the same complex dynamics that lead to both misguided articles such as Hebdo’s and riots in segregated areas.