Why the Texas shooting does not deserve the Charlie Hebdo treatment

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Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Jean-Baptiste Thoret was understandably swift to distance Sunday's shooting in Garland, Texas, from the deadly Islamist attacks against his satirical magazine last January. Both the Texas and Paris shootings involved gunman opening fire on an institution or an event that had mockingly depicted the prophet Muhammad in ink and paper. And both the Hebdo and the Texas exhibit caricatures were Islamophobic, thinly veiled, and fiercely defended as Free Speech.


There is a difference though, and it is largely one of scale and broad intent: Hebdo takes non-denominational aim; its cartoons have mocked all religions. The offensive anti-Islam content carries and reflects a current of Islamophobia, but the publication did not have degrading Islam as its existential mission. The Texas Muhammad cartoon competition, meanwhile, organized by Pamela Gellar, was explicit in anti-Islamic intent. Gellar is the unmitigated racist famed for plastering U.S. cities in Islamophobic posters, which called Muslims "savages." The cartoon exhibition was titled "Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest." Thoret told Charlie Rose that there is "absolutely no comparison" between Charlie Hebdo and Gellar's "anti-Islamic movement."

This isn't entirely true—both barter in mockingly depicting the prophet at a political moment in which rampant Islamophobia is easily and cheaply mobilized. Yet while Hebdo's offensive content deserves challenge, and perhaps censure, it is arguably defensible free speech. It may, as scholar Arthur Goldhammer rightly notes, be bad or badly executed satire; it may offend more than it provokes. Crucially, though, the matter of Charlie Hebdo and Islamophobia is by no means clear—as we see in the debate surrounding famous writers boycotting the PEN gala for honoring the cartoonists. The question of whether to support, celebrate, condemn, or console Hebdo is not black and white: it's nothing so simple as "Je Suis Charlie" or "Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie." It's an issue which demands nuance, not crass slogans of identification or disaffiliation.

Meanwhile, the Texas cartoon competition—and Gellar's organization "American Freedom Defense Initiative"—should not be countenanced as anything but hateful and racist. Which is not to say any of the 200 attendees deserved to be victims of a shooting. Of course not. Gladly, only the gunmen themselves were shot dead in Sunday's attacks. But the event and its organizers remain a disgrace—and not the first of that racist sort at the Texas conference center. In January, a conference of moderate Muslims, "Stand with the Prophet against Terror and Hate," which organizers aimed to "show that [Muslim's] are kind peaceful people," was met by racist white protesters. They told attendees, "Go home and take Obama with you." It is in such a context of hate that new terror is born.

In the coming days, the media will pour over the details of the Texas shooters' lives. We know already that the two men were roommates in Arizona, Nadir Soofi and Elton Simpson. We know that Simpson had been under FBI surveillance since 2006 (which raises, but doesn't answer, questions about how much surveillance helps security in the case of essentially unpredictable lone wolf attacks). Simpson had also referenced the Islamic State on Twitter and had a charge under his belt for lying to the FBI about plans to travel to Somalia to engage in jihad. Simpson was a convert to Islam. "We are Americans, we believe in America," his father told press. And Soofi's mother Sharon Soofi stated of her son "was raised in a normal American fashion." Let the radicalization narratives flow.

But there's a reason that Soofi and Simpson drove across state lines, eyes set on the Muhammad cartoon event. And it is not because they hated our freedom. The Texas shooting is part of a viciously circular infinite regression, in which hatred is proposed at every turn and each new violence provokes a counter-violence. Crucially, there are no sides to defend here, because violent Islamist extremism and vile Islamophobia  in this context are only superficially two opposing sides. The positions of Gellar and the gunmen co-constitute each other: they call each other into being, validate and verify each other. To slam Gellar is not to support the shooters; rather, to support or defend Gellar would be to fuel the hateful conditions that bolster Islamist extremism. It's a bloody game of interpolation.

Arguments that hate groups like ADFI have a First Amendment right to expression with events like the Muhammad cartoon context may be valid. But that's not the point. Asserting the existence of a constitutional right is not the same as condoning every action taken under that right. Gellar and her firebrand are worthy of contempt. I'm not saying anyone involved with the cartoon event, or other ADFI action, were asking to be shot, or brought potentially deadly violence upon themselves. But I will go so far as to say that no one in this story is a hero, no one is to be celebrated.


The confusion over whether to stand with Charlie Hebdo does not apply here. The rush to assert #JeSuisCharlie after the Paris attacks was, I believe, ill-thought. We can condemn a massacre without explicitly identifying with, identifying as, the victims. Equally, stating "Je Suis Charlie" risks asserting that we are all potential victims of deadly terror attacks—it affirms a dangerous national security, and as such opens us to a world of mass surveillance, perpetual war, and civil liberties abrogations. But disagreements with Hebdo needn't have been expressed with the disaffiliating "I am not." The world needn't be split into Charlies and not-Charlies.

But if the #JeSuisCharlie message was challenged for elevating the controversial magazine as a bastion of free speech under threat, the ADFI and its Muhammad cartoon competition clearly does not deserve the #JeSuis treatment. A smattering of #JeSuisPamela hashtags are spreading on Twitter. It's the "us" versus "them" narrative of Gellar and her fellow hate-mongers' dreams—deluded, as they are, under a neo-conservative spell in which they cannot see their own role in calling their "savage" enemies into being.