Book Review: ‘Open Letter’

Book Review: ‘Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia and the True Enemies of Free Expression’ by Stephane Charbonnier (Charb)

‘Open Letter’ is a manifesto written by Stephane Charbonnier, also known as ‘Charb’ which had been written at the beginning of 2015. In a tragic twist, the infamous attack of the offices of Charlie Hedbo by Islamist terrorists would occur just a few days after he had finalised his manifesto. One year on from the attack, his manifesto has now been released and translated into English. Though it was written prior to the Charlie Hebdo attack in which Charb lost his life, the manifesto is even more important and relevant in the aftermath of the attack.

The manifesto begins with an insightful foreword by Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker. The foreword does a fine job of outlining the context which Charlie Hebdo worked in; part of a long-standing tradition of direct, sometimes crude satire in stark contrast to the generally refined and reserved discourse of France. Charlie Hebdo, for its part, confronts and engages in issues and debates in a way other French publications simply do not do. It mocks and satires religious fundamentalism in all forms, regardless of what religion it is based from. This background is important and sets the context for the rest of Charb’s manifesto.

One of the main themes of the book is a defense of the work produced by Charlie Hebdo. At many points throughout Charb’s career as a cartoonist and eventually editor-in-chief at the magazine, Charlie Hebdo was heavily criticised, sued on multiple occasions and occasionally attacked. Among the most frequent accusations levelled against Charlie Hebdo, especially in recent years, was the charge of Islamophobia, one which Charb vehemently refutes in Open Letter. According to critics of the magazine, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are Islamophobic, having a particular prejudice towards the religion of Islam, and by extension, people of the Muslim faith. Charb argues that not only does the evidence show that his magazine fearlessly satires and mocks all religions, but that the whole notion of ‘Islamophobia’ is a nonsensical idea conjured up by middle-class, nominally ‘progressive’ commentators. According to Charb, the idea of Islamophobia is an inherently patronising and discriminatory one, as it implies that those of Muslim faith are incapable of handling satire and criticism. The insistence of these middle-class commentators and intellectuals to conflate ridicule of religious extremists, as Charlie Hebdo does, with an attack on the religion and all its adherents is also an alarming attack on free speech, from his perspective.

In the years leading up to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and especially since then, the magazine has gained notoriety among some international commentators who do not place the form of satire Charlie Hebdo produces in its necessary cultural context. Charb also spends part of the manifesto explaining where the magazine actually stands in the broader cultural and political context of France, particularly towards the end. This section of the manifesto explains just how much pressure, not only from society but also from France’s legal system Charlie Hebdo operates under. The magazine has been subject to countless lawsuits, its cartoonists threatened with criminal charges relating to hate speech as well as physical threats, all for merely drawing cartoons. When placed into this context, the reaction against Charlie Hebdo is shown to be utterly absurd.

Open Letter is an important and worthwhile read, both for those who support Charlie Hebdo as well as for its critics. The manifesto is an intelligent, humorous and insightful window into the worldview of Charlie Hebdo and of Charb, showing a depth of thought and nuance many critics do not credit the magazine and Charb with. It raises challenging questions and perspectives on issues of free speech, Islamophobia and religious satire and is well worth a read for anyone interested in these issues, regardless of their opinion of the magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Holocaust Memorial Day: Why we must not stand by hatred

The 27th January marked the annual international Holocaust Memorial Day. On this day, the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau occurred. It is as important as ever to acknowledge the Holocaust, for numerous reasons. Firstly, there are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust who are still with us today. In the not too distant future, they will have all passed on, and with them, people who can personally refute and counter allegations that the Holocaust did not occur or was exaggerated. Secondly, and closely related, a continual awareness of the crimes of the Holocaust is necessary in order to combat antisemitism in the modern day. Fittingly, the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Don’t Stand By’. This slogan has more relevance than ever, not only in commemorating the event itself but also in combating rising anti-Semitism throughout the world.

Unfortunately, antisemitism is still as prevalent as ever, and in many places around the world is on the increase. In Europe, the problem of antisemitism is as widespread as it has ever been. The rate of attacks on the European Jewish population is rising significantly. These attacks have been particularly notable in countries such as France, especially in the wake of last year’s attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. Anti-Semitic incidents have risen by over 80% in France in 2015 in comparison to 2015. As a result, a record number of European Jews have emigrated to Israel, citing fears for their safety. In America, hate crimes are disproportionately directed toward the Jewish population. According to FBI statistics for 2014, 60% of reported hate crimes which has an explicitly religious motive were anti-Jewish in nature.

Anti-Israeli and Anti-Jewish sentiment is particularly strong in the Middle East. One particularly disturbing example of this was a video released by Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei on Holocaust Memorial Day. In the video, the Ayatollah is quoted as follows:

No one in European countries dares to speak up about the Holocaust…while it is not clear whether the core of this matter is reality or not” He then goes on to say “Even if it is a reality, it is not clear how it happened…speaking about the Holocaust and expressing doubts about it is considered a great sin.”

This sort of conspiratorial thinking is not new. Making this sort of argument plays into over-arching ideas of a global conspiracy whereby Jews control world governments and major institutions. Meanwhile, Iran is currently running a Holocaust cartoon competition, a contest where cartoonists try to draw the most viciously mocking depiction of the Holocaust. This contest, by the way, is sponsored by the Iranian government.

The issue of anti-Semitism in Australia, though not as pronounced as in Europe, is still occurring too often. As is the case through most of the world, instances of anti-Semitic discrimination have risen since the escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine during 2014. Many of the most violent incidents since this escalation have used grievances in relation to this conflict as justification for violence. As well as violent incidents, within Australian universities anti-Jewish sentiment also made a resurgence. Far-left political movements such as the Socialist Alternative frequently equate the state of Israel, and by extension Jewish students, as being proponents of genocide.

The examples above of sharply increased incidents of anti-Jewish hate crimes throughout Europe and America as well as the incidents which occurred in Australia highlight the ongoing problem which is anti-Semitic discrimination. Other forms of discrimination, such as anti-Muslim or homophobic discrimination, are rightly condemned. It is time we treated anti-Semitic abuse similarly, lest Australia goes down the path of Europe and America in terms of anti-Jewish discrimination.

A Few Thoughts: Australia Day

On Australia Day, our national day of celebration, it is important to take time to reflect on just what makes Australia the great country it is. By most metrics, particularly socio economic ones, Australia is among the leading countries in the world. Australians enjoy one of the highest average life expectancies, averaging a life expectancy of over 82 years. In terms of average GDP, Australia also stacks up well in comparison to the rest of the world, at a figure of approximately $43,000 per person. From this standpoint, Australians enjoy a standard of living which is among the best in the world. Unlike Europe and to a lesser extent the United States, Australia has for the most part a positive economic outlook going forward, despite challenges such as the transition away from the mining boom.

Australian society enjoys a level of stability and cohesion which is the envy of virtually every other nation on the planet. An individual in Australia has the opportunity and freedom to live however they wish to do so. Our egalitarian national character emphasises equality among people, regardless of status or economic standing. Thanks to this egalitarianism, Australia is less vulnerable to the radical class divides of nations such as the United States or the United Kingdom. The stability of Australian society is no more evident than when Australia’s political system and institutions are compared to many European nations or America. Our constitutional monarchy, for example, ensures that our political system does not concentrate power in the hands of an individual leader in the manner of the American republican system or other equivalent systems throughout Europe. Extreme far-left and far-right parties have virtually no representation in the Australian parliamentary system, unlike in many democracies throughout Europe, where these elements are becoming more and more influential, often to the detriment of their overall politics.

To be sure, there are challenges which Australian society still needs to contend with. For example, racial relations within Australian society, though improving all the time, can still improve further. Stan Grant, reporter for Sky News and Guardian Australia columnist, eloquently pointed out these issues recently during a debate at the Ethics Centre. Debates such as these are of course necessary and important. However, in my opinion, Australia Day should be, primarily, a day of celebration, of acknowledging all that is great about Australia. Calls to rename Australia Day to ‘Invasion Day’, for example, as a means of acknowledging the nation’s troubled past in relation to its indigenous population, while well-intentioned, are misguided and ultimately counter-productive and divisive. Rather than creating a sense of cohesion and community toward solving the genuine issues of the present, initiatives such as these would do little apart from create a fixation on the past. Acknowledging history is of course important. However, concrete actions in the present by government and civil society to address issues such as the gaps in Indigenous life expectancy and education are more useful in the long run than symbolic actions such as changing the name of Australia Day to Invasion Day.

Social Media Hoaxes and Disinformation/Podcast Announcement

The issue of hoaxes and disinformation within news and current affairs, particularly on social media, is an issue I have been exploring for a while now. A large portion of my History Honours thesis which I wrote last year, concerning the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, concerns this topic. Within this thesis, I explored how distorted and falsified information, often starting on social media, would be reported on, legitimised and subsequently presumed to be truthful. Apart from this specific example, however, the issue of disinformation, hoaxes and false information is an important and increasingly prevalent one on social media.

Social media disinformation and hoaxes occur in a variety of ways. One of the most common ways in which this occurs is through viral hoaxes, often on topical or controversial issues. On sites such as Facebook, this often takes the form of a post on a topical issue such as vaccinations, terrorism, climate change, or a geopolitical issue. A large factor for this occurring is the way in which Facebook is set up and how it prioritises certain posts appearing in a newsfeed over others. According to an article from the Washington Post, people who are inclined towards sharing conspiracy theories over Facebook and other forms of social media tend to post much more frequently than other users, despite there being relatively few users who think this way. In addition, these users are often organised and work together closely, helping to push these type of posts across the site, resulting in viral posts. On Facebook for example, a very popular and consistent hoax is about Facebook supposedly asking for a fee to maintain a private profile. Some users feel threatened by this idea, regardless of there not being any evidence of this actually being planned, so create and share posts warning of this coming fee, as a way of comforting or protecting themselves from this perceived threat. This effect of seeking out information and forming posts which fits a predetermined narrative, despite evidence, is known as confirmation bias. Other people, having seen this and also becoming nervous at the prospect of a fee, share the viral post too, despite it being false, which furthers the effect of confirmation bias. Eventually, the hoax has attained such a reach and has been posted so many times that many users simply accept the hoax as being true, due to an echo chamber effect.

For the average user, it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is not. Sites such as Snopes.com help to debunk many of these viral hoaxes and conspiracies, though it cannot keep up with every hoax and false post going around. These examples underscore the need to be careful before sharing a news item or a viral post on social media, to prevent the spread of false or distorted news and information. Take just a few minutes to research and get some background on the topic in question. If possible, find another source which can verify and confirm claims being made

Social media manipulation is not just done by individuals, however. Some governments, such as the Russian government during the Russia-Ukraine war, have employed similar tactics in order to influence and manipulate social media debate of an issue. Throughout this war, the Kremlin has been sponsoring ‘troll houses’, buildings where hundreds of people work around the clock creating blog pieces, writing comments and creating memes which support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The evidence of this can be seen in the comments section of any Facebook, Youtube or other site’s comment section which reports or comments on this conflict, including in this article describing the troll house phenomenon. This deliberate manipulation of information for propaganda purposes in a modern context is often referred to as information warfare. In an upcoming podcast I am working on, I expand on this topic in much more detail.

As I alluded to earlier, the subject of this post is one which I will be discussing in much more detail in a soon to be released debut episode of podcast I am working on. The podcast, which will be co-hosted by myself and Tom Price will examine contemporary political and international issues, as well as exploring various historical topics. Those of you familiar with podcasts such as Foreign Policy’s The Editor’s Roundtable podcast or Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast will particularly enjoy this podcast, though the subject matter will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary politics, geopolitics, current affairs and history.

In Defence of Mixed Martial Arts

The sport of mixed martial arts, or MMA, is growing at an exponential rate. The sport is as big as it has ever been by any commercial measure and media coverage of the sport is at unprecedented levels. Athletes such as Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor have transcended the sporting landscape into popular culture, bringing the sport of MMA to new audiences who previously unaware or uninterested in the sport. For all its growth however, particularly in Australia, the sport still has many critics among the mainstream media.

Following the UFC’s first event, UFC 193 at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia last month, many columnists and opinion writers in Australia’s newspapers and magazines took aim at the UFC and the sport of MMA. Among the most vocal of critics was Peter Fitzsimons of the Sydney Morning Herald, who wrote a piece after the event which was scathing in its criticism of the sport. It is clear from the outset that he has little, if any knowledge of the sport. His first claim, a popular one among those unfamiliar with MMA and the UFC, is that bouts are essentially no-holds-barred fights. This has not been the case for many years, since the very first UFC events of the early 1990s. Modern MMA, under the unified rules, has a clear and extensive range of rules and regulations which prevent particularly dangerous strikes or grappling techniques. Another, even more bizarre insinuation, one which is shared by his Sydney Morning Herald colleague Sam Varghese, is that the participants are somehow competing against their will. Varghese even goes as far as likening the bouts to human cock-fighting, a comparison first made back in the 1990s by United States senator John McCain. It is important to remember, however, this quote was made in the context of MMA being essentially a no-holds-barred sport in its infancy. The sport has moved on since then, with changes even being acknowledged by McCain. The lingering stigma and prejudice against the sport from many in the media, however, has not.

The prejudice against MMA, particularly when considered against the broader Australian landscape and culture in general, is perplexing, to say the least. Australia has a long and storied tradition of sports which are physical in nature, such as Australian Rules football, Rugby League and Rugby Union. The physicality of these sports is a central part of the sports themselves as well as their appeal to mainstream Australian society. In each of these sports, injuries are frequent and sometimes debilitating. Yet, in the case of these sports it is rightly accepted that harm and injury is a natural risk associated with participation. Even boxing, despite being a combat sport, is not held to anywhere near the same level of scrutiny as mixed martial arts is among Australian media. This is despite boxing actually being a more dangerous sport overall than MMA, despite common misconceptions.

As is all too often the case in modern society, broader social issues such as street violence, aggressive public behavior and domestic violence are blamed on a single factor, in this case the sport of MMA. Despite offering no statistical evidence or even a specific anecdote to draw upon, Fitzsimons confidently asserts a direct correlation between the increased popularity of MMA and increased violence in Australian society. Street violence and domestic violence are of course pressing issues which must be addressed by society. However, to claim that the presence of MMA in Australia worsens such issues, without evidence to back it up, is simply wrong. Banning the UFC from Australia, as Fitzsimons pleads for at the end of his piece, will not reduce rates of street or domestic violence. By removing a sanctioned, regulated platform for people to compete in MMA, the sport will simply be driven underground, with less oversight and much more danger for participants. That scenario, rather than the current situation where MMA and the UFC are legalized in Australia, would be a truly worrying prospect to consider.

A Few Thoughts: The Fifth Republican Debate and the Republican Primary

The latest Republican Primary debate focused on issues of foreign policy and national security. During the marathon debate, clocking in at a total of nearly three hours, all manner of issues were discussed, including ISIS, Assad and Putin on the foreign policy side of the debate. Domestically, national security issues included domestic terrorism threats, immigration, border control and intelligence gathering, including issues related to the NSA.

One of the main points to take away from the debate was the sharp divide among candidates on foreign policy issues pertaining to the Middle East. In this regard, two clear positions arose – an interventionist one, arguing the need to remove Assad and defending America’s role in regime change in Libya. In the debate, this line of argument was pursued most vigorously by Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. From their perspective, the removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power in Syria is an essential component of any strategy to contain and ultimately defeat ISIS. Despite much reluctance from Americans to intervene extensively in the Middle East, Rubio and Bush strongly pressed the case that the only way for the current Syrian crisis to be solved would be through America taking a direct leading role.

On the other side of the issue, there were candidates who opposed such an action, arguing that it would further destabilize the Middle East and ultimately not be in America’s interest. Ted Cruz was particularly vigorous in making this argument, clashing with Rubio on multiple occasions about America’s record in the past few years in the Middle East. Cruz argued for an ‘America First’ approach to Middle East policy, arguing that if dictators such as Assad needed to stay to ensure stability in the region, despite the atrocities committed by such leaders, than that is the policy which America should follow. Other candidates, most notably Donald Trump, took this line and went further, arguing that further intervention in Syria was a waste of trillions of dollars better spent on domestic priorities.

Another noticeable difference in this debate was the relative lack of speaking time for Donald Trump in comparison to previous debates. Unlike previous debates, Trump did not garner the most speaking time. Both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio spoke for a longer period of time than Trump in this debate. Overall, the candidates received a surprisingly balanced amount of time to speak. Another takeaway from this debate was the relatively low-key performance of Trump in comparison to previous debates. As well as speaking less than in previous debates, Trump did not appear to have the same level of control over the debate as he has previously enjoyed. Despite this, Trump appears to be enjoying as high a level of popularity among prospective Republican voters as before. According to polling as of the 17th December, Trump still enjoys a substantial lead over his nearest rivals.

With the first Republican Caucus set for February 1 in Iowa, it appears that Donald Trump will likely take a commanding lead in the polls with him into the caucuses. More and more commentators are suggesting that Donald Trump will become the eventual nominee for the Republican Party as a result, almost certainly resulting in a general election face-off against Hillary Clinton. However, polls have shown that Trump would be at a decided disadvantage against Clinton in a general election, especially compared to several other GOP candidates, most notably Marco Rubio. According to RealClearPolitics, as of December 17, Trump would lose to Clinton by a margin of 42%-48%, whilst Rubio would narrowly beat Clinton, 47%-45%. More importantly, over the last month, the overall trend has favoured Clinton more and more strongly against Trump in this scenario, while Rubio is gaining more ground over Clinton. This, therefore, leaves the GOP establishment with a potential problem. A Trump candidacy would likely lose a general election, despite his popularity in the primary. One solution, though controversial and quite unlikely, would be that of a brokered convention. Most likely, however, the field of candidates will narrow down quickly once the state caucuses begin. In any case, it will be fascinating to see how the GOP establishment deals with the increasing possibility of an outsider candidate such as Trump over the coming months.

Some thoughts on the Paris Terror Attacks

One week ago, a series of terrorist attacks by ISIS-linked jihadist took place in Paris, with more than 130 casualties and scores more being injured. In the wake of these attacks, media commentators and pundits have debated, analysed and discussed the event at great length. Unsurprisingly, much of the commentary relating to the Paris attacks has been partisan and lacking in nuance.

For instance, many commentators on the Right, as well as conservative politicians, have used the attacks to denounce Islam as a whole, as well as to voice opposition to accommodating Syrian refugees. This is despite the fact that all of the jihadists in last weeks’ attacks were born in Europe as opposed to having immigrated there from Syria or another Middle Eastern country. The opposition to Syrian refugees has been particularly pronounced among Republican presidential candidates. The most pronounced voice of opposition has been Donald Trump, who has gone so far as to float the idea of creating a database specifically for American Muslims. Such rhetoric, apart from being at odds with the American Constitution and its principles of religious freedom, is incendiary and ultimately not a realistic option in terms of ensuring security.

Many Progressive and left-leaning commentators, from the opposite angle, have also lacked nuance when discussing the attacks. Many commentators, under the goal of trying not to demonise all Muslims when addressing the terror attacks, have been unwilling to mention at all the link between Islam and the Islamist ideology being the attacks. Instead, these commentators, and even some world leaders such as Barack Obama, insist that the attacks have ‘Nothing to do with Islam’. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it distorts the uncomfortable truth of the matter, which is that Islam does ultimately have some link with the ideology behind the Paris terror attacks. Islam, of course, is the religion; Islamism on the other hand, is the desire to impose a version of Islam over society, contrary to the secular, liberal values that are the bedrock of Western civilization.

Progressive, left-leaning commentators and politicians, in their desire to appear compassionate and accommodating toward Muslims, have often neglected to acknowledge the realistic and appropriate questions and concerns in terms of security. The Paris attacks, after all, were one of the most deadly terror attacks against a Western nation since 9/11. In order to be able to deal with the threat of Islamist terror, these politicians will need to implement the necessary policy decisions, even if this means the occasional compromise of freedom. A secure state, after all, is a traditional liberal principle, even if this often goes forgotten or is under-valued by liberal-minded politicians in modern political discourse.

In the ongoing war against Islamist extremism, it is imperative that free discussion and debate of this ideology can occur in order to intellectually combat it. By creating an environment of free speech and debate around these issues, alternative visions and interpretations can be heard and can counter an extremist, Islamist interpretation of the Muslim religion. It is equally important that the distinction between Islamism and the religion of Islam is clear and distinct, in order to ensure that Muslims are not uniformly blamed for Islamist terror attacks. A balanced response, which does not shy away from the necessary, uncomfortable debate around Islamism’s influence in Western societies but also does not over-react and inadvertently divide Western society between Muslim and non-Muslim lines is necessary.