Writing While Muslim: The Freedom to Be Offended

By Rafia ZakariaMay 8, 2015

Writing While Muslim: The Freedom to Be Offended

IT HAPPENED on the Paris Metro. A woman clad all in black, with a severe but striking face, sat across from me and stared. It was mid-morning, and there were few others around. For three stops at three stations she kept up her unrelenting gaze. I smiled, and then I squirmed, but I could not stop her. She stared and stared, and then just as she neared her station, she scowled and turned up her nose as if I smelled and hissed a few words I could not understand. I worried that she would spit. Then she turned on her high-heeled pumps and left.

I had never felt more filthy and unwanted. This was the mid-1990s, and I had been only a day in Paris. I was a teenage bride, and a few days earlier I had taken my first plane trip from Pakistan, where I had been born and raised. Paris was the venue of our honeymoon. On the day in question, I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, excited as ever to wear Western clothes. My hands, however, were covered in henna patterns, the signature of brides. I remember these details exactly because I analyzed them to death: why had she been staring, what was wrong with me, what had she said with such disdain and disgust, and how could I have caused it? My then-husband, who had been raised in America, told me that the French did not like Muslims, that it was probably the henna patterns that gave me away — that and my brown skin. I could not get rid of the latter, but for the rest of the trip I wore the only long-sleeved shirt I had, and tried as best as I could to hide my hennaed hands.


As a Muslim author, it is dangerous to begin an essay with a story such as this one. My subject today is after all a philosophical one, dealing with my opposition to the PEN American Center’s decision to honor the French magazine Charlie Hebdo with the 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The star-studded gala, tickets to which cost more than a thousand dollars a person, took place on Tuesday evening, May 5, 2015. Thunderous standing ovations were given to the recipients. The fact that six writers and then eventually 145 others had objected to the granting of the award to a magazine that publishes Islamophobic content whetted the self-regard of the attendees. Their puffed presence at the gala stood for more than just literary renown or monetary privilege; it was a moral victory. It was they who really stood for freedom of speech, were truly sincere in their opposition to murder.

That, however, is not the reason why it is dangerous to begin with the subjective; that danger is seeded in the fact that in writing while Muslim, my commitment to the secular and the rational is already considered suspect. To open with the story of experiencing that “othering” gaze in a Paris Metro years ago can reinforce the idea that Muslims globally are an irrational group, people in need of modernization and secularization, that they cannot make arguments based on reason, and cannot consequently recognize the necessity of the absolute freedom of speech. The Muslim subjective is not only deemed irrelevant to the Charlie Hebdo debate, it is considered a signifier of cultural insufficiency, even of latent terrorist sympathies. I cannot here reproduce the hundreds of messages, tweets, and such that I have received since I first wrote about my opposition to the award in an article for Al Jazeera America; I can summarize and state that a good number of them insist that my disapproval of the content of the cartoons is misguided, “because I do not understand,” or that my opposition equals an endorsement of murder.

I choose to begin with the subjective here for two reasons. First, I believe the omission of the subjective and the sidelining of moral injury to Muslims as a result of Hebdo’s depictions of the Prophet reveal a double standard when set against examples of liberal moral outrage at certain practices found in the non-Western world. Judgment often exists at the intersection of reason and moral aversion; similar constructions by Western liberal theorists are permitted this hybrid, but not Muslims. Second, I believe that the application of this double standard and the valorization of Hebdo suggest an internationalization of the idea that freedom of expression is rooted in Western Enlightenment, and that all Muslims are opposed to the idea. Ironically, only Muslim extremists believe that Muslim authenticity lies in opposition to all that is Western. I, like most Muslims, prize free speech. The issue here is not a free speech issue — it is not an issue of whether Charlie Hebdo or anyone else has the right to draw offensive cartoons — the question is whether it is right to commend such offense, to give a prize for the offending of a minority by a majority.

The double standard in operation when Western liberals (as opposed to Muslims) turn to moral outrage is astutely argued by scholar Mayanthi Fernando in her book The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism. In a chapter entitled “Asymmetries of Tolerance,” Fernando provides examples of how liberal theorists like Michael Walzer often turn to moral revulsion prior to providing arguments based on procedural reason. She quotes his description of female genital cutting as an example. Walzer says:

As with suttee (widow immolation), it is important to get the description right; clitoridectomy and infibulations “are comparable … not to the removal of the foreskin but to the removal of the penis,” and it is hard to imagine circumcision in that form being treated as a matter of private choice. In any case, the infant girls are not volunteers … Toleration surely should not extend to ritual mutilation.

Notable in the quote, Fernando points out, is Walzer’s turn to “affect” — and not reason — to begin his argument; his insistence on “getting the description right” is actually “a rhetorical sleight of hand, an illustrative emphasis on how disgusting and morally reprehensible the practice is prior to ever going into the rational argument for opposing it.”

Walzer is not alone. Fernando also discusses a similar suspension of reason by the French political sociologist Alain Touraine in his work Un nouveau paradigme: Pour comprendre le monde d’aujourd’hui (A New Paradigm: Understanding the World Today). Touraine, who sees himself as a Republican open to cultural rights, says:

Concretely, we can only recognize cultural rights on the condition that [others] accept our fundamental principles, that is to say, belief in rational thought and the affirmation of personal rights on which no society and no state has the right to infringe. […] Must we “understand” the stoning of unfaithful women, arranged marriages or female genital cutting? No, of course not.

Touraine does not explain what he means by “belief in rational thought” or “personal rights.” He does, like Walzer, turn to a “we” and a similar rhetorical sleight of hand. As Fernando says: “Touraine’s ‘of course not’ functions in much the same way as Walzer’s ‘surely’ by conjuring into being a particular moral community of affect, one that does not need to be told why certain practices are problematic.” In both cases, Walzer and Touraine use the legitimizing power of public debate (simply by invoking it) to bolster arguments that are based on affect. An actual debate, Fernando points out, may call into question “practices in the post-Enlightenment West (for example, permanent punitive incarceration, breast implants, and the genital mutilation of male infants).”

Fernando’s exposition of the juncture where rational argument meets moral outrage is relevant for the simple reason that it illustrates how the subjectivities and moral positions invoked by liberal theorists are unavailable to Muslim objectors to the depictions drawn by Hebdo cartoonists. It also reveals why certain arguments — subjective arguments, arguments about why non-Muslims may not be in the best position to judge whether or not the cartoons are Islamophobic — have been absent from the debate over PEN’s award. Walzer and Touraine draw the support of an unspecified moral majority through affective consent, but if Muslims claim that a cartoon of their Prophet with his bottom in the air, inviting anal sex, offends “our basic principles,” this is considered irrational, and quickly Muslims in general are deemed irrational, intolerant, and uncommitted to freedom. The non-Muslim white majority is deemed the rational and proper judge of the content of the cartoons; the objections of the subject others dismissed as instances of their general irrational and intolerant blathering.

If I don’t like the cartoons drawn by Hebdo, then, and if I include my depiction of “othering” years ago in the Paris Metro, I immediately risk being deemed incapable of objectivity, excluded again, a less than rational being not yet civilized by the values of the Enlightenment. The dominance of this moral majority and its practices of exclusion are celebrated by awards to courage, oiled by privilege, with detractors subjected to accusations of criminality for their dissent. The argument for inclusion of these subjectivities and their objections is hence transformed as an opposition to free speech itself, rather than the discursive act of arriving at a definition for free speech that does not inherently require the silencing and sidelining of those that are the subject of ridicule.

The exclusionary campaign does not stop at sidelining. If Muslim critics persist in drawing attention to their opposition, they are then saddled with the collective burden of all violent acts committed by any Muslim anywhere. Burdened now with the presumption of silent sympathy for all manner of brutality, from Texas to Syria to any place else, the individual Muslim is disciplined into acquiescence. From sidelining, the argument progresses to suspicion, which in countries like the United States is bolstered by a panoply of surveillance laws and profiling procedures that can threaten everything from investigation to imprisonment on the barest of evidence and the flimsiest of cases. It is no small irony that in the same week that PEN America chose to honor Charlie Hebdo, the French Parliament passed a massive surveillance bill that would allow the monitoring of websites and internet service providers without warrants or signs for suspicious activity.

So long as satirical cartoons are published, however, all is well; the paeans to freedom have been sung, the ovations granted, and the applause is resounding. Nothing deeper than a cartoon is wanted or warranted.


When the attacks on Charlie Hebdo happened last January, I wrote an essay pointing out how more Muslim journalists had been killed in 2014 than those of any other faith, yet Muslims continued to occupy a position in the Western imaginary as haters of free speech, collectively given to riots and ruin. Greater valor is accorded Westerners dying at the hands of terrorists than, say, journalists dying in Pakistan or Iraq or Syria at the hands of the same forces while engaged in the same task. There is a particular valuation of valor inherent in this, which says simply that the war is “there” not “here,” and hence it is a greater tragedy for journalists to be killed “here” — in this particular case, lovely, romantic, sophisticated Paris — than on the streets of Karachi. When I mentioned these arguments again in relation to the PEN American Center award for Charlie Hebdo, one liberal theorist who disagreed reminded me — as if I needed to be reminded — “In any case, that kind of murder is abhorrent,” adding as an afterthought, “I hope that PEN will also commemorate murdered Pakistani journalists.”

The condescension stung, not just because it assumes that I don’t abhor murder (I do!), but also because it imagines murdered Pakistani journalists awaiting commemoration by PEN in their early graves — it is a dismissive mischaracterization of my argument about the valuation of tragedy and the depiction of freedom of expression as a Western value. It completely ignores my point that Westerners, by and large, do not consider themselves complicit in the perpetuation of the wars that have led to the deaths of the very journalists that are buried without awards and without recognition of their courageous exercise of free speech pinned to their names.

The war “over there” — need it be said? — is perpetuated by the United States and, in all but the case of the last Iraq war, supported and aided by France. As Neda Atanasoski argues in her book Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity, these military adventures rely on “contrasting the United States as a site of freedom with a growing number of geopolitical enemies who ostensibly require the nation’s ongoing vigilance.” Furthermore, “U.S. military violence is repositioned as humanitarian against terrorism and religious fundamentalism” and “Islam is positioned in opposition to U.S. faith in secular diversity and justified through racialized narratives of unfreedom.” This formulation absolves US violence against Muslims, treating it as irrelevant, while also demanding that Muslim violence against Westerners, broadly constructed, heroicizes its victims. The staggering number of 1.3 million civilian casualties, compiled by Physicians for Social Responsibility, hence does not register on the moral radar of Americans and matters even less in their considerations of context in handing out awards.

Choosing Charlie Hebdo as an indicator of courage reifies and substantiates this very precept, that Western deaths from terror’s incursions are the true examples of the pursuit of freedom. Muslim sacrifices or deaths for the same end, and even when murdered by the same perpetrators, do not present a similar moral binary of good against evil of the kind celebrated at self-congratulatory galas in New York.


Honoring Charlie Hebdo, then, represents a particular coming together of two different but coexisting Western prejudices, both posing as commitments to secular ideas, and neither really having anything to do with freedom. On one side is the American warmongering propaganda that relies on homogenized descriptions of Islamic intolerance to be the unacceptable moral “other,” threatening American humanitarian projects on behalf of global freedom and democracy. This was more or less explicitly admitted by PEN American Center’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel in her email reply to Deborah Eisenberg, the first objector to the award. In her work as a State Department official, Nossel wrote, she had learned the importance of stressing freedom of expression against the obscurantist pressures of governments like those of Pakistan and Afghanistan. She fails of course to mention that those are also countries that collectively face hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties owing to the American (and French) War on Terror. The neo-colonizing imperative is hence assumed as the morally superior one, requiring no further justification.

On the other side is a French secularism that insists on its absolutism as an idea but is willfully blind to its own contradictions in practice. Per the idea of laïcité, religion must be relegated to the private sphere, and it prettily exhorts that the state should not fund or be involved in any religious matters. At the same time, and with taxpayer money, the French state maintains Catholic churches (those constructed prior to the laïcité of 1905); allows Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Judaism to be official religions in Alsace-Moselle; and permits the French president to appoint bishops in Strasbourg and Metz. Similarly, it does not pause at choosing the headscarf as a particular Muslim practice among many to require a ban, or from establishing the “French Council of the Muslim Faith” and the “Institute of Islamic Cultures” in an effort to come up with an official version of Islam that could be deemed more tolerable by the French state.

Similar hypocrisies underlie claims that Charlie Hebdo engaged in “equal disparagement” and that freedom of speech is absolute in France. As French theorist Christine Delphy writes in Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, freedom of speech does not enjoy “iconic, self-defining status” in France. “The Gayssot law makes it a crime to raise questions about the Holocaust,” she writes, so much so that “even research into the Holocaust has become next to impossible.” The fact that French Muslims are the disenfranchised “others” of that society is eradicated from public conversations and conclusions. Only secular considerations are allowed free speech: Islam, no; anti-Islam, yes.

Perceived under this lens, handing out an award for courage to Charlie Hebdo may not be a choice but closer to an imperative born of the operative deceptions of the recent past. On the American side of the Atlantic, it sustains the delusions by which Empire gathers the moral fuel to continue its excursions abroad under the guise of benevolent humanitarianism. For the French, valorization of Hebdo is required to maintain their deceptions at home and the vocal homage to freedom of expression and ideas covers up the silencing and “othering” of French Muslims — crucial to their construction as the irrational minority requiring discipline. It’s a happy, fruitful alliance, one that serves all of the powerful, all of the majorities, and all of the privileged.


Americans love the French; in the American imagination, intellectual and otherwise, France is the home of art, philosophy and literature, culinary perfection and the romantic interlude. The American literary community, with its rich history of writers and intellectuals finding havens in Paris, is eager to hug the French, to imbue their ordinariness with any residual sophistication that may rub off from the embrace. The dirty Muslims, all probable terrorists, languishing in the grimy suburban hinterlands, do not figure into their recollections of strolls in Montmartre; the fantasy of French perfection is too dear to tarnish with the weight of such realities.

It is easy to castigate the detractors, those unwilling to laud the passionate affair between PEN and Hebdo, even easier when they are of non-European origin and (gasp) Muslim. So it has been with me for speaking out against this award: patronizing comments allude to my lack of objectivity owing to my roots; I am accused of supporting murder and jihadism, even by those who know of my work against extremism; supercilious dismissals suggest I simply do not “understand” the cartoons. These comments reveal just how thin the veneer of tolerance, the pantomime of respect, really is and just how robustly embedded is the suspicion and derision brimming beneath. In these coded interchanges, I am being told that in opposing the award, I am failing at the crucial task of proving myself the “good” Muslim, vocally secular and eager to clap hard for an award for Charlie Hebdo.

Such is the situation of our war-torn present, where one-half of the world can decide to laud and laugh and take on the task of determining what is courage and where courage can be found. The future may not be so willing to accept the position of the majority to determine what is unsayable and whether it has been said and by whom. In her book, Delphy recounts the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in France. The French Minister for Education had asked teachers to organize debates about the killings in French schools. A few days later, she reported being shocked because “there was too much questioning from students.” Such challenges were deemed forbidden: children as young as eight years old were carried off to the police station for failing to repeat “Je suis Charlie” in schools or being inadequately respectful of the prescribed moment of silence; all imagined possible terrorist sympathizers by the teachers who reported them. When one was questioned, it was discovered that he did not know the meaning of the word “terrorism.” He will, however, remember being considered a suspect and hauled off to the police station.

These incidents are something to think about, for both Americans and French, and for all those, like me, who believe in the freedom of expression, beyond its facility as a tool of war and exclusion. Meaningful exchange across disagreement must recognize differences in power and privilege. It can only exist where the majority does not dominate via diktat and the minority is not relegated to tokenism or deemed unqualified as an interlocutor, and where both are committed to allowing their conclusions to be transformed by the interaction.


Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher, and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015). She is a columnist for Dawn Pakistan and Al Jazeera America.

LARB Contributor

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015). She is a columnist for Dawn Pakistan and Al Jazeera America.


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