Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Speech


#JeSuisCharlie on the front page of every newspaper: a meaningless gesture of fake solidarity. If they wanted to show real solidarity, they would print the cartoons. You can’t claim to be Charlie without actually being Charlie and publishing the cartoons. Can we not all imagine a MasterCard or Prius commercial using an image of a little girl lighting a candle at a Charlie Hebdo vigil? Holding a #JeSuisCharlie sign? With feel-good global iMac folk music behind it? Does not posting #JeSuisCharlie on Twitter allow us to transform it into a fashion phenomenon in order that we might immediately get sick of it and move on to something else in true capitalist fashion? Conclusion: #JeSuisCharlie destroys thought, and therefore must be considered an insult to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

What, then, are we supposed to say? After such an event, our duty is simply to speak freely, to follow the psychoanalytic maxim of free association (the only truly free form of speech), the goal of which is to lead us away from ideology and towards the truth and its corollary, desire.


I know, work alongside and appreciate many French Algerians and Moroccans. I don’t know how religious any of them are; we all politely avoid this subject. I’ve refused to criticize Islam out of respect for them as individuals. But how can a thinking person who has read the Koran not come to the conclusion that Islam is a dangerous ideology? How can those of us who are troubled by the many disturbing passages in the Koran, to say nothing of the overall psychotic flavor of this document, not express this explicitly today?

Let me approach it from another angle. As Freud recognized, religion must be considered a symptom. A symptom serves a precise psychic function: it both protects us from anxiety and grants us access to a truncated form of sexuality and desire. It is simultaneously a problem and a solution.

A symptom is a monument to a past victory of desire over the forces of destruction and entropy that inhabit us all. For this reason we must always respect the symptoms of others. As an intern I encountered a psychotic patient whose symptom consisted in obsessively disassembling and reassembling his computer. This was his whole life: taking his computer apart and then putting it back together, over and over, again and again, alone in his room. He was a very disturbed young man who was incapable of making anything like a human connection with anyone.

Contrary to what many people might believe, when faced with such a patient, the analyst’s goal should not be to devalue this symptom despite its patent sterility and inanity. Why not? First of all, because he knows that it protects the patient from total psychic collapse. The analyst can only provide a setting in which the patient, if he so chooses, can explore his symptom, and in so doing build a stepladder to a more sublime symptom, one more capable of offering him access to truth and desire.

That does not mean, however, that the analyst should, outside of the analytic setting, refuse to recognize that from an ethical and epistemological point of view, not all symptoms are equal. The inanity of this particular patient’s symptom illustrates above all how deeply his capacity to desire has been damaged. Somewhere in there is a spark of desire that wants to grow into a flame. The psychoanalyst must simultaneously respect the authenticity of the patient’s suffering and refuse to validate, epistemologically, the symptom in which this spark is frozen.

Where do we get our symptoms? The world we live in furnishes us with a number of circulating discursive orders whose utility lies in their ability to offer us a stable symbolic place in the world. Muslim, capitalist, bohemian, professor, radical, homosexual, heterosexual, soccer mom: the varieties of ready-made symptomatic identities on offer are large. We are hermit crabs and symptoms are our shells. Thought systems, religions, and ideologies therefore have a double status. On the collective level, such discourses must be held to a rigorous epistemological standard. On the individual level, they must be respected inasmuch as they protect the holy wounds of those who wear them as armor. For Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons criticizing Islam is an ethical necessity; for any of the individual Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to insult Islam in the context of a face-to-face subjective encounter with a Muslim of good faith is unethical.

From a theological point of view, Islam is the least sophisticated and most regressive of the three great monotheisms, as Claude Levi-Strauss recognized. The God of the Jews is absent. His will can only be divined through a constant work of interpretation of the incomplete Law He left behind. The Christian God is a paradox: both human and divine, one and three, merciful and violent. In both cases, believers are confronted with a salutary difficulty: their religion offers them no easy answer, no conflictless identification with a perfect narcissistic ideal. In the best of cases, such inner contradictions protect Judaism and Christianity from becoming simple life coaching. These inner aporias allow these two religions to function, in the best of circumstances, as machines capable of producing speech, desire and truth. Every religion, understood as a symptom that has been elaborated and refined over time, possesses its own specific genius. Could a non-Jew have invented psychoanalysis? Could a non-Christian have written the Phenomenology of Spirit?

Let me be clear: my claim is not that Judaism and Christianity are ideal religions in some positive sense. On the contrary, their greatness lies precisely in the fact that they are programmed to self-destruct. Inscribed in their DNA is the very code that allows those born into them to exit them, to go beyond them. Is not the true genius of Judaism, for example, its capacity to produce excellent atheists?

Of course, history both recent and ancient offers us numerous examples of how these two religions have been instrumentalized in the service of fascism, the last essence of which is always the fantasy of unity and completeness, as the etymology of the word “fascism” makes clear. Still, following Gödel’s law, a Christian fascism, for example, is impossible without sacrificing completeness to the fantasy of consistency. The very founding texts of Christianity protect it from such a reduction.

Islam, on the other hand, seems to provide an easy template for avoiding the torment of subjective division. There is a perfect man, Mohammed, and our duty is to emulate him in every way. Such an identification amounts to a total abdication of desire, which is always singular. The very structure of narcissistic identification inhibits desire, inasmuch as it always involves subordination to some other, even – especially – if this other is nothing but an idealized image of ourselves.

The depressing destiny reserved for women in Islam is nothing but the necessary consequence of the larger refusal of incompleteness, uncertainty, absence, and desire that this identification entails: in other words, the good Muslim finds himself obligated to refuse everything that constitutes the genius of the feminine. The oppression of women is not a contingent historical detail of Muslim society; it is the libidinal cornerstone on which Islam rests. The indestructibility of Woman constitutes a permanent open wound on the flank of the Muslim world, a wound which is displaced onto a series of stand-ins in the political sphere: Israel, Jews, America, infidels…

Judaism and Christianity possess an explicit kernel of internal contradiction that prevents them from falling once and for all into fascism. Islam too necessarily possesses such a kernel, but it is buried. Were not the Sufi mystics once able to transform Islam into a conduit to the authentically divine? Was not Islam once the religion of science and philosophy? Was this despite Islam, or because of it?

The point has been made many times that the Koran is full of incitements to hatred. However, the same is true of the Bible. Both holy books are also full of incitements to peace. That said, there is a crucial difference on another level, one that I have never seen examined closely. I am speaking about the style in which the Koran is written. Jacques Lacan prefaced his Ecrits with the Buffon quote, “Le style, c’est l’homme même”, which can be paraphrased as “style makes the man”. For Lacan, style is content. The transmission of psychoanalysis is less a question of didactics than it is a question of style. For Lacan, it is the analyst’s singular way of living and above all speaking that breathes life into psychoanalytic theory. This singularity does not come to us naturally; we must fight for it, fight to cultivate it, fight to preserve it, and the terrain upon which this fight takes place is that of speech, of language. On the level of explicit content, the Koran is certainly more troubling than the Bible, but this alone is not sufficient to explain the catastrophic social consequences of Islam in lands where it forms the matrix of social life. I think that the argument can be made that it is above all the style of Islamic discourse that is responsible for its failure to function as a machine capable of cultivating desire and subjectivity for many of those who are caught in it. What is this style? To put it bluntly, the Koran could have been written by several of the various paranoiac patients I have encountered in and out of mental hospitals over the course of my psychoanalytic career. Writer Sebastian Faulks describes it thus:

It’s a depressing book. It really is. It’s just the rantings of a schizophrenic. It’s very one-dimensional, and people talk about the beauty of the Arabic and so on, but the English translation I read was, from a literary point of view, very disappointing. There is also the barrenness of the message. […] With the Koran there are no stories. And it has no ethical dimension like the New Testament, no new plan for life. It says ‘the Jews and the Christians were along the right tracks, but actually, they were wrong and I’m right, and if you don’t believe me, tough — you’ll burn for ever’. That’s basically the message of the book.

Schopenhauer was even more critical: 

Consider the Koran, for example; this wretched book was sufficient to start a world-religion, to satisfy the metaphysical needs of countless millions for twelve hundred years, to become the basis of their morality and of a remarkable contempt for death, and also to inspire them to bloody wars and the most extensive conquests. Much may be lost in translation, but I have not been able to discover in it one single idea of value.

My question to the theologians: do the holy texts of Islam possess the necessary DNA for the religion to sublate itself the way Christianity and Judaism (among others) have? Or is this kernel of contradiction too inconsequential next to the reams of theology that have left a trail of blood across the Middle East? It is worth noting that one of the murdered Charlie Hebdo employees was an Algerian Kabyle named Mustapha Ourrad who described himself as a “Sufi atheist” (echoing Lacan’s maxim that the only true atheists are theologians). These are the people whose voices I am most curious to hear: those who have used Islam to escape Islam. This, for me, is the crucial question. We know that it is possible to be a Christian atheist (Hegel), a Jewish atheist (Freud), a pagan atheist (Nietzsche), but is it possible to be a Muslim atheist? Where is the Muslim Kierkegaard?

I find myself in a delicate situation today. I feel morally obligated to recognize the poverty of Islam as a ready-made symptom. But how am I supposed to recognize this poverty while simultaneously following my moral duty of respecting those for whom it is a solution to deeper psychic conflicts? Those for whom it forms the matrix of a family life and connection with the past?

When I walk from La Chapelle to Barbès in Paris, I am troubled. These two neighborhoods are separated by nothing but the railroad tracks that snake out the back of the Gare du Nord in northern Paris. La Chapelle has, over the last few decades, been populated by Tamils fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka. Barbès, on the other hand, has been home to the Arab North Africans of Paris for generations. Although poor, La Chapelle is, for the passerby at least, a safe and joyous place. This joyful atmosphere can only be understood as a collective expression of some ancestral Tamil/Hindu genius that manifests itself in the habitus of the people who make up this community. I do not wish to be too romantic here. There are troubling signs in La Chapelle as well, such as the occasionally glimpsed tiger flag (the symbol of the Tamil Tigers, the terrorist group responsible for the invention of the suicide belt). Still, on a human level, La Chapelle feels alive. Barbès, on the other hand, is sinister, drab, and unsafe. The only women that can be seen anywhere are veiled and carry caddies full of groceries. The streets are full of loitering, hard-faced men in tracksuits drinking mint tea or beer, depending on their degree of piety. Among them can be spotted the occasional “barbu” in full Islamic garb. It is an intimidating place for a non-Muslim man and a repulsive place for a free woman.

What the Charlie Hebdo shooting tells me is that it is time that we non-Muslims, and especially we atheists, become less intellectually complacent with this particular discourse. The psychoanalyst must engage in an intricate dance with the symptoms of his patients, now shoring them up, now tearing them down. He has the moral authority to do so because he has traversed the desert of subjective destitution himself. He has beheaded his own idols, liquidated his own narcissistic ideals, and abandoned all hope of attaining Paradise. He has the great fortune and responsibility of safeguarding and transmitting a body of knowledge that has been passed down to him by others. He has learned to prefer desire and incompleteness to the sham completeness of ideology. This inner fight must be renewed every day, with no hope for final victory.

Westerners are not morally superior to Muslims because the cultural formations that have been refined over thousands of years and which form the core of the Western identity are more sophisticated than those of the Middle Eastern world. We must simultaneously affirm that yes, the Western tradition, that of Beethoven, Hegel, Einstein, and Freud is superior to Islamic tradition while refusing to grant ourselves any individual moral superiority over anyone else simply for having been born into it. This is an uncomfortable truth that we must not shy away from acknowledging today.


The empty form of “freedom of speech” only has meaning when it is filled in with some sort of concrete content. It is only by childishly saying exactly what the Law, explicit or implicit, prohibits us from saying that we are able to liberate ourselves from the many repressive discourses that seek to enslave us (from Islam to consumerism to political correctness).

One of the things that the analysand learns over the course of a psychoanalysis is that he is not as wicked as he thinks he is (or, rather, as he wants to be). How does this happen? First, the psychoanalyst authorizes the patient to say all of the evil, selfish, cruel, violent, racist, etc. things that have ever passed through his head. Second, he refuses to pass judgment on this explicit “hateful” discourse. Third, he draws the patient’s attention to the gaps, coincidences, and discordances in his litany of hate. In this way, he allows the patient to recognize that such thoughts function above all as a screen concealing another, more authentic discourse: he begins to realize that his wicked thoughts have the same status as gargoyles placed outside a church. As the blasphemies pile up, the analysand comes to understand that they are nothing but snippets of language that pass through his consciousness precisely because of their blasphemous nature. Through his interventions, the psychoanalyst reframes, repunctuates, and reorders the patient’s speech in such a way that the true, hidden message behind it becomes visible. This message is always a disguised expression of desire.

It is only by respecting such an ethics of free speech, or better, by traversing the painful ordeal of free speech, that we can learn that what we originally took for our particular wickedness is nothing more than a universal mechanism of the human unconscious, which eternally gravitates towards the unknown and the prohibited in search of the elusive X that will finally make us whole. This realization, namely that we are not bad, is profoundly liberating.

Why is free speech important? It is important precisely because it is only by traversing our apparent wickedness that we can learn how illusory it is. Truly free speech liberates us by weakening the various discourses of power and servitude that haunt us from the inside and mobilize our shame and guilt to shackle our desire. We might even formulate it more strongly: only the phenomenological emergence of such a liberation-effect allows us to qualify speech as free.

What strikes me about a number of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists (Charb, Cabu, Wolinski) is their fundamentally juvenile character and appearance. Were not many of them essentially adult children? Are not cartoons the childish form of expression par excellence? For whatever reason, the men of Charlie Hebdo appeared to remain in a fundamentally adolescent developmental period. The very juvenile quality of their cartoons even served a precise function: pre-empting our stupidity. By being more scatological, more childish, and more obscene, they allowed us to move past the desire to provoke for the sake of provocation. Crucially, we cannot skip this step in our movement towards true freedom of thought and expression. We cannot go straight from the Master’s Discourse to freedom and desire without passing through the bottleneck of blasphemy for its own sake. What emerges on the other side of blasphemy is not hatred, as the enemies of satire claim, but rather a joyful resignation to the botched, incomplete nature of humanity. Remove the bridge provided by publications like Charlie Hebdo, and there is no way to get from here to there.

Consciously or unconsciously, every single person who encounters the Islamic prohibition on representing Mohammed has the same response: the desire to draw him exactly the way Charlie Hebdo drew him, which is to say blasphemously. This is no less true of the Charlie Hebdo killers than it is of you and I. Here is why those craven appeals for “common sense” in the exercise of free speech are so dangerous: if we filter our speech through common sense – which is to say, ideology – it stops being free. In a certain sense, “free speech”, like free association, is not “free” at all: it follows strict laws, those that govern the unconscious. The Charlie Hebdo artists were not gratuitously insulting Muslims; they were drawing cartoons that every single Muslim has drawn in his dreams. They had no choice but to draw the exact cartoons they drew because only these concrete cartoons were dictated by the totalitarian discourse of today’s radical Islam! By drawing in reality the cartoons we have all drawn in fantasy, they weaken the superego voice in our head that is always ready to remind us how bad we are. By being worse than us, more juvenile than us, they liberated us all. They had to go all the way. Blasphemy is the concrete form of free speech.

What is the difference between the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Third Reich and the blasphemous cartoons of Charlie Hebdo? Should we not defend both? No. The difference between them is subtle but crucial. Charlie Hebdo operates from the position of the hysteric, which is to say that its cartoons are responses to the various ideologies that attempt to limit our freedom. On the contrary, the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Third Reich are ideology. The position from which the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are drawn is a position of authenticity, whereas the position from the anti-Semitic propaganda of Goebbels was written was one of domination. The crucial insight here is that freedom is never abstract freedom. For freedom to be freedom, it must be concrete. At any given time, in any given place, the path of free speech lies in one specific direction. Under any totalitarian system, anyone who is not speaking out clearly against his masters is not speaking freely, no matter what he is talking about, whether he believes his speech to be free or not.

This massacre also illustrates the obtuseness of the French criminalization of speech deemed racist or anti-Semitic. These laws were understandably conceived after World War Two (the Pleven law dates from 1972) to prevent the racist indoctrination that made the Holocaust possible from taking hold in the populace again. However, they have largely had the opposite effect. The specific prohibition on anything resembling anti-Semitism has nourished, in the minds of many Muslims, the belief that there is a double standard at play. In this sense, such laws actually facilitate events like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Was not the columnist Siné fired from Charlie Hebdo just a few years ago for a supposedly anti-Semitic remark concerning Nicolas Sarkozy’s son, a remark which could more accurately be described as simply tasteless and blasphemous? How to explain this inconsistency? Why Jews and not Muslims? Here we see how the prohibition of speech deemed offensive concerning one specific ethnic/religious group can only generate the need to extend this exception to everybody until there is no freedom to offend left at all. Speech must remain unequivocally free. Our laws cannot be ethical in our place. It is up to us to infuse our dead laws with living ethics. We cannot shirk the responsibility of speaking freely, which is to say ethically, by deferring this responsibility onto the law. Such laws can only have the opposite effect: they deny our ability to distinguish true and false, ethical and unethical. They say: when it comes to Jews, you cannot be trusted. And the leap from there to it is the Jews themselves who cannot be trusted is all too easy to make.

A mind that is free moves spontaneously towards the truth, and the law’s refusal to recognize this capacity for ethical sovereignty can only function as an invitation to shirk our duty to speak freely, which is to say, in a way that is constrained by the truth, by our ethical obligation to fill the abstract form of “truth” in with some necessarily insufficient concrete content.

I am troubled by the fact that no major newspapers have chosen to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The only morally appropriate response for a newspaper like the New York Times is to publish the most offensive of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on its front page. But they are cowards. We little people cannot do everything ourselves; we need our institutions to stand up for us. Today, they have refused. With the death of Charlie Hebdo, there is literally no one left in the news industry with the courage to defy the fatwa on blasphemy, and there probably will not be anytime soon. Amazing! The bloated, pompous, self-important discourse of radical Islam demands multiple responses: nuanced criticism and circumspection but also mockery and outright refusal. We need all of these voices. Reflection unsupplemented by mockery and refusal is sterile. The contrary is also true. There is plenty of reflection out there – some of it is even good – but there is very little enlightened mockery, which is just as necessary. With the death of Charlie Hebdo, we can expect the sterile analyses to multiply and our spines to soften just that much more.            

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