“Erdogan: in private it is very funny,” the literally cheeky cover declares. The suggestion seems to be that the Turkish President is a two-faced phony, a deluded Ottoman revivalist playacting Islam’s beefiest bodyguard only to impress nationalist dreamers and pious extremists – this in narcissistic furtherance of self-preservation. Away from the glare of those judges, however, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a Westernised rule-breaker with all the conventional appetites, not excluding booze, slap and tickle. That is a devastating critique – especially because it is almost certainly at least two-thirds true.
I’m not a big fan of Charlie Hebdo’s garish house style. Nor, as a rule, is it the height of editorial sophistication to go after a man using sex and religion as cudgels. That said, I fully accept Erdogan’s uppity commentaries on France’s militancy against Islamic extremism make him a licit target for merciless demolition. This swaggering blowhard made it personal by questioning the mental health of Emmanuel Macron.
But just as I support the right of its cartoonists to draw what they like, it’s my right to say Hebdo’s boilerplate atheism is part of the reason France was overwhelmed by jihadists in the first place. Rabelaisian iconoclasm always becomes as unctuous as the religiosity it abhors. But it’s a lot more dangerous for nations.
An interesting thing about this new battle between Western Freedoms and Islamic Outrage in the Francophone context is its contemporaneity with the new battle between Western Freedoms and Big Tech in the Anglophone. Twitter, Facebook and Google are the Erdogans in a terrible cum terrifying – if not terrorist – campaign against the US President and his supporters. As usual, the (non-French) left is in the vanguard of the new censors even if they do pay perfunctory respect to free speech as they advance on the citadel. Their old hero Manning Clarke might call them – with the Zuckerbergs and Dorseys – the “punishers and straighteners” of our time (provided he wasn’t told beforehand they were his descendants).