Charlie Hebdo: #JesuisCharlie ou Non?

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Following the horrific murders of police and journalists in Paris yesterday, Muslim communities in Europe are facing the inevitable consequences. Today mosques in France have been attacked. Muslims in Europe are feeling further reverberations, evident in criticisms of their supposed contention with freedom of speech, whilst governments continue to justify tightening measures that will ironically restrict freedom of speech amongst Muslims who condemn foreign policy. The dominant voices in the mainstream media are focusing on perpetuating myths about a clash of civilisations: the Western ideals of freedom of speech vs the barbaric repression of the (Muslim) Other.

 

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Social media is abound with calls to #killallmuslims, whilst all Muslims are expected to apologise (again) for the individual evil actions of murderers, and declare loudly #notinmyname, else their silence will be subject to scrutiny and suspicion and branded as complicity. At such times it is the Muslims who are always expected to apologise, a point frequently argued by Muslims and non-Muslims:

“So let’s avoid religious profiling. The average Christian had nothing to apologize for when Christian fanatics in the former Yugoslavia engaged in genocide against Muslims. Critics of Islam are not to blame because an anti-Muslim fanatic murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011…. Let’s also acknowledge that the most courageous, peace-loving people in the Middle East who are standing up to Muslim fanatics are themselves often devout Muslims”.

 

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The prevailing narrative on social media is of #JesuisCharlie understandably demonstrating how humanity feels compassionately for the victims at Charlie Hebdo. And yet there is an alternative narrative (not well publicised) of those Muslims speaking up against the atrocity without having to apologise for a crime they have not committed. Others, Muslim and non-Muslim, are voicing their concerns with how the hegemonic narrative on Charlie Hebdo is unfolding to promote the status quo. Whilst some are highlighting how a Muslim policeman was a victim too:

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“My name is Ahmed. A name I share with one of the two police officers killed in Paris today in the#CharlieHebdo attack. Ahmed Merabet who was only 42-years-old, was killed outside the building after he encountered the gunman while patrolling the 11th arrondissement. Ahmed is also one of the Prophet Mohammed’s names, derived from the Arabic root word “hamd” meaning “praise”. It can be translated as“the Highly Praised One”. There is a sick, deep, and dark irony in the fact that the men who launched the attack in Paris, claiming that they had avenged the Prophet Mohammed by murdering 12 people, killed a man who himself was named after the Prophet. Those who view the world in an us versus them paradigm are dangerous because they are obliviously ignorant to the fact that we are all the children of God – whatever or whoever you believe God to be. #JeSuisCharlie#JeSuisAhmedMerabet”.

One blogger states JE NE SUIS PAS CHARLIE drawing parallels between this situation and her experiences as a black female:

“I will not stand for this magazine, I will not celebrate the privilege of “free speech” to be a disguise for hate. I am a black woman who understands how frustrated one can be as whites continue to use laws as an excuse to be abusive to who we are whether it be religion, skin color, or sexual orientation. I know France is scared, I know people are hurting. But I cannot be this newspaper’s ally. I am an ally for the people of France, I am an ally to the victims and their families but I will not stand in solidarity for this hateful newspaper.”

Whilst another blogger highlights her disconnection also:

“But the simple fact is, I am not Charlie. I couldn’t be. Rather, I’m the sort of person who’d only ever get to be an ugly, rude caricature in their pages — a trans woman, a Latina, Puerto Rican but in the same community of Latinos scapegoated for various and sundry evils in the US, much as Muslims are in France. I’d never be the one wieldingthe pen, merely the lewd, pornographic subject and nothing more. I’d be fit for only the consumption of a privileged community, their joke, an unwilling jester. No, je ne suis pas Charlie.”

Anti-censorship bloggers are even highlighting the complexities calling #JesuisCharlie when the magazine was inciting hatred against Muslims:

“…I understand why a culture that is being systematically and individually mistreated and ignored by the privileged in power may eventually spawn some folks who resort to violence doesn’t mean I condone that violence! It means I can see why decades of hurt, fear, and institutionalized abuse may lead to a violent reaction. Understanding is not supporting, it simply means I can connect the dots. Can you not?!?
What I find incredibly disappointing is that on my social media, I see a bunch of white people “standing up” for the “bravery” of a racist magazine to incite hatred against people of colour. I have seen next to nothing about the bombing of the NAACP by a white man on our own soil. I see anti-Muslim protests being started in Europe, and people calling for the genocide of Muslims on Twitter, but very little attention to the number of Muslims who condemned the violence.”

 

An Indian publication highlights the nuances involved in calls for rights to freedom, as Sandip Roy argues:

“And yes, we forget that even France, which has become the embattled bastion of freedom of expression today, wears its own limits on its sleeve. Its staunch defence of freedom of expression did not prevent it from passing a ban on the niqab even though it was deliberately veiled as a ban on “clothing intended to conceal the face”. “Bans like these undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect anyone compelled to do so, just as laws in other countries forcing women to dress in a particular way undermine their rights,” says Izza Leghtas atHuman Rights Watch. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab.
A Reuters report points out that many of the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo got their start in another satirical magazine called Hara Kiri which proclaimed its aim to be “inane and nasty”. That magazine was banned in 1970 after printing a mock death notice for General Charles de Gaulle. Its reincarnation after the ban was as Charlie Hebdo.”

Free speech is not a straightforward and uncomplicated matter.

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Satire can be highly problematic as Jacob Canfield explains:

“…the editorial staff of Hebdo consistently aimed to provoke Muslims. They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong. White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist….
To simplify the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices as “Good, Valiant Westerners vs. Evil, Savage Muslims” is not only racist, it’s dangerously overstated. Cartoonists (especially political cartoonists) generally reinforce the status quo, and they tend to be white men. Calling fellow cartoonists TO ARMS is calling other white men to arms against already marginalized people. The inevitable backlash against Muslims has begun in earnest.”

 

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Thus ideas about free speech and satire are impacted upon by who has the power to profess when free speech is acceptable and when it becomes offensive, and there will always be those who are powerless to fight back against what they deem to be offensive.

Some are highlighting how it is troubling to elevate Charlie Hebdo as a magazine representing European freedom of speech when the themes involve Islamophobic and xenophobic ideas of Muslims in cartoons. Where are the boundaries between grossly mocking the tragedies impacting upon people’s lives and freedom of speech? One example is the disturbing depiction of the girls kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram as happy recipients of welfare benefit. How would the families of the girls who are kidnapped respond to this “humour”?

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Another example discussed on social media questioning what is sacrosanct is the cartoon about the protestors murdered in Rabaa Square in Egypt. Again, how would those impacted by the massacre in Rabaa Square feel about this “humour”?

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Would it be humorous to create satirical representations, and have a sense of humour, about the evil massacre that took place yesterday at the Charlie Hebdo offices? Would Muslim writers be allowed to satirise the tragedy of journalists and cartoonists murdered as they went about their daily lives?

Richard Seymour expresses what some Muslims have argued, that there is a distinction between showing compassion for the victims and the families of the victims and supporting a racist publication:

“…I think there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow “legitimate targets,” and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication…. I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that — irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.”
No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.”

Seymour rightly emphasises the need for those who are elevating the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo research Orientalism. Twitter has also revealed many calling for the world’s newspapers to stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo by publishing the offensive cartoons, and yet is this a well-thought out plan to show support?

Others are arguing that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not an attack on freedom of speech, but about foreign policy and war:

“White people don’t like to admit it, but those cartoons upheld their prejudice, their racism, their political supremacy, and cut it how you will — images like that upheld a political order built on discrimination”.

The role of foreign policy and war is as ever underplayed by political and media rhetoric. It is only the minority of voices who challenge the mainstream media’s rhetoric.

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The mainstream media’s reach to the masses shows some glimmers of hope in presenting necessary alternative voices in analysis by Owen Jones and Peter Oborne. There are many opinions countering the dominant narrative of #jesuischarlie coming from Muslims and non-Muslims alike as they manifest the problematic nature of claiming oneness with a controversial publication, and show it is still possible to feel pain for those grieving after the shattering events in Paris yesterday, and condemn Islamophobic backlash:

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17 replies »

  1. Good point. Brave. It is easier to present this in a very Occident-comfy way.

  2. Thank you very much indeed Sadia for such a well-researched and beautifully put together article, which neatly summarises key, vital points raised by many in the past few days but largely drowned out by the dominant, and often asinine, narratives: let alone the hatred/bigotry into which these are feeding. I am very happy to be able to refer to this summary now in future debates.

    • Thank you for your comment Angela. I feel heartened that you get that I was aiming to put the voices of those who are ordinarily silenced in the mainstream press out there. Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing.

  3. Pace Richard Seymour, I have done my research, and this includes reading both Said and occasional copies of Charlie Hebdo. It would be interesting to see a defence of the magazine by someone who knows a little bit more about it than the people cited in your text seem to do. I think that a good argument can be made that it it is/was neither racist nor islamophic (nor indeed anti-arab, which is what the term really means). Neither was it sexist. All members of the editorial committee rejected those accusations, and several of them have a record of taking part in anti-racist, anti-arab, and anti-woman actions. Given these facts – and they are facts – you might want to look at the cartoons and ask yourselves what it was that they thought they were doing. You may in the end still disagree with the way that they attempted to do it, but that demands thought and analysis, rather than Seymour’s easy dismissal of the task. All of the cartoons incriminated are direct reactions to the political news in France, and if you don’t place them in the context of their apparition, you will be mistaken as to what they convey. The “Welfare Queen” is an American rallying cry : it has little traction in France, and even less among the CH team, all of whom were of the left, and Charb close to the Communist Party.

    I would like to add something other to this mix. Two of the men murdered had been household names in France for decades. Cabu’s and Wolinski’s works have accompanied the adolescence of three generations of Frenchmen and women – including those of North African origin. During those years, both men made many mistakes -Cabu’s use of children with Downes syndrome in his early years was particularly appalling – but that was not all he did. Wolinski worked his way through from sexism to feminism – a pathway that many men will have traveled over the 60s and 70s – with intelligence and humour, in a way that certainly helped many others make the same journey. As feminists, you may want to listen to what his wife had to say yesterday – the video is at the bottom of the linked page –

    To begin with, I was myself iffy about the “IamCharlie” slogan. However, with the news that is breaking at the moment, I have to admit that it looks as if our jihadists see us all as legitimate targets for their hostage taking and their murders. So, yes – whatever you or I may conclude about the inner souls of Cabu, Wolinski, and the other men slaughtered in the CH offices – I am Charlie.

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for taking the time to provide your perspective.

      The people cited in my text, I doubt know any less than the people whose voices are aired in the mainstream media, and offer a valuable counternarrative.
      Islamophobia is not defined as anti Arab. There are plenty of non-Arabs who are unfortunately experiencing the rise of Islamophobia – attacks on women for wearing a headscarf, attacks on mosques etc. It is incorrect (and orientalist) of you to describe Islamophobia as “really” meaning anti-Arab…. when there are Muslims who come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Islamophobia is thus a fear of Islam and Muslims (who come from all walks of life, including white Muslims).

      Those who work for Charlie Hebdo may not have been evil Islamophobes, but nevertheless in the French context it is acceptable to satirise Muslims, but not others. Those who are arguing that CH mocked everyone are choosing to ignore facts such as CH firing one of their own staff after claims the created an anti-semitic caricature. Ask yourself, why then is Islamophobic discourse permissible?

      Your applauding CH’s anti-racist and “anti-anti-woman” stance is akin to saying “I’m not a racist, my best friend is black”. You may view CH as a remarkable leftist publication, but unfortunately the satire therein has real lived consequences in the lives of Muslims in Europe, the more the media satirise and demonise Muslims, the more attacks on mosques and hijab-wearing women. And then come tweets like #killallmuslims. Worrying.

      Freedom of speech comes with responsibility. Satire should make a statement about the powerful elite, not marginalise and demonise minorities. The hypocrisy and double standards are not lost on those thinking critically about the mainstream media’s self-interested focus on “freedom of speech”. Where was freedom of expression in 2005 in France when some argued an advert based on Leonardo Di Vinci’s The Last Supper was not offensive, and yet the French court banned the advert? Where was freedom of expression in 2006 in France when rapper Makela was arrested for insulting France and Napoleon?
      CH may not have intended to cause attacks on mosques and the attacks on Muslim elderly folk, but you can’t get away from the fact they are white men with powerful positions who are reinforcing hegemonic social structures that already discriminate against minorities.

      I understand your point that Wolinski and his colleagues may have tackled sexism with humour and intelligence, it’s a shame they did not do the same with Islamophobia.

  4. Correction – I meant anti-anti-woman actions, of course.

    • Glenn Greenwald, lawyer and journalist, states exactly what was problematic with CH: “[T]here are all sorts of ways ideas and viewpoints are suppressed in the west. When those demanding publication of these anti-Islam cartoons start demanding the affirmative publication of those ideas as well, I’ll believe the sincerity of their very selective application of free speech principles. One can defend free speech without having to publish, let alone embrace, the offensive ideas being targeted. But if that’s not the case, let’s have equal application of this new principle….I’ve previously covered cases where Muslims were imprisoned for many years in the U.S. for things like translating and posting “extremist” videos to the internet, writing scholarly articles in defense of Palestinian groups and expressing harsh criticism of Israel, and even including a Hezbollah channel in a cable package. That’s all well beyond the numerous cases of jobs being lost or careers destroyed for expressing criticism of Israel or (much more dangerously and rarely) Judaism. I’m hoping this week’s celebration of free speech values will generate widespread opposition to all of these long-standing and growing infringements of core political rights in the west, not just some.”

      Tim Wise, anti-racist author, who gets anti-racism unlike CH:”….historically, satire has always been about barbs aimed at those who are MORE powerful than oneself (the elite, royalty, the dominant social, economic, political or religious group), rather than being aimed down the power structure at those with less power. To satirize people who are the targets of institutionalized violence (whether for religious or racial or cultural or linguistic or sexual or gendered reasons) is not brave. It’s sort of shitty, in fact. Should it be protected legally? Sure. Should those who do it be killed or punished in any way? Of course not. But should we hold them up as exemplars of who we want to be, all the while ignoring how the exercise of their freedom, without any sense of responsibility to the common good, actually feeds acrimony and violence on all sides? I think not.”

      My last point: Tim, your viewpoint is the one dominating the media airwaves, and thus it is important that there are voices (like the ones in my text) who are given a platform to allow people to understand the complexities of the problem.

  5. It is very important for dissenting voices to be heard and CH should not be exempt from criticism. It did publish many problematic cartoons during its history, and structural racism is huge problem in France, including in left-wing circles.

    But what bothers me is that it’s not clear that those who are denouncing CH as a hotbed of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. had even heard of CH, let alone read an entire issue of it, before last week. The most basic requirement would be knowledge of French and of the context in which the cartoons were drawn, which I think many CH critics lack.

    This is the standard that we traditionally apply: we don’t take seriously those who publish Islamophobic screeds that compile poorly translated, out-of-context excepts from the Quran, to conclude that Islam is violent. So maybe we should be equally skeptical of those who read CH cartoons with little understanding of the context in which they were drawn, and little knowledge of the larger body of work of these cartoonists? As Tim Mason rightly pointed out, this leads to people identifying in those cartoons US stereotypes that are not as salient in France, and not seeing how they often relate to domestic political events.

    For instance, the Boko Haram cartoon was not meant to portray these women as “happy recipients of welfare benefit” (or, worse, “welfare queens”, as some US commentators have said). It aimed to paint an absurd picture of Boko Haram abductees protesting cuts in child benefits to satirize and mock not those women but the high-income French people who were complaining about small cuts in their child benefits. Which means that, unlike what some had assumed, it did not tap into racist clichés about allegedly welfare-scrounging immigrants. It is because it makes no sense at all to think that women abducted by Boko Haram would be concerned about changes to French child benefits that the cartoon works. Of course, yours is also a legitimate criticism: this cartoon would hurt those whose lives have been destroyed by Boko Haram. Which is why I’ve never been a CH supporter, but is a different question than whether such cartoons are also racist.

    You noted that “those who are arguing that CH mocked everyone are choosing to ignore facts such as CH firing one of their own staff after claims the created an anti-semitic caricature. Ask yourself, why then is Islamophobic discourse permissible?”. It’s more complicated: the cartoonist Siné had published a text (not a caricature) that mocked Sarkozy’s son conversion to Judaism, which was seen as opportunistic. He was fired by the then-editor of CH, but several other cartoonists, including Tignous who was killed last week, publicly protested. This was in fact widely seen as a betrayal of the CH spirit and Philippe Val eventually resigned to be appointed director of a public radio by… Sarkozy. Apart from this single event in 2009, CH did not typically shy away from criticizing other religions.

    Again, I’m not saying that CH was great. I did not like how it made fun of marginalized people either.

    • Thank you Damien for your comments, appreciate what you are saying and agree with you. Just that even if the CH “satire” was more complex and nuanced than average folk realise, the problem is that Joe Public will start to become immune to caricatures of Muslims, and succumb to demonisation of Muslims. That’s how it begins. Nazi Germany began by portraying caricatures of Jewish folk in their publications and films etc which seeped into the consciousness of the German people as they dehumanised the Jewish communities. We see now in the UK that on radio shows ordinary British folk call in and demand rounding up Muslims and sending them to detention camps, as well as giving out rewards/prizes to Muslims who become spies and inform on their family and friends. Nazi state? Stasi state? How is it acceptable to have such views and air them on BBC radio? Shocking.
      Fox News in the US has an ever ready fan base who believe the rubbish spewed by the presenters – and now they claim Birmingham (UK) is a Muslim city only, and non-Muslims are forbidden from entering, and Muslim “officers” beat anyone who does enter the city. You could not make this up! Are Fox News viewers really critical enough to know this is utter rubbish? Are people ever looking at these caricatures in CH and thinking “Ah, yes, this is a nuanced comment against the government policies and for the Muslims!” I seriously don’t think so.

      Honestly, I agree with most of your commentary, but nevertheless when I see White men on social media defending CH as satire, this quote from Tim Wise’s Facebook page comes to mind:

      “It’s not racism, it’s satire.”
      — ancient white person proverb, origin unknown

  6. Is “Je suis Charlie” supposed to connote Spartacus…or the Borg?

  7. A nice article which makes some great points.
    I agree with you that JeSuisCharlie is not about free speech; it is about the notion of ‘freedom’ as conceived by the west in opposition to a real or imagined other civilisation.

  8. As a Muslim woman, I am faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, I dread the day Muslim law would govern my life, my thought. It would be as bad as the Stasi if not worse.

    A violent reaction to everything perceived offensive is not acceptable. I talk to everyday Muslims regularly and their justification of violent action by way of “persecution cannot be tolerated, the Quran says” disturbs me. What is “persecution”? Tomorrow your neighbour might cheat you, is that persecution, would you kill him? Yes, they say, “if it gets beyond tolerance”. Disturbing.

    On the other hand, yes the backlash against the entire Muslim world is equally disturbing. The arrogance of the “intellectually superior” western world should prompt rising above the basic instinct of labelling entire communities as good or bad. Doing so discredits the minority of liberal Muslims trying desperately to ‘belong’. But violence has that effect. It is unjustified without exception and has the power to bias the most compassionate, liberal mind against those engaging in violent actions, including those who do not condemn it. By condemning such acts, I do not become an apologetic Muslim. Does the liberal white world that condemns Islamophobic attitudes seen as apologetic? It is necessary to condemn violence.

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