What I’ve learned… is that those who rise up against the expression of ideas are strikingly similar. No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance. A certain humorlessness binds them. Despite differences of culture and creed they all seem to share the egocentric notion that there is only one way of looking at things, their way and others have no right to see things differently… Here is my answer to them: in this country, we do not apologize for our opinions. Free speech is the linchpin of our republic. All other freedoms flow from it.
— Doug Marlette, 2003
Controversy was inevitable when Charlie Hebdo once again put the Prophet Muhammad on its cover following the massacre at its offices on January 7. Condemnations from around the Muslim world, as well as from certain parts of the Western left, likewise. So far, the worst fallout has been more than a dozen dead and forty-five torched churches during riots in Niger, but massive demonstrations have also taken place in Pakistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Indonesia, and many other places. Worse is sure to come.
Another crucial concern is the Western response. We have already seen legislation proposed in France and the UK, which would undermine the free speech those seventeen people died for, or as a result of. Dubious arrests have been made. Compounding matters further, we have witnessed a disturbing rise in Islamophobic incidents in France and elsewhere since the attacks.
Should the cartoonists and other staff at Charlie Hebdo have abstained, then? Or should they and others with similar ideas do so now? Of course not. It is imperative that anyone wishing to do so will feel free to draw the prophet or engage in other kinds of so-called “blasphemy.”
It is fallacious to think that refraining from drawing the prophet would prevent further attacks of the kind that happened in Paris last week. Is there really any reason to believe that the Kouachis and Coulibalys of the world would not find another pretext to murder wantonly, were all cartoonists to rest their pens? Perhaps ask the people who were held hostage in Hyper Cacher at Porte de Vincennes on January 8.
On a deeper level, there is something perverse about blaming the world’s ills on cartoons or other instances of individual expression. The problems are infinitely more complex, and addressing them starts with naming them freely and without fear of censorship, suppression, or death, whether from governments or extra-legal thugs. Cartoons are an important and extremely potent part of this discourse, and clearly one with the ability to make the right people uncomfortable, exposing their hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy.
It is often argued, quite rightly, that satire which “punches down,” i.e. targets the disempowered, is objectionable. Accusing Charlie Hebdo of doing so, however, is reductive and misleading. Islamic dogma, observed in various ways and to various degrees by over a billion people around the world, is hardly a minority view. (The official reaction from majority Muslim countries against the Danish state after the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in 2005 packed real economic and political punch, for example.) And the extremists who have been the particular target of the magazine’s satire are a menacing force in modern society, wielders of extra-legal power over people’s lives, carried out with noxious invocation of divine will. Begging to be satirized, in other words.
It is simultaneously clear that satire like that practiced by Charlie Hebdo also makes the wrong people uncomfortable. Obviously, drawing the prophet is offensive to a great multitude of people who have no part in what one may be intending to criticize, and in the West, at least, they are already marginalized. For many of these people, this form of so-called blasphemy is tantamount to racism. This is a sad fact that everyone engaging in this kind of discourse would ideally be aware of, modulating his or her speech in accordance if there is no good reason not to. However, calling any depiction of the prophet Muhammad inherently Islamophobic, as is done widely, is essentially to value religious dogma over secularism and to accept blasphemy as an applicable concept.
For what we are dealing with here is a situation where we have to choose. Refraining from speaking legitimizes an idea that is anathema to the way our society is constructed. In the free society we strive for, there can be no such thing as blasphemy.
Is Charlie a Racist?
So is Luz’s depiction of the prophet showing Charlie solidarity racist? For many Muslims, this is of course a secondary discussion, because it is the very act of representing him that causes offense. This, however, does not make it a less important discussion to have for those insisting on engaging in this particular kind of blasphemy.
So Yes, they are racist. And No, they are not. A depressing lesson driven home by the reactions to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, and to the Danish cartoons before them, is just how limited an understanding most people seem to have of images and how they work. Across the political spectrum. Let us leave aside violent demonstrations against images not even seen, as well as the depressing notion that any man-made image could be perceived as a threat to a centuries-old, deeply complex, and meaningful faith, and concentrate on the apparently widespread notion that images, like text, are “read” and understood literally, with fixed meaning.
Language and text can be ambiguous, but not in the same way that an image can be. It is much harder to control how an image is received than it is with language, even if one adds a caption. This unpredictability has been an important motivation for iconoclasm historically, and it surely informs those who want to prevent non-believers from drawing the prophet today. They see the image one way: as an insult, for some serious enough to act upon violently. Others see these images as drawing the frontlines of free speech, and cannot accept—or do not care—that they are insulting.
The reality is that they are both, and many more things besides. An image can and often does accommodate contradictory meanings, sometimes equally well. This is not to say that every interpretation is equally rooted in reality—and sometimes images can be pretty unambiguous—just that we have to allow a great deal of leeway to image-makers, perhaps more than we do to people who express themselves in words.
Cartoons are especially charged in this regard, because they are a particularly literal type of image, to some extent coded like language, and certainly made to communicate a point. One device they routinely make use of is the stereotype, which allows them to communicate clearly and powerfully, but which also carries semantic risks.
Charlie’s journalists and cartoonists have assiduously claimed their intent is not to promote racial stereotypes, but rather to critique ideology and dogma. However, when you make use of traditional ethnic stereotypes, historically used for discriminatory, if not outright hateful purposes, that inherited meaning tends to carry over. While perhaps not impossible, it is exceedingly difficult—and always messy—to repossess loaded language and iconography the way Charlie has been attempting since its predecessor Hara-Kiri debuted in 1969.
So of course some of these cartoons are racist. In their depictions of extremist Muslims, Charlie is routinely making use of Orientalist models formulated in the nineteenth century. A perhaps charitable interpretation of the best of them would be to see in them an ambitious effort to portray the perversion of Islam by fundamentalists—a kind of stereotype—while simultaneously employing selfsame stereotype, the Oriental bogeyman, to remind Westerners of our own reductive perception of Islam in the face of fundamentalist violence. Even if this was the intent, however, what many people see is a bigoted linking of the prophet, and hence Islam as a whole, with violence.
At the same time, these cartoons are not racist, since they have generally been made from an anti-racist standpoint and have concentrated on criticizing individual public figures or religious dogma and their abuse, which are legitimate domains of satire, if one values its role in a free society. Very few of the cartoons suggest that they are criticizing Muslims as a group, rather than those who commit violence in the name of God. The problem is the unpredictable nature of images makes the mining of stereotypes for effect a risky business that may play into the hands of outright racists or, even worse, can have the effect of reinforcing the negative aspects of those stereotypes in people, even if this was not the intention. Crossing the line between satire and hate speech.
And sometimes one wonders what the intention was, besides causing the maximum outrage. Charlie has a history of deliberately pushing the boundaries of the acceptable, testing the limits of free speech as practiced. With this strategy, one inevitably produces material in which the signal-to-noise ratio simply becomes intolerable for most people.
A satirical cartoon is a powerful statement, and just because it is an image (with or without text) and thus not quite imbued with the specificity of language, it is still intended to communicate something. If most people get it wrong, it is either a bad cartoon, or the perhaps the cartoonist was not as innocent as he or she claims to be. It is never just a joke.
When you draw a picture of the prophet—or, as it may be, an actor playing the prophet—fucking a pig’s head, as Charb did in reference to the outcry over that ridiculous movie Innocence of Muslims back in 2012, your satire of chauvinist filmmakers and their warped conception of Islam tends to lose out. And a smart cartoonist claiming unawareness of this would come across as acting in bad faith.
Here, however, we are back to the question of satirical license: one must have very strong reasons to invoke legal action against individual instances of expression. Obviously not everyone draws the line in the same place, making it exceedingly difficult to legislate, and even more difficult justly to enforce legislation. Many of the arrests made in France over the past weeks, ostensibly justified by recent anti-terror laws, are disturbing reminders that governments are often among the least trustworthy of custodians of the freedom of speech, exhibiting precisely the dangers of legislation.
Because We Apparently Have To: Jews and Muslims
So yes, criticism of Charlie Hebdo as being occasionally racist is perfectly warranted, indeed voicing our objections is part of our civic privilege in an open society. It goes without saying, however, that such criticism should be held up to just as much scrutiny as Charlie’s apparently very hard-to-understand cartoons, and that the kind of uninformed, hysterical condemnation that has proliferated since the massacre, especially in liberal American contexts, should be rejected.
Beyond the absurdity of suggesting that a fringe leftist journal with a print run of 60,000 has an effect remotely resembling that of the state-sponsored hate speech of Der Stürmer, or the state-sanctioned, major media vilification of Jews in some majority Muslim countries, the intent of Charlie’s criticism of Islam and Islamic extremists as mentioned comes from a completely different, fundamentally anti-racist vantage point.
As already discussed, intent is not everything, but it is still important, and trying to understand it is paramount. However one might count the instances of outright or at least effective hate speech in Charlie, they are clearly outweighed and contradicted by the bulk of the journal’s content.
A commonly heard and rather lame defense of Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamic material has been that they were equal-opportunity offenders. This is patently not true: the journal is and always has been more distinctly left-wing than outright anarchistic, and it is deeply committed to secularism. It has chosen its targets accordingly, and such is the way of any publication with a political standpoint. It should not in itself be taken as a strike against it.
With painful predictability, a specific question frequently asked is why Charlie has not been as critical of Jews as it has of Muslims. Leaving aside the stated intent that they have never wanted to target Muslims, but rather Islamic dogma, the question remains whether they have been equally attentive to Jewish dogma. The answer is surely no, but there are perfectly understandable reasons for this. For starters, there is the fact that they have not received death threats from, been firebombed, or—as of January 7—slaughtered by Jews. They have legitimate beef elsewhere.
Another more fundamental reason is history, obviously. Any European engaging in discourse that may be seen as anti-Semitic is connecting to a deeply tragic history that he or she has inherited, one that is more horrific and weighs more heavily on the collective conscience than any of the many injustices perpetrated by Europeans against Muslims, bad as these clearly are (particularly in the case of France).
In the domain of cartoons, this fairly often results in editorial or other forms of censorship, most recently in connection with a cartoon by Glen Le Lievre published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 26, which was judged in violation of press standards by the Australian Press Council. A typical case, the cartoon’s use of stereotypical traits went a bridge too far for the censors, demonstrating just how sensitive such shorthand is in a Western context, and how difficult it often proves to be to separate it from criticism of Israel.
Muslim stereotypes are clearly applied more liberally and with less censorship in Western countries. This may not be just, it may be hypocritical, but European history is impossible to ignore here and dismissing it readily does no one any favors. This surely results in the kind of satirical asymmetry some critics focused on equating Muslims and Jews talk about, but context is everything in satire, and the historical and social context in this case makes it a false equivalence.
More pertinent is the question whether Charlie has been “sufficiently” critical of Israel and its policies. I have not been able to carry out a statistical survey, but the journal clearly has taken strong positions against Israeli policy over the years, often resorting to stereotypes mined from anti-Semitic history. It is no doubt true, however, that their animus toward fundamentalist Islam has been stronger, especially since 9/11, as former contributor Olivier Cyran has pointed out in a strongly worded open letter to the editors penned in 2011 (read also Charlie staff writer Zineb el-Rhazoui’s pointed reply).
This was particularly the case under the editorship of Philippe Val, co-founder of the revived Charlie Hebdo in 1991 and now director of the public radio broadcasting service France Inter. It was during his tenure that Charlie published the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons and, with such people as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, and Talima Nasreen, signed the widely disseminated open letter in 2006 describing ‘Islamism’ as the prime totalitarian threat of the twenty-first century. Val was also at the center of the successfully defended lawsuit alleging hate speech brought by a group of Muslim organizations in 2006–2007.
Hot off winning the lawsuit, he proceeded to fire staff writer and cartoonist Siné for an allegedly anti-Semitic notice published in Charlie. Despite Siné having a past as an avowed anti-Semite, this was difficult to see as anything but the height of hypocrisy. It has tainted what was otherwise a fairly clean record of forceful secularism at the journal and has really hurt its credibility in matters to do with its bias, particularly the rejections made by staff members that they are in any way Islamophobic. In an instance of poetic as well as judicial justice rarely mentioned by the critics, Siné won a lawsuit against Charlie for wrongful termination in 2010.
In any case, one does well to remember that the journal’s history extends beyond Val’s editorship from 2004–2009 and that this one instance of frankly terrible judgment on his part does not necessarily characterize everything done there before or since.
Flow My Tears
So where does all of this leave Charlie Hebdo today, and why continue to draw the prophet? As I wrote in my previous column, anything else would be capitulation, a recognition that free speech must be moderated in the face of totalitarian ideology. One might of course hope that the survivors at Charlie will strive to make better, clearer cartoons in the future, ones that are less ambiguous about their anti-racist principles, while at the same time remaining as provocative and funny as ever.
It is hard not to fear that the massacre has done lasting damage to the journal. Among those who died in the massacre were several of the old guard, which remained the hard core of Charlie’s cartoon staff. In their seventies and eighties, some of them had been with the journal since the Hara-Kiri days. They now join founders and great alumni such Professeur Choron, Cavanna, Reiser, and Gébé in the inky afterlife. Skilled younger staff members remain, but recruitment of new talent is surely going to be difficult.
Nevertheless, one heartening confirmation of the journal’s continued potential is Luz’s cover for the latest issue. This is not to say that the elevated, elegiac tone of that image should dictate the way forward, but that the perspicacity of selecting that image speaks to the kind of editorial intelligence needed to move forward. In any case, continue they must, now that they are loaded with way more cash and an exponentially larger potential audience than ever before.
It would be the ultimate repudiation of the murderers if Charlie managed to build on this momentum, despite the trauma. And it would, frankly, be healthy for global discourse on the kind of issues they raise, if not directly then at least by their very being. A society built on the principle of freedom of expression needs somebody like Charlie, testing its margins, however little we may care for individual choices they make.
One of the effects of globalization and its near-instantaneous transmission of information (and the concomitant, often gross misunderstanding of same) around a world marked by injustices is a problematic sectarianism built around taking offense at what others say. This is currently leading to increasing measures to suppress free speech even in societies that otherwise pride themselves on it as well as to the kind of extreme sanction typified by the massacre in Paris.
Peaceful coexistence must be built on mutual respect and appreciation, but just as importantly it is dependent on our ability to live alongside people who hold viewpoints different, even abhorrent, to our own. And barring outright hate speech (however one defines it precisely), it seems obvious that being able to voice these rather than having them suppressed is key to dealing with the problems, rather than having them blow up in our face in the way the seem to be doing at the moment in Europe, what with the increase in Muslim extremism, the continued rise of the extreme right, and the proliferation both of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
In an open society there is something fundamentally problematic in privileging the speech of one group or another (even if, in practice, it happens all the time). This includes “protecting” certain people from certain types of expression, such as the depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Although it is always virtuous to treat one’s fellow citizens with respect, there is something patronizing about shielding them from certain forms of expression we otherwise value in the name of peace and quiet. The hope would be that depictions of the prophet made by non-believers would become as relatively accepted as blasphemy against Christian dogma has become in most Western societies. Offensive, but part of the tapestry and something that we who do not like it can safely ignore in the knowledge that our opinions, feelings, or faith are in no ways diminished by what others think of them.
Utopian? Probably, but something worth shedding a tear over.