On 7 January 2015, at about 11.30am, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi entered the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They killed 12 people and injured 11 others.
Since then, vigils and protests have sprung up in cities all over the world, drawing millions to the streets in Paris and as many voices online where an array of opinions on freedom of expression have proliferated. “Je suis Charlie” is the mark of a compassionate France.
The newspaper churned out a record three million copies of its latest issue, which came out on Wednesday 14th January. It once again features the prophet Muhammad on its cover. The cartoon, drawn by surviving cartoonist Renald Luzier, depicts the prophet crying. He is holding a placard that repeats the motto “Je suis Charlie” and above him, the heading states, “Tout est pardonné.”
Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier didn’t just draw cartoons satirizing religious figures and religious institutions. He claimed he wanted to ‘banalize’ them, a term he coined. So it stands to reason that this latest cartoon continues to ‘banalize’ the prophet by humanizing him, appropriating him into the protest movement and imagining him having an emotional reaction to the aftermath of violence, ostensibly instigated in his name.
Why could the placard in the prophet’s hands not have said, “Je suis tout le monde”, “I am everyone”?
The cartoon, any variation of it, would continue to offend. But the phrase would have conveyed the notion that an injury to one is an injury to all because of its far-reaching consequences. However, there seem to be only two options in the project to banalize Islam, at least as far as Charlie Hebdo’s journalists are concerned. The first option, implemented so far, depicts the prophet in a crude manner. With this latest cover, a second option has emerged. He has been assimilated and brought into the fold of France’s anti-clerical cartooning tradition. He too has become “Charlie”. The line, “you are either with us or against us” seems pertinent in this regard.
Over the course of the past week, many journalists have written about the rich anticlerical cartooning tradition of France dating back to the 16th century, in an effort to contextualize the cartoons. One article was unwittingly (or perhaps intentionally) patronizing, as if the idea of over four hundred years of freedom of expression would be far too outrageous for non-Europeans to comprehend. In the article, the late Charbonnier is quoted as saying, “We have to keep at it until Islam is as banalized as Catholicism.”
It was a laudable goal that the paper will no doubt continue to struggle for. But it reveals a complacent disregard for the broader historical context of Muslims in France, with the country’s 53-year war in Algeria being the most obvious example, during which approximately three thousand people were killed on French soil. It ignores the ongoing unequal power relationships that characterize life in France and the fact that Muslims in Europe may continue to feel like immigrants or outsiders. It does not address the broader ‘war on terror’, which more often than not, equates Islam and terror and therefore isn’t sensitized to how this corrals, demonizes and provokes a vast swathe of Muslims across the world and particularly in Europe.
Some writers have astutely observed that these alternative histories of independence struggles, nationhood and citizenship are ignored when one holds the anticlerical cartooning tradition in high regard and castigates Muslims for being hypersensitive.
Others, like the academic and author Mahmood Mamdani remind us that the Jewish community was long the target of anticlerical cartooning, which often took a blatantly anti-Semitic tone (Voltaire was a well-known proponent). But the religion stopped being fair game after the Holocaust. Muslims have not yet been embraced in the same way. So while there are cartoons mocking Judaism, Islam takes the lead. Having banalized Catholicism over the past 400 years, it’s simply next on the list. The assumption is that cartoonists will have to keep at it until Muslims stop reacting so viciously.
But are Catholicism and Islam seen as equally important faiths in France?
Are Muslims and Catholics equal when there are ongoing debates about “the large Muslim population” in Europe or when the perplexing question of whether one can be both Muslim and French is raised, as if the two were somehow incommensurable? Do Catholics in France wonder if they can be both Catholic and French? The fact that these questions are raised repeatedly suggests that the two religions are not interchangeable fodder for satire.
Depicting the prophet or mocking Islam isn’t particularly inventive. It is, however, economically expedient. The government has financially assisted with print runs, which have increased from one million in the immediate aftermath to three million for its latest issue. Fund-raising campaigns and donations are pouring in from other sources. The fact that the 14th January issue once again depicts the prophet only confirms the notion that repetition serves sales. If it works, keep doing it, as the adage goes.
If Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists widened the scope of their interests, they would discover a world of idiocy, supremacy and hypocrisy to ridicule, even if their readership wanes as a result.
Can Charlie Hebdo depict Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi crying, holding a placard saying “not in my name”, as right-wing Hindu henchmen and supporters of his party go from village to village in India, “re-converting” Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism?
Or how about one of Burmese Buddhist extremist Wiratu, who has repeatedly incited violence against other ethnic and religious communities in Myanmar? Imagine him in a harem full of Buddhist women, feverishly impregnating them in an effort to counter what he believes is a rapidly growing Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar.
Satire can shock and surprise, enabling us to laugh at new or unknown forms of stupidity, to laugh beyond our borders and to laugh with people who suffer at the hands of those who wield power and use it mercilessly.
It is hard to wholeheartedly applaud a newspaper that picked such an easy target and that has repeatedly failed to understand the grave consequences for ordinary Muslims living and paying taxes across Europe who would have liked nothing better than to get on with their lives.
There will now be racist reprisals and worst of all for the liberty-loving French, there will be further invasions of privacy, surveillance and the absence of judicial review in the name of protecting citizens from terrorists.