Exploring the ‘JeSuisCharlie’ phenomenon in more detail.
For anyone reading who’s been catching some quality under-a-rock time this last week, on Wednesday 7th the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by two armed men. 12 were killed, the majority of whom were employees of the magazine. The gunmen were Muslim, which explains why hours later my Facebook feed exploded with the phrase ‘JeSuisCharlie’ (‘I Am Charlie’ for anyone lucky enough to avoid GCSE French) shared as a declaration of solidarity with the magazine and the murdered journalists.
It’s at this point I feel the need to preface this article with a reminder that the shootings were still an obviously terrible thing, a senseless act of destruction that achieves nothing but more hardship for the human race. The fact that journalists shouldn’t be killed for being journalists is the definition of a truism, a statement so obvious it’s utterance is entirely redundant.
Charlie Hebdo proclaims itself non-conformist, embodying the French tradition of ‘laïcité’: the separation of church and state. But it’s obsession with Islam since the 9/11 attacks has produced problematic content. Hook-nosed caricatures of Muslims sully its pages, with outrage-baiting articles such as “Will all Belgium’s chips soon be halal?”. One infamous issue claimed the Prophet Muhammad as guest editor – a considerable example of appropriation by a magazine run entirely by non-Muslims. The cover is not published with this article for the sake of appropriateness, but can be found here.
The title of the magazine is altered to become ‘Sharia Hebdo’, while a caricature of Muhammad, any image of whom many Muslims are uncomfortable viewing, leers mad-eyed out. He proclaims “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”, reinforcing a stereotype of muslims as violent and brutish. This is racist imagery.
“But” yelled a towering, globular mass of social media voices, “Islam is a religion, not a race. Therefore criticising Islam isn’t racism.” It’s an often repeated argument that ignores the different cultural and historical contexts of drawing obscene images of, say, the Prophet Muhammad vs the Pope. In the West Muslims are a marginalised group. They are demonised, associated with terrorism, crime and poverty. Through the media and government policy Islam is presented as a threat to the liberal values of the West, and there is none more liberal than that of free speech. It’s worth remembering that the concept of ‘race’ is entirely a social construct; science does not recognise the term. What is racism if not the stereotyping of a group though their ethnicity, geography, and culture?
One only needs to look at the cartoons made in response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Many reinforce a dominant ‘us vs them’ narrative, depicting Muslims as the other; an inscrutable, foreign menace that is a innate threat to the Western way of life.
(Image: NY Daily News)
The irony is that this alienating effect is exactly what leads to tragedies like the one that rocked the world last week. In the words of a French imam who had known one of the gunmen, “I’m not justifying any attacks but when you look at their past, when you don’t have an identity, when you don’t belong, you can do something very, very nasty.” The two shooters, brothers, were both French. They were born in Paris, the same city they carried out their poorly reasoned attack 30 years later.
The cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo illustrate the crucial difference between satire and bullying. As journalist and author Will Self said in a Channel 4 News interview, “You always have to ask with something that purports to be satire, who’s it attacking? Are they people who are in a position of power? … This is not the dynamic with Islamist terrorists. They are not in power in our society.” Attempts at using satire to hurt terrorists invariably succeed only in hurting ordinary Muslims.
Proclaiming “I Am Charlie” will not help mend the wound those French brothers opened last week, but deepen it. Free speech does not give people the right to laugh at those who are already ostracised by society. Multiculturalism means being considerate and tactful, not ruthlessly applying the values of the West to the rest of the world. That is imperialism. “I am not offended by this, therefore the rest of the world shouldn’t be either.”
The ones that are deserving of satire are the actual rulers of our society. The ones so quick to jump on an international bandwagon that only the internet can provide, feigning outrage in the name of free speech while curtailing more of our rights under the guise of preventing terrorism. Already Prime Minister David Cameron has announced – in a headline worthy of the timeless #notTheOnion hashtag – formerly innocent services such as Snapchat may be banned in the UK because they allow citizens to communicate with each other in a way the government can’t monitor.
Neither Islam nor terrorism is really a threat to free speech, as much as those with actual power would like to persuade us.
Originally published on Storehouse online.