Tuesday 20 January 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (1 of 3): The Challenge of Endorsing “Je suis Charlie”

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large January 20, 2015. Parts Two and Three are written by colleagues and will only appear on that site.

“…caricature distorts the original, it can be unfair, and it uses humor to reveal the shortcomings of, and occasionally to humiliate, its subject.”

                                                                 —Victor Navasky, The Art of Controversy

When I heard so many people expressing the slogan, "Je suis Charlie," I wondered what they were actually supporting. If the millions in North America and Europe, that include those who marched in Paris and other French cities (the largest since the 1944 liberation of France from German occupation), were merely expressing their sympathy for the murdered journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, police officers, and Jews at a kosher supermarket by Islamist fanatics, their endorsement of free speech as a basic principle, or their repudiation of censorship-by-terrorism, I fully support these sentiments. During these marches, “republican values,” appeals to “fraternity,” and “solidarity” in the cause of freedom were often heard. A similar sentiment of solidarity could have been expressed for the 132 schoolchildren slaughtered in Pakistan in December and the countless numbers murdered, raped and turned into sex slaves by the savage Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. The inclusion of murdered Muslims in these gestures would have sent a strong message to the Muslim world that their lives count just as much as non-Muslims. Muslims suffer the largest number of victims from Al Qaeda and ISIS terror, yet we expect Muslims to condemn acts of violence against Westerners as they did when a delegation of 20 imams visited the Charlie Hebdo offices the day after the shootings, to brand the gunmen as “criminals, barbarians, satans” and, crucially, “not Muslims,” Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland argues that the demand of Muslims to condemn acts of terror committed by jihadist cultists as “odious [because] it tacitly assumes that Muslims support such horror unless they explicitly say otherwise. The very demand serves to drive a wedge between Muslims and their fellow citizens.” 

What can also drive a wedge is the mantra of "Je suis Charlie." How many of those who expressed that sentiment were registering their support for the irreverent values espoused by the weekly Charlie Hebdo? I wonder if they realize the implications. David Brooks is correct when he asserts that if the writers at Charlie Hebdo had attempted to publish their newspaper on an American university, and I might add a Canadian academy, their inflammatory material would have enraged so many who would have called it hate speech that it would have been denied funding and shut down. We support free speech in the abstract, but when someone invites a controversial speakerAyaan Hirsi Ali or Ann Coulter to take two of his examples there would be (and has been) such a barrage of protest that the university would (and did) withdraw the invitation. Beyond university campuses, freedom of speech has been most problematic for whistle-blowersas evidenced in the Obama’s Justice Department having brought more charges in leaked cases than had been brought in all previous administrations combined. In Canada, Section 1 in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly states that the Constitutional protection of our guaranteed freedoms are not absolute but subject to reasonable limitations that have been defined by the Courts.

Support for freedom of speech is easy when a community supports the views or images expressed. It takes courage to support speech or incendiary images that we find repellent. The French authorities demonstrated that quality when they pleaded with the Charlie Hebdo editors to tone down their offensive images, especially after their building was firebombed in 2011. Yet despite the existence of French anti-hate lawsfor speech that represents a threat to public order and for Holocaust denial the magazine supported their right to continue operating. In effect, the government was continuing the admirable French tradition of disapproving of certain views, but defending to the death a person’s right to say it (a paraphrase of a statement misattributed to the philosopher, Voltaire.) The 18th century sage delighted in skewering all organized religions: Christian, Jewish and Muslim, yet some of the calumnies Voltaire uttered about Jews and Muslims would undoubtedly enrage many today, even among those who remember him as the French avatar of the right to free speech. Government support for the magazine does perhaps have perhaps a darker side, as Tim Parks suggests in his insightful piece, "The Limits of Satire." When in 2006 Charlie Hebdo printed cartoons of Muhammad and reprinted the Danish controversial Muhammad cartoons from Jyllands-Posten, the magazine was sued by the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Muslim World League, and the Union of French Islamic Organizations. Politicians who could not agree on anything rallied behind the paper when they perceived a threat from the other, namely the Muslim community. Except during this momentary firestorm and until the recent massacre, Charlie Hebdo was not considered a serious force in French journalism with its smallish circulation; as of 2012, its weekly print run was about 60,000 copies, about a tenth of what the country’s most popular newsweeklies sell. 

Charlie Hebdo takes on the National Front (image by Cabu).
Nonetheless, the magazine has continued the tradition of scurrilous visual mockery that accentuates bodily disfigurement. Even before the French Revolution, the monarchy was mocked in demeaning, even pornographic cartoonsone, for example, even suggesting that the reviled Queen Maria Antoinette had sex with her son (a charge which reappeared during her eventual trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal).  In the 1830s, Daumier endowed King Louis-Philippe with a pear-shaped head. His lithograph “Gargantua” portrays the king as a man-eating freak, his mouth stretched open and rigged with a steep wooden ramp up which the citizens of France are ascending with bags of gold for him to swallow while defecating some of the pieces for his minions to collect. The scatological image was sufficiently unflattering to send Daumier to jail for six months. These parodies invariably skewered the powerful and demonstrated the visceral power of that art. But Daumier had also a noble motiveto shame the king for his economic extortion and hopefully to bring about some sort of positive change. 

The scabrous and often puerile cartoons that mark the covers and pages of Charlie Hebdoand took in Jesus and Moses, along with Muhammad; angry rabbis and ranting bishops, along with imams are in part the latest example of that tradition.  But the noble motive, the desire for change seems to be absent. Notoriety has become their trademark. There also remains the pertinent question as to whether these images target the powerless, along with the powerful. Instead, the magazine’s primary goal is to revel in the transgression of the moral and aesthetic taboos of most everyone, on the right and on the left. At times, the magazine is more reminiscent of the ideological and demonizing agenda of the more militant French revolutionaries than the reformist spirit of  Daumier. Indeed, it has reserved a special, obsessive disdain for the world’s organized religions, and it takes no prisoners. In 2011, after Catholic extremists in the city of Avignon vandalized artist Andres Serrano's “Piss Christ,” the photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine, Charlie Hebdo produced a cover cartoon featuring rolls of toilet paper labeled “Bible,” “Koran,” and “Torah.” The headline read: “In the shitter, all the religions.” In the same year, it showed God being sodomized by Jesus. The 2014 special Christmas issue, titled “The True Story of Baby Jesus,” bore on its cover a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child. To its secular readers, in an avowedly secular nation, these images would have evoked guffaws. But the Catholic Church has not been amused. As of 2011, the Church sued the paper thirteen times. The magazine’s form of satire risks reinforcing the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizing prejudices, and provoking the very behavior it condemns.

Nowhere is this risk more evident than the particular disdain the magazine has reserved for the Muslim religion, and its slanderous and scurrilous portrayal of the Prophet. It is one thing to critique the radical Islamists; it is something else to malign the faithful by belittling the figure they regard as sacred. This inevitably leads to the controversial issue of visually portraying the Prophet himself. Many Muslims believe that any portrayal of him is sacrilegious. Yet there is an ambiguity associated with that ban. Nowhere, according to columnist Fareed Zakaria, does the Koran forbid creating images of Muhammad, though there are commentaries and traditions“hadith”that do, to guard against idol worship. Neither does the prohibition against blasphemy appear; though, as Zakaria reminds us, such a clear prohibition does appear in the Old Testament in Leviticus. Indeed, according to a to one scholar, the most explicit fatwa banning the portrayal of the Prophet did not occur until 2001 when the Taliban issued it. 

These theological nuances are of no interest to those that have worked at this magazine. In a sense, Charlie Hebdo is a perfect foil for the fundamentalist worldview because it preaches a stringent interpretation of France’s illiberal official secularism that dates back to 1905, a law that was originally designed to ensure the separation of the French state and the Catholic Church, but which in recent years has been used to justify a ban on Muslim headscarves for schoolgirls and government employees and to suggest that religious practices and beliefs should be kept strictly private. In September 2012, amid violent protests across the Muslim world at the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in the film Innocence of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo printed several of its own depictions. Several repellent examples can be found in Scott Sayare’s excellent and balanced article in The Atlantic. The magazine’s prurient crudity has evoked some perceptive criticism. In 2012, Sayare notes that a French sociologist told the newspaper Libération that he saw “a form of secular Salafism,” an ultra-conservative strain of Sunni Islam, in Charlie Hebdo’s worldview. “Charlie Hebdo is only looking to impose its secular purity by treating everyone else as fanatics,” suggesting that each is a mirror image of the other reinforcing the idea that the magazine was more ideological than satirical. 

Whether Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine has been a subject of heated debate since this month's atrocities. Laura Miller, writing in Slate contends that that the magazine is not racist because French sensibilities are different from others, but she does acknowledge that the newspaper made a habit of “depicting the prophet Mohammed with a long nose, scraggly beard and turban, along with the bug-eyed distortions typical of all their caricatures.” These images recall the “racist cartoons used by Nazi propagandists and American white supremacists to demonize minority groups and justify violence against them.” Ruben Bolling argues that the cartoon of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram (published this past October), saying "Don't touch our (welfare) allocations!" is not an example of the vile, bigoted anti-Muslim animus of Charlie Hebdo, but that it was meant and was understood by the French to parody those who criticize "welfare queens." He compares it to a Colbert Report take on a right wing position and pushes it to the extreme to show its absurdity. I am not so sure and will comment further on this flawed analogy below. Those who argue that the magazine is not racist could have also cited as evidence the pillorying of Marine Le Penshe has been featured on the cover as a Nazi concentration guardand her far right, anti-immigrant National Front Party. 

The cartoon controversy cannot be isolated from its political context. It should be pointed out that Le Pen’s party could be the biggest beneficiary from these barbaric attacks. The NP came first in France in the 2014 European elections, receiving 4.7 million votes (25%) and winning 24 of France’s 74 seats in the European parliament as anti-Islamic feeling is running high, a backlash that she will likely exploit. Since the murders, there have been increased attacks on mosques in France – blind to the fact that two of the victims of the Paris killing were Muslims. She is likely to become one of the candidates in the second round of voting in the 2017 Presidential election. If she were ever to win, France would likely become more nationalistic and bigoted. The Islamists also would be winners as they would now have in their minds proof that Franceand by extension Europeis waging war against Islam.  

Teju Cole, however, writing in the New Yorker, expresses little doubt that the magazine is racist. He points out that one cartoon portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations (though I have been unable to identify precisely the image to which he is referring). Another depicts France’s black minister of justice as a monkey; supposedly, the drawing was in fact meant to skewer the French racists who have portrayed her as a monkey but readers might be forgiven if they missed that subtlety. The imbroglio over this cartoon recalls the firestorm when New Yorker cover illustrator Barry Blitt in 2008 was mocking Obama caricatures, not Barack and Michelle Obama themselves, when he portrayed the presidential candidate and his wife dressed in terrorist garb and doing a fist bump – but it was Obama supporters who poured vitriol on the magazine and cancelled subscriptions. The cover prompted Obama's campaign spokesman to call the drawing "tasteless and offensive." Compared to Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker cover is not only mild but in my opinion cleverer.

Comparing two media, the slow-burn of the cartoon and the laser blast of a television comic, is as I have already suggested problematic. Stephen Colbert, whose singular genius was to invent a character whose beliefs were totally antithetic to his own, annoyed conservatives but I am not sure he enraged them. It’s true that the blowhard Russ Limbaugh lashed out at CBS for hiring Colbert to become the host of The Late Show, but his rant was directed more at the corporation than the personality himself. A more apt comparison may be between Bill Maher, who regularly has launched onslaughts against all religions, and the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. Even better would be to compare (and contrast) American comic television hosts with the outrageous, wildly popular and sometimes outright racist French comedian Dieudonné M’bala. M’bala was detained and charged with defending terrorism, because he described himself on Facebook as “Charlie Coulibaly” offensively splicing together the surname of the anti-Semitic murderer of four Jewish hostages at the kosher store in Paris with the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo itself. He is catnip for an older white male population angry at the system and politicians of all stripes, who roar at his veiled anti-Semitic barbsveiled because he has been censoredand whose silences they can fill in since they have seen his shtick on YouTube, along with a gesture that resembles a Nazi salute. His compelling presence cannot disguise the fact that he is likely a vile anti-Semite and may be promoting hatred. But the timing of his arrest a few days after the epic free speech marches underscores the selectivity and the hypocrisy of “free speech.” If we are civil libertarians, we should be saying that the answer to objectionable speech is not censorship, but more speech.

Yet caricatures, Victor Navasky suggests in his The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and their Enduring Power (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), twist and torque the human face away from classical symmetry and in the direction of the grotesque producing a Frankenstein’s monster that tampers with a person’s appearance and therefore his identity. Given the caricature’s capacity to offend throughout its history, Navasky documents how a woodcut commissioned by Martin Luther, “The Birth and Origin of the Pope,” which is an irreverent depiction of “Satan excreting” the new Pontiff, established a pattern whereby caricaturists galvanized support for religious and political ideologies, and risked losing mail privileges, imprisonment, torture and death. One of the most disturbing examples that he provides is that of Naji-al-Ali, the best known cartoonist in the Arab world. His abstract and symbolic imagessubdued by Charlie Hebdo standardsmocked the cruelty of the Israeli army and the hypocrisy of the Palestinian leadership. On July 22, 1987 he was shot in the head by a lone gunman in London near his place of work. No arrests were ever made. It remains unclear whether his assassination was ordered by Yasser Arafat or the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Navasky also discusses a more recent firestorm when in 2005 Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper published caricatures of the Prophet. The most egregious ones were never published but Egyptian authorities procured them and circulated them throughout the Middle East fanning flames of outrage, which provoked more violent opposition than the images that circulated on the internet of Iraqi prisoners humiliated and tortured at Abu Ghraib. 

Caricatures possess the power to unleash the hounds of vengeance in all their myopic savagery that satire from television hosts (thankfully) cannot. The closest analogy in print is not a satirical piece but Emile Zola’s 1898 impassioned polemic J’ Accuse, an open letter to the President of the Republic. Naming ministers and generals, he charged that the court in the court-martial of Esterhazy had “knowingly” acquitted a guilty man and had colluded with the government, Army and Church to frame Captain Alfred Dreyfus by fabricating evidence. That manifesto provoked the outburst of a defamatory series of posters, playing cards and other visual artifacts, which demonized leading Dreyfusards, including Zola, as animals.  

The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo might have argued that since they do not mock ordinary Muslims, they have not promoted hatred and racism. But given its raison d'être was to offend, their cartoons may have unintentionally reinforced prejudice against a segment of the populationthe largest in Europethat is maligned and marginalized, even feared and loathed in some quarters. At the same time, Muslims in the Arab world display no qualms in publishing virulently anti-Semitic cartoons that would snuggle cheek by jowl with those featured in Julius Streicher’s loathsome Der Stürmer. 

It can be a safe assumption that as long as incendiary cartoons are directed against the other, in this case Muslims, we are in support of the mainstream media publishing the cartoons that depict the Prophet, some of them, in the most demeaning way. But the real test for freedom of expression occurs when our own faith is visually assaulted or one that is associated with our faith. It is often a different story. The Danish Jyllands-Posten reportedly "rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would 'provoke an outcry' and proudly declared that it would 'in no circumstances…publish Holocaust caricatures.'”
Protesters outside the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, in August 1988 (Photo by David Morgan)

Apart from Ross Douthat, I have not seen any other writer who grapples with the double standard allegation “that Muslims are being persistently baited and provoked, by Hebdo and others, in a way that other groups generally aren’t in Western society,” that we often show “restraint for my faith but not for thine.” Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, has written previously about his faith as a Roman Catholic. In this January 14th blog post, he acknowledges that as a Christian, he has had to accept that religious figures will be ridiculed and desecrated through art, drama, television and film even though not all Christians have. There were protests in America directed against “Piss Christ,” and the film, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) that depicts a human Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene, although nobody committed arson against an American theatre that showed the film. That did happen in Paris in the fall of 1988, leaving thirteen people hospitalized; in other French cities moviegoers were clubbed, teargas and stink bombs were thrown in theatres, reminiscent of the antics organized by Joseph Goebbels in late Weimar Germany when movie theatres showed All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Although Douthat does not explicitly say it, he is implying that the willingness to be deeply offended is part of the price of living in a pluralistic society. 

Should the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons be published and end the practice of pixilating them? I do have reservations, since I am not sure of the point of gratuitously offending a beleaguered minority when mutual mistrust between Muslims and non-Muslims is already rampant. Nonetheless, I would offer a qualified yes provided that the images are put into a larger context. This means explaining why they are being shown, the particular French aggressive historical milieu that sets this magazine apart from any North America publication and that the editors do not necessarily endorse the content. They could educate their readers and viewers on the purpose of satire and let their audience decide what purpose these images of this publication serve, to merely mock or malign, or whether they advance some nobler goal that has been the purview of satire historically. (For a longer discussion on the nature and purpose of satire, I would strongly recommend, Tim Park’s essaycited abovein The New York Review of Books which I have drawn upon for this piece.) Because many viewers will associate the cartoons with Muslim violence, it is vital that terrorism should also be placed in context, that is to say, that the largest number of these horrendous acts are not committed by zealous Islamists. Secondly, since Charlie Hebdo contends that all groups are potential targets for their brand of satire, I would suggest that a broad cross-section of cartoons that would likely give offence to other groups and individuals be made available to readers and viewers. If then-Senator Obama was upset by the New Yorker cover, what would he think of Charlie Hebdo’s caricature of him?  Let’s see how Christians react to the obscene images of God the father, Son, and Holy Spirit sodomizing each other. Show an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi and raise the question whether the representation of Jews, and for that matter, Muslims, bears a strong similarity to how the Nazis depicted Jews. At best we might embark on a healthy debate on whether there should be limits to satire. Or these images and the media outlets that release them could be excoriated and advertising revenue may fall away. Then we will see how many people are wearing buttons that identify them as supporters of "Je suis Charlie."

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