Sunday, January 11, 2015

On Charlie Hebdo, Islamophobia, and Racism

One response to the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people has been to attack Charlie Hebdo itself as racist or Islamophobic. I've seen articles that have condemned the murders, of course, but then have gone on to argue that the newspaper should not be held up as any paragon of virtue because the cartoons it printed were anti-Muslim and racist. (Interestingly enough, the people who make these criticisms never seem to accuse Charlie Hebdo of being antisemitic - even though the newspaper did print cartoons that mock Judaism as well as the Pope and Muhammad). As I've said before, I don't think that cartoons that mock religion or religious figures (like Moses) should be seen as antisemitic, racist, or anti-Muslim (unless, of course, they go beyond the mockery of religion and attack Jews, Muslims, people of African descent, etc.).

Joe Sacco, in the Guardian, posted a cartoon that was very critical of Charlie Hebdo, essentially accusing the newspaper of printing racist cartoons and engaging in a double standard. (I've provided small version of his cartoon below).  He seems to consider the cartoons that were aimed at Muslim religious figures (like Muhammad) as being equivalent to two racist caricatures that he himself drew - one of a Black man falling out of a tree with a banana, the other of the stereotypical Jew counting money. In between those two panels, he wrote about a cartoonist that Charlie Hebdo had fired because he had written an antisemitic column. This, to me, signals his confusion - he conflates mockery of religious ideas and holy figures with attacks on Jews or Muslims. I don't feel attacked by cartoons that mock Judaism (even if I don't like them) - I do feel attacked by cartoons that attack Jews.

And why is the third to last panel a "gratuitous drawing of a true believer doing God's work in the desert"? It's not so gratuitous, since Da'esh terrorists have in fact cruelly decapitated people in the desert. Then, in the next panel, Sacco lumps all Muslims together as having one opinion - "And what is it about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image?" - illustrated with a drawing of one of the victims of American cruelty at Abu Ghraib. It's simply not true to assume that all Muslims had the same reaction to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And even for those who felt insulted by the cartoons, how many decided first to firebomb the Charlie Hebdo office and then to murder the people who worked there? I don't know if the police ever found the person who threw the firebomb at the office in 2011, but it was only two men who perpetrated the murders last Wednesday. And Sacco's last panel assumes that those who disagree with him (which would include me) think that there is something "deeply wrong" with all Muslims and that we want to "drive them from their homes and into the sea."

That is certainly not true of me. What Sacco avoids dealing with entirely in this cartoon, and what I think is very important to think about, is the ideology that motivated the two murderers - that espoused by Al Qaeda and Da'esh. One of the two brothers who killed the people at the Charlie Hebdo office had gone to Yemen and trained at an Al Qaeda training camp there. Sacco blames the murders of the cartoonists, ultimately, on the West - the US invasion of Iraq, symbolized by the drawing of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib. Why doesn't he blame the people who actually committed the murders and ask what about their ideology convinced them that this was the right thing to do?

For another critical view of Sacco's cartoon, see the article in Harry's Place, A Response to Joe Sacco.

A critical article on Charlie Hebdo's secularism (laïcité), by Scott Sayare in The Atlantic.

"On Charlie Hebdo: A letter to my British friends," by Oliver Tonneau in his blog for provides more context for the politics of Charlie Hebdo. Here is an excerpt - it's worth reading the whole thing.
Three days ago, a horrid assault was perpetrated against the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, who had published caricatures of Mohamed, by men who screamed that they had “avenged the prophet”. A wave of compassion followed but apparently died shortly afterward and all sorts of criticism started pouring down the web against Charlie Hebdo, who was described as islamophobic, racist and even sexist. Countless other comments stated that Muslims were being ostracized and finger-pointed. In the background lurked a view of France founded upon the “myth” of laicité, defined as the strict restriction of religion to the private sphere, but rampantly islamophobic - with passing reference to the law banning the integral veil. One friend even mentioned a division of the French left on a presumed “Muslim question”. 
As a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK, I was puzzled and even shocked by these comments and would like, therefore, to give you a clear exposition of what my left-wing French position is on these matters. 
Firstly, a few words on Charlie Hebdo, which was often “analyzed” in the British press on the sole basis, apparently, of a few selected cartoons. It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the bombing was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece).  Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies. 
Read the rest at Letter to My British Friends

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