The Cartoon Murders
Unless you’re a member of ISIS, al Qaeda or the Taliban, your reaction to this week’s murder in Paris of 10 journalists and two cops at the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo was undoubtedly one of horror. Cartoonists were murdered because of their cartoons. Everyone who believes in freedom and tolerance is distressed by this atrocity at the hands of Muslim extremists in Paris.
But in the hours since the attack, a debate has sprung up that has dampened the sense of outrage. It’s a debate not about the carnage, which all good people agree was wrong, but about the content of the offending cartoons. They were racist, blasphemous, inappropriate, hurtful… attacking the “oppressed and marginalized,” the argument goes.
This, unfortunately, misses a crucial point: the murdered satirists, by refusing to cower before the demands of the jihadists, by pressing ahead with their impious cartoons in the face of grave danger, displayed extraordinary courage, defending freedom in a way few of us would dare.
The true test of freedom of expression is not tolerance for Pablum. What counts is when we stray from the comfort zone – inverting hierarchies, standing up to authority, unsettling the status quo. Gandhi did it, and so did these French satirists.
Yes, their cartoons were lacking in taste and tact. Yes, they were crude and profane. But that’s exactly the point.
Charlie Hebdo recently published a cover picture of a ridiculous looking Virgin Mary giving birth to an even more ridiculous looking Jesus (notably, no Catholic death squad arrived at the magazine in the aftermath). For Charlie Hebdo, nothing was out of bounds, and no one was beyond parody.
Who knows how the staff of Charlie Hebdo would have lampooned their own assassinations? But it’s fair to say it would have been entirely tasteless and drenched in blasphemy. And it would have given the finger to the extremists, exposing their wicked intents.
People around the world, in solidarity with the fallen journalists, are declaring “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie.” While commendable, it’s just a slogan unless we stop for a moment and ponder what it means to actually be Charlie.
Being Charlie means having the courage of your convictions. It means not being afraid to stand up to violent fanatics.
“I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law,” Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, told the Associated Press in 2012.
We may say “I am Charlie,” but are we really?
That question will be answered by the response to this massacre. It seems likely the violence will have a chilling effect, despite declarations from folks like Tim Wolff, editor of Germany’s most popular satirical magazine Titanic, vowing to keep up the fight.
“Following such attacks, there should be more satire, and this will be the case for our magazine as well,” he told Deutsche Welle, adding that the parodies “should not stop just because of some idiots who go around shooting.”
To be sure, Charlie Hebdo’s antics have made a lot of people uncomfortable over the years. After a virulently anti-Islam video in the U.S. depicting Mohammed as a womanizer and child molester resulted in some 30 deaths during violent protests, the French foreign minister pleaded for cool heads to prevail.
“Is it pertinent, intelligent in this context to pour oil on the fire?” Laurent Fabius asked at the time. “The answer is no.”
France is plagued by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim xenophobia. French Muslims are undoubtedly marginalized, and it’s important to be sensitive to their feelings about profaning the name of the Prophet. If France is serious about its commitment to freedom of expression, it may want to rethink its ban on girls wearing the hijab (head covering) in public schools.
It’s notable that some of the most eloquent statements of condemnation have come from Muslims themselves, including this one from Islamic scholar Sheikh Omar Suleiman: “What is more insulting to the Prophet (peace be upon him) than satirical cartoons are those who murder innocent people in his name.”
Yes, context matters, but not at the expense of clarity.
Evil exists, and it must be confronted – and lampooned and ridiculed and mocked. These murders demonstrated not that the cartoons were misguided, but that they were necessary.
The truth is we don’t all have to be Charlie. If we were, we might all be dead. But I’m glad we had this Charlie, and I hope there will be more.
Steven Gutkin, who has reported from some two dozen countries around the world, runs Goa Streets along with his wife Marisha Dutt.