Charlie Hebdo: Seeing the bigger picture

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From the LitNet Archive
Original Publication Date: 2015-01-13

The ten satirists, security guard and janitor who worked at the offices of Charlie Hebdo did not deserve to die. It is human nature to be repelled by these acts – and we are. But we know that Cherif and Said Kouachi do not represent the world’s over 1,6 billion or more Muslims. And we also know from a cursory glance at the magazine’s previous covers – one of which depicts the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls as pregnant, wailing yard girls – that Charlie Hebdo does not qualify as mainstream media, as mainstream media want us to believe.

So framing this as an attack on our freedom of expression, as the politicians and media have spun it to be, is problematic for many reasons.

Insulting the world’s largest religious group given the current global crisis that is a Western-led War on Terror with its hallmarks of drone strikes, rendition, interventions, torture and detention without trial of Muslims, which all fuel extremism, is not deserving of death, no – but given the dynamics of the war, it is a particularly cruel, and some might say unwise, thing to do. More on this later.

But after considering deeply what is happening in the world, Charlie Hebdo’s consistent denigrating of the Quran and the prophet Mohammed is similar in some ways to the anti-Semitic cartoons of Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer between 1927-1932, which drummed up fear and hatred of Jews in the run-up to the Holocaust..

Secondly, good satire ridicules the powerful, those who by their very position must be held accountable – simply because, by accepting responsibility, they’ve agreed to it. Satire that ridicules religious icons (not even a month ago, Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, who was depicted with a pig nose), or “humour” that denigrates those who are already marginalised, is just poor taste. More than that, this kind of no-holds-barred ridicule paves the way for a society that lacks respect for divinity and empathy, where everything and anything is fair game. Nothing is sacred – and cruel insults take on the machismo of backslaps between friends.

Moreover, the freedom of expression argument has an iffy barometer, especially in France. As part of its “internal security” enactments passed in 2003, it is against the law in France to ridicule the national flag and anthem. French rapper Monsieur R faced prison charges in 2006 for insulting Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle, while in the same year rapper Joestarr had his rap song against then President Nicolas Sarkozy banned. Sarkozy, president until 2012, ordered the firing of the director of Paris Match because he published photos of his wife with another man in New York.

While laws protecting the republic are heavy, laws protecting France’s Muslim population (which make up less than 20% of the total) are not. In a law banning religious symbols in public, it is illegal for Muslim girls to express their religious beliefs by wearing the hijab (headscarf) to school. In 2005, a French court ruled in favour of the French Catholic Church and banned an ad demeaning the Last Supper, stating that the display was "a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people's innermost beliefs". But two years later a French court rejected a case brought by two French Muslim associations against Charlie Hebdo for reprinting cartoons originally published by a Danish magazine that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.

This is not even mentioning the duplicitous nature of France’s allies, the United States and Britain, when it comes to freedom of expression. Two examples: in 2003, three journalists – Taras Protsyuk, 35, Jose Couso, 37 and Tarek Ayyoub, 35 – were killed in Iraq when US forces targeted the Palestine Hotel where many journalists were staying. And more recently in the United Kingdom, events in Paris have facilitated the acceleration of the Communications Data Bill which will strengthen the government’s surveillance powers by mandating internet service providers to collect and retain data about their users, including e-mails and other communications, at any time and without a warrant.

There is nothing to prevent this draconian piece of counter-terrorism legislation from being used, not only against Muslims broadly, but further down the line, and given a couple of years, against human rights activists or environmentalists that are particularly irksome to governments. This dovetailing of global counter-terrorism legislation with the political agendas of power-hungry governments is already alive and well, according to numerous reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Kenya and Ethiopia, among others. As Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has said, “What happens to the Muslim community, sure enough, sooner or later, happens to the rest of us."

Make no mistake: I am not defending the killers. Their acts are criminal. But they have taken place within a global context that cannot be ignored – and “othering” those who have been alleged to be responsible without more closely examining the complicity of the powerful in producing men like these – as we know from our very own history – only further polarises society and leads us down a path blinded by moral passion and conflict, where only worse decisions are made. Violence begets violence and so it goes on.

Who knows where this will lead us. As we mourn and feel the aftershocks of Paris, France arms its streets with 10 000 soldiers and Britain rushes through anti-terrorism laws that will strengthen airport stop-and-search and passport confiscation powers that harken back to the worst days of South African apartheid.

But we must not take our eyes off the Middle East: the continued US drones strikes in Pakistan and the Yemen, which between them have killed almost 4 000 people, nearly a half of them children, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism the bombardment of Iraq under false evidence extracted through torture that there were weapons of mass destruction has left a country stunned and paralysed with over one million dead and nobody accountable; the continued crippling occupation of Gaza and the West Bank by Israeli forces, a bombardment last year ironically named Operation Protective Edge, which left 2 100 Palestinians, among them 495 children, dead; and the continued bombing of Iraq and Syria and lack of access for international human rights organisations as winter approaches and people starve.

Now is the time for critical thinking, moderation and calm heads. It is the time for dialogue. The cyclical violence that feeds the War on Terror and the security and media establishments that benefit from it needs to be broken. At its source is the prison camp of Guantanamo Bay – still not closed 13 years after opening in violation of international law and still not having brought any admissible court evidence as to what exactly happened on 9/11. Replicating Gitmo are the over 100 black sites around the world where Muslims have been rendered, tortured, and accused of being enemy combatants with no legal rights and in violation of the Geneva Convention. In the War on Terror, extremists are the products of Western foreign policy, while the detention centres are its factories.

The CIA Torture Report, radically redacted and shortened to a paltry 525 pages out of 6 000 and then smothered by events in Paris, detailed how men were humiliated, subjected to positional torture, blinding light, simulated burials, waterboarding, wall-slamming, rape – the list goes on – in order to provide inadmissible data to be used as fuel for the War on Terror. It has left out crucial facts like names and places, and the details of women and children detainees. This report and its hidden contents cannot, and – thanks to a new crowd-funded investigation by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project – will not be allowed to disappear.

It is crucial to understand the nuanced context in which events like the tragedy in Paris have unfolded. Nothing happens in isolation, and nothing is ever what it seems.

The Quran exhorts believers to battle evil with something better, and the pen is recommended over the sword. Nothing captures this better than the example of the Prophet Mohammed who constantly repelled insults with gentleness and forgiveness. There is the account of a woman who used to throw garbage at him every time he walked passed her house. Instead of walking another way, he would continue to walk past her house and she would continue to throw trash at him. One day, she was not there. The Prophet was concerned and enquired about her. He found out she was ill. So the Prophet went to her house, fed her and cleaned her house until she was well again. Mohammed was, and always will be, untouched by insult.

This is because gentleness and goodness will always win over evil. In the words of Lassana Bathily, the Muslim employee at the Kosher grocery store Hyper Cacher who saved several people in the aftermath of the shootings by hiding them in a meat freezer: “We are brothers,” he said in an interview with French TV. “It's not a question of Jews, of Christians or of Muslims. We're all in the same boat, we have to help each other to get out of this crisis."

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  • Goeie stuk wat die wyer prentjie teken. Die optrede van die mense wat die wreedhede gepleeg het, is nie te vergoelik nie, maar kom ons wees eerlik - alle oorlogsdade word nie met dieselfde maat gemeet nie. Die westerse wêreld het hulleself in 'n oorlog laat intrek danksy George Bush II. Die oorlog kom huis toe.

  • Well said! Why can't the Western Leaders see and think like this? About self-respect and then mutual respect.

  • Karina Szczurek

    Dear Karen

    You asked for a response to your article. As I’ve already mentioned, I am in two minds about it. I agree with most of your statements as separate comments. However, I am uncertain about their implication as a whole. What happened in Paris is an attack on our freedom of expression. This is a fact. It is not about “framing”.

    I cannot comment on Charlie Hebdo’s content. The first issue I will ever see is the latest. I asked a friend to send me a copy. In general, however, we also need to have the freedom to publish “cruel” and “unwise” content. There are ways of engaging with it, especially critically, that do not end in violence.

    Any (religious) group should be able to face satire, good or bad, poor taste or not. Prescribing what “good” or “bad” satire is might also be a form of censorship. Tastes differ. If content is illegal, there are steps which can be taken to seek justice without resorting to violence. If one is dissatisfied with legal frameworks within which we operate, there are also ways of addressing those without violence.

    Yes, violence begets violence. Here in South Africa we know how vicious the cycle of violence and revenge is. But we have also found workable ways of breaking that cycle.

    You list many human rights violations as the “context” in which the Paris attacks need to be considered. I believe, as I think you do, that no context can justify or mollify these actions. Understanding context is crucial, but one should also not lose focus. What happened in Paris has to be irrevocably condemned.

    I have no religion to call my own, but the story you retell about Mohammed and the woman who insulted him is a story I would like to live my life by. Whatever our individual beliefs might be, we all have the option to work within our own communities to strengthen what is good and kind in all of us, to find a way to reach out across our differences towards a common present and future. There is very little we can learn from violence. There is much more to be learned from kindness and understanding. It is too late for Cherif and Said Kouachi, but not for all others harbouring similar hatred.

    Thank you for inviting me to comment.



  • I believe that we are fools who took an unnecessary risk,” Roussel wrote. “That’s it. We think we are invulnerable. For years, decades even, it was a provocation and then one day the provocation turns against us.” - Founding member of Charlie Hebdo ...

  • Your well-written article skirts dangerously along the precipice of justification based on precedence. There is no justification for the Charlie Hebdo murders no matter what the CIA did or how similar these cartoons were to Der Stuermer. To follow these thoughts, which took a good 70% of your article, is a never-ending discussion (“…she said, but that’s because he did…, etc.”). I am truly offended at the depiction of my savior with a pig’s nose, but I will die to maintain a system that states constitutionally that it protects a person’s right to free speech. My resolve does not wane because there are exceptions and stories of my government doing otherwise. Justice is something we need to constantly strive for and not abandon because of my personal offense.   

     But this issue goes much deeper and the latest riots due to the last Charie Hebdo front cover have given rise to an even larger issue - largely left out of your article. The rioting mobs expressed a feeling that their honor had been taken away, which is something we Westerners will not and cannot understand.  The Pakistani interviewed during these riots begged with tears in his eyes for legal recourse in international courts. His offense was not only due to his belief, but because it shook the very foundations of his family-oriented legal structure, history and culture. Yes he is offended that the Prophet was ridiculed, but more than that, his world as he has known it for generations was being put into question.   
    I cannot understand this man’s offense and Westerners – even those who have converted to Islam at an adult, like you, cannot either. But it is real and stands contrary to our Western inalienable right to free speech. This is the true dilemma that we need to face and not whether the Prophet is deserving of the ridicule he received. 
    We stand at the convergence of cultures. Islam happens to be the rock of this contention. 

    Tim Miner

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