Censor Your Reverence: Charlie Hebdo Is Not Racist

Censor Your Reverence: Charlie Hebdo Is Not Racist

The Charlie Hebdo attackers were cornered into taking hostages and finally dispatched to find out whether they interpreted Allah’s take on cartoons correctly. This is surely a fate preferable to living in the dystopian hellhole of Paris. But commentators approaching the subject from a wide variety of perspectives began blaming the victim. While all the fundamentalist dogs barked, the American left devolved into an ideological skirmish over whether Charlie Hebdo was a bastion of free speech or a slavering pack of racists. Je suis Charlie is now under assault from Je suis pas Charlie.

Charlie Hebdo was sued 13 times by Catholic organizations. And while the Catholic church may tut-tut murder, some made it pretty clear that they weren’t so displeased with the terrorist murder of artists who lampooned all religions. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue wrote,

“Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.”

Muhammed wasn’t sacred to Charbonnier, because he wasn’t a Muslim. Non-Muslims are not required to hold Muhammed sacred, as much as jihadists threaten them that they must.

The cartoonist “Charb” was still warm when Donohue issued his statement gloating about his murder. Donohue’s belief in the resurrection may have short-circuited his brain, so let me explain. Charb isn’t going to come back, so he’s not going to feel the salt you pour in his bullet holes, Bill. In blaming a cartoonist for his murder by extremists, Donohue sounds like the kind of Catholic “leader” who would tell us, ‘Well, the altar boy didn’t deserve to be raped, but he was wearing a pretty tight cassock, so…’ Leave it to the fundamentalists among the Catholic patriarchy to throw the Enlightenment overboard at the first opportunity. Donohue sounds like he laments that he couldn’t have the Charlie Hebdo team burned at the stake to purify their souls.

In a blog post making the rounds on social media entitled “Why I am not Charlie,” the anonymous author begins,

“There is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday.”

There is a “though,” though.

“There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive.”

I suspect that the artists and editors at Charlie Hebdo would be pleased to know that this author was offended. The author goes on to say,

“I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted.”

The article provides no examples of Hebdo doing this, but seems to assume that France’s Muslims are oppressed, and that depicting Muhammed insults them. To observe that Muslims don’t want anyone to depict Muhammed, even if they don’t share their religion, is one thing. But how is it racist? Is Islam a race? Islam spans half the globe, from Morocco to Indonesia. The Muslims in France are a large minority and hail from different places. As with any religion, Islam as an institution has a powerful influence on society, and is thus fair game for criticism.

A deeply scathing blog post by Jacob Canfield argues,

Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.

I spent several hours looking through hundreds of Charlie Hebdo covers trying to find what Canfield and anonymous author were claiming to see. I do not see it. Canfield provides no evidence of sexism or homophobia whatsoever. The one cover cartoon he holds up as evidence of homophobia is of a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist kissing a Muslim man with the caption, “Love is stronger than hate.” This was AFTER Charlie Hebdo was firebombed by terrorists offended by a Muhammed cover. It’s particularly dense to assume that this is homophobic. If anything, it’s ironically pro-gay rights. Charlie Hebdo celebrated gay marriage when it was legalized in France, with the joke, “Next: gay divorce!”

Canfield uses specious evidence just like anonymous author, and upholds reverence as an imperative just like Donohue, to assert that Hebdo is racist,

Even in a fresh-off-the-press, glowing BBC profile of Charb, Hebdo’s murdered editor, he comes across as a racist asshole.

“Charb had strongly defended Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

‘Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,’ he told the Associated Press in 2012, after the magazine’s offices had been fire-bombed.

‘I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.'”

Wait, so the factual statement that he lives under French law, and is thus protected from prosecution for “blasphemy” makes him a “racist asshole”? Canfield’s site is devoted to comic criticism, but dove in head first to judge the relative morality of respect for religion while completely misunderstanding the subtext and tone of the comics it purports to critique. The main point of this horrible article is that Charlie Hebdo believed they were above criticism, but they weren’t. Being constantly sued, firebombed and finally murdered by religious zealots wasn’t criticism enough? This article amounts to a plea by an obscure blog to be taken seriously as a critic by proffering vapid moralistic platitudes in lieu of analysis.

The editor defended Charlie Hebdo against charges of racism in 2013. They had been a critical voice in France’s revolutionary generation of ’68. Back then, taking on powerful religious institutions was an integral part of criticizing the direction of the world. But today religion was being conflated with race and they were being told to shut up. The editor was frustrated, but vowed to forge on.

In my search of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, I found a lot of very edgy and provocative covers and illustrations, to be certain. But for my very liberal tastes, there was only one cover, which seems to depict Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens, which seemed to truly cross a line. But a Q&A site asked for context for that cartoon, and numerous people wrote in to defend Charlie Hebdo. They explained that the paper was famous for mixing two news items in its covers. This one was ironically mocking the French right’s decision to cut welfare by blending it with the Boko Haram story also in the news. They were lampooning the right’s image of welfare queens by exaggerating it to the point of the absurd. They were adopting right wing arguments to underline their absurdity in the same way that Stephen Colbert lampooned a Bill O’Reilly type character on his show.

Euny Hong wrote a spirited defense of French lowbrow art,

I’ll come out and say it, because no one else will: French gross-out humor is the best. Particularly the illustrated variety. And it’s very much worth pointing out that unlike the American or Japanese graphic novel/superhero comic tradition, the French ribald comic is not misogynistic, and has focused largely on making fun of male bodies rather than being a socially acceptable way of contributing to men’s spank banks.

 It seems that some very important cultural context is necessary here, because of a persistent double standard among some of America’s cultural elite: They applaud sex and nudity in French films because that’s just how the French are and it’s super-sophisticated because film is some kind of exalted art form. What’s less discussed is the equally glorious and equally awesome tradition of French men’s-urinal-graffiti-worthy humor.
Very few other cultures have so successfully married intellectual rigor with shitting and farting. And there’s a long tradition behind it that goes back at least as far as the 16th century, with François Rabelais’ five-volume La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, illustrated by famed cartoonist Gustav Doré.

So, according to people who know what they’re talking about, Charlie Hebdo is a kind of Stephen Colbert, with more of a Mad Magazine level of lowbrow humor, which skewers right wing and religious fundamentalist arguments by stretching them to the extreme, while also exalting in sexual and toilet humor. That may or may not be your cup of tea, but calling it racist is sloppy, at best. It is representative of an aspect of French culture that is generally absent in American culture: the fusion of a lowbrow aesthetic with highbrow political commentary. So when Gawker argues that Charlie Hebdo can only be understood in the context of the rise of Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front party, they are putting the cart before the horse, oblivious to French culture and politics. Le Pen and her party are one of Charlie Hebdo’s most frequent targets.

The people calling Charlie Hebdo racist don’t understand it. They don’t understand French culture, French humor and French media. It would be like if Europeans decided that Stephen Colbert was racist based on a few things he had said taken out of context. That wouldn’t happen though, because the European left generally wouldn’t leap to those kinds of conclusions. The murdered artists, the surviving staff, and their loved ones, deserve support, not this craven tarnishing of their legacy.

A completely different brand of attack on Charlie Hebdo, lumps it in with Western imperialism generally. Asghar Bukhari argues that the attack had nothing to do with free speech, and everything to do with war. White people, he argues, uphold the cartoons because they are racist imperialists. The article begins with a picture of a drone lurking in the sky with the caption,

“A ‘free speech’ machine. It looks for people who do not have enough free speech and then gives them some”

I can understand where Muslims in war zones perceive a great deal of Western hypocrisy. I can totally understand being opposed to militarism. However, not ALL of Western culture is war and hypocrisy. Free speech is, in my opinion, one of the greatest accomplishments of all of Western civilization. And no amount of jihadists with Kalashnikovs will ever convince me, or as it happens, Charlie Hebdo, otherwise. As someone who has voted against, protested against, and written a lot against the powers within my society who seek war and greed, I have done what I can. I am not personally responsible for drone attacks in Pakistan. The Charlie Hebdo artists were even less responsible, because they were cartoonists in France, not generals in the American military. Saying that Charlie Hebdo’s legitimate exercise of free speech is one and the same as the American military’s attacks on Muslims in the Afghan/Pakistan war zone is morally equivalent to the Western conservatives blaming all Muslims for the attacks by a handful of jihadists. As the great English poet William Blake wrote in a letter,

“To generalize is to be an idiot.”

For conflating all of Western civilization into a single identity and all Western culture into an act of war, for espousing collective guilt, you, sir, and your Western conservative counterparts blaming all Muslims, are an idiot.

The most disturbing reaction was by Britain’s radical cleric Anjem Choudary. I don’t want to make too much of him because he does not represent the vast majority of Muslims, and more scholarly Muslims profoundly disagree with him. But he does represent the tiny minority fundamentalist mindset, such as it is, that likely drove the terrorists to butcher cartoonists for drawing a guy who lived 1400 years ago. Choudary argued,

Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, “Whoever insults a Prophet kill him.”

However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.

Choudary is a deeply confused man. An abstraction like the honor of a character in a dogma is, quite objectively, not worth a human life. And because Sharia law has no jurisdiction in France. You can’t take law into your own hands if it doesn’t apply. The terrorists and this Choudary clown who agrees with them, were not legal scholars, or religious warriors, or representatives of any cause. They were merely murderers. But they murdered because they have a rigid, tyrannical outlook. This is the brutal, logical conclusion of religious fundamentalism. Someone like Bill Donohue can only whine about it because Western civilization clipped his wings in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Without Enlightenment values, artists, writers and editors like Charlie Hebdo are not free to fill the niche of raunchy irreverent humor that makes French culture what it is. Choudary advocates not a defense of Islam, but naked imperialism. He advocates a violent imposition of his neurotically rigid values onto all cultures. In his world, French cartoonists are not allowed to be raunchy and irreverent. They must be reverent and humorless like him, or they die. To act on that outlook is criminal, and must be treated as such.

Most Western societies, and many Eastern societies, including predominantly Muslim societies, hold both religion and civil society in balance. A crucible of blood and fire spanning centuries won us these hard-earned liberties from dogmatic totalitarianism. The militants claiming to represent Islam who wish to wipe away civil society to implement only Islamist extremism, not only in their own societies, but in Western societies with a completely different heritage, are a legitimate threat to our freedoms. Charlie Hebdo died for their right to speak. To attack them for being “racist” because their aesthetic is different than what yours would be is ghoulishly misguided.

The greatest irony is that the most controversial cover, and the one that ultimately cost the Charlie Hebdo team their lives, depicted Muhammed with his head in his hands, upset that there were radicals acting in his name. Charlie Hebdo was defending Islam from extremists and extremists killed them for it! The jihadists destroyed their own argument. ‘How dare you call me violent? You say I misinterpret the Religion of Peace? I’ll kill you!’ A number of Arab cartoonists at papers in the Middle East understood this better than the American liberals questioning Charlie Hebdo.

Following the attack, Sean Hannity interviewed Choudary on Fox News, proving once again, that Hannity is a blowhard and a terrible interviewer, because he kept shouting over him, pigeonholing him into yes/no questions, and concluded the interview by calling him an “evil SOB.” In spite of that, Choudary made Hannity sound reasonable. In the middle of the interview, Hannity defended women’s rights and gay rights from Choudary. Now, Hannity doesn’t believe in those things in the American context. But in the inter-civilizational context of his bombastic interview, he sounded a lot more liberal than Choudary. So, while a number of American liberal commentators joined religious fundamentalists in ignoring the real issue, that the bedrock liberty of freedom of expression was under attack, a right wing ideologue was defining American liberalism for the world.

I am offended by all the kneejerk reverence I’ve seen in response to the slaughter of the glorious iconoclasts at Charlie Hebdo. You’d better censor your reverence or else … I’ll write more about you.

Marc Belisle is the Reverb Press World Affairs Editor. He is a writer, activist and teacher. He has a Master’s degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies. READ MORE BY MARC.