Why I feel Charlie Hebdo matters
On Wednesday night I was one of 20,000 people packed into the Madison Square Garden, New York, to watch one of the best standup comedians of our time, Louis C.K. Towards the end of his set, Louis C.K. made a joke about 9/11. As a brown Muslim guy sitting in a row with white Americans, I could not even get myself to laugh out aloud. I was worried about how they might perceive my reaction if I laugh, I was apprehensive; I even felt a small pang of guilt overtake me.
I can understand the apprehension but I cannot rationalize the guilt. Do other Muslims around the world also carry a guilt about 9/11 with them everywhere they go? Would Louis C.K. still be able to make the same joke if he was an Arab comic or a Muslim? How can New Yorkers even laugh at 9/11?
While performing in New York at a comedy club in West Village, I once asked a fellow comic when he felt Americans felt they were ready to move on after 9/11. He said,
“The first time an audience laughed on a 9/11 joke at a club.”
His response came as a huge culture shock to me. We simply do not use humour to get over tragedy in Pakistan. There are no jokes about partition even in our mass consciousness despite the event taking place 67 years ago. I have been labelled anti-Pakistan simply for making jokes about shalwars because people felt shalwars are an essential part of the Pakistani culture. I have had people claiming to be members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan threaten my life for making a comedy sketch making fun of the terrorists.
Laughing has an intrinsic negative quality in our culture. Cultural differences cannot be graded on a scale; there is no right or wrong. I was brought up in a culture which deals with grief much too differently. Whereas Americans often make toasts at funerals and laugh about the good times shared with the deceased, Pakistanis tend to discourage even smiling at funerals. Our funerals are a somber affair, often echoing with sounds of wailing.
Imran Khan has been criticized severely in some quarters for getting married a mere 20 days after the Peshawar tragedy, and we will never ever be ready to even smile at the thought of the tragedy. Grief is meant to be lamented in Pakistan. days after Peshawar I felt guilty enjoying anything in life. A jolt of misery shot through me watching any child. How are 20,000 people able to laugh heartily at the worst incident in the history of their country a mere 30 streets away from the site of the tragedy? Being brought up in a Pakistani culture, I find the thought unfathomable. I could not even get myself to laugh at their tragedy.
Humour is the only thing many Jews claim kept them sane during the concentration camps of the Nazi regime. It was the only thing that made them feel a sense of humanity; a feeling of being human. The Jewish experience during the Second World War is partially why there are so many Jewish comics. Jerry Seinfeld, Groucho Marx, Larry David Seth Mcfarlane, John Stewart, Adam Sandler, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, were all first exposed to comedy at their own households. They saw how their families, many of whom had live through the Second World War, used humour to deal with misery. They inherited their parents’ use of humour as a defense mechanism.
Most comedians are tortured souls; the sad demise of Robin Williams has simply highlighted that fact even more. The metaphor of the clown who cries in the alleyway is etched into cultural folklore. Tales of famous comedians falling prey to addition and/or self-torture are much too common. Jim Carrey claims that most comedians are born to sick mothers, their first experience of comedy is trying to use comedy to alleviate the pain from the lives of their own mothers. Jim Carrey dropped out of High School to take care of his mother suffering from a chronic illness.
Coming from these dark experiences, comics can often feel the pain much more than other people. They have felt so much pain that they know when it hurts. They are sensitive to the hurt felt by others but often they find themselves unable to express their hurt in anything other than what they know; humour. It is how they cope with their own demons and it is how they hope to alleviate the pain of others. A joke is often a comic’s way of saying he cares.
Comedians often make jokes out of tragedy, not because they are shallow but because they are not. It is not enough for them to simply condemn an action; they need to find a way to show the world how senseless it is and that irony is where the funny comes from. The joke is the only way a comedian knows how to express their feelings. Woody Allen famously said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” We are stuck in a constant loop of tragedy because we do not ever give it any time.
On Wednesday Night, the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, Louis C.K. expressed his right to the freedom of expression and made jokes about everything ranging from his own daughters to the worst disaster in American history. He did not utter a single word about Charlie Hebdo, he did not have to. The words ‘Charlie Hebdo’ were scribbled onto his red t-shirt with a pencil. Without saying anything, Louis C.K. made the biggest statement about the incident. In getting out and performing comedy, Louis showed that the terrorists will never be able to win. They cannot silence the world from their gunshots. It is clichéd to say the pen is mightier than the sword but it makes you wonder what God these terrorists worship if they feel their God is threatened by a pencil cartoon.
Most comedians came out with statements in support of Charlie Hebdo. Satirists and cartoonists responded using their craft rendering heartbreaking cartoons to show their support. My statement condemning the attacks on my page was rebuked by some comments criticizing me for doing so. Some people felt because the paper made a cartoon about Islam in the past, the attacks was justified. Our religion does not allow us to take human lives on a whim, which is why a Muslim security guard, Ahmed, died defending the office. An office with a person who made fun of his religion but he died defending the same man to show that not all Muslims are the same; Islam is a religion of peace not a religion of Ak-47s and Kalishnikovs.
Any attempts by anybody around the world to ridicule any religion should be condemned in the harshest of words. There should be laws in place to prevent it from happening and the state should curb such activities and punish the perpetrators. Freedom of expression does not extend to hate speech. You simply cannot hurt the sentiments of millions of people around the world in the name of Freedom of expression.
However, nothing justifies the indiscriminate shooting of people. Our Prophet (P.B.U.H.) showed extreme kindness to anybody ridiculing him. He even went to inquire about the health about a woman who used to throw garbage on him. Do you think you can please a man of such immaculate character by taking the law onto your own hand? By killing innocent people in His name? Do you think the most respected personality in Islamic history needs defending from terrorists?
Why Charlie Hebdo matters and why ‘Je Suis Charlie’ is trending is not because the number of people killed. 12 people dying would be considered a day of peace in Karachi. It is the nature of the attack that has made the world shower Paris with their solidarity. It is an attack on the way of life in the modern world.
After World War II, Europe learned a harsh lesson. They concentrated on economics and development rather than War. Moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs they ensured they had enough to ensure the physiological needs of all their people, the granting of safety and respecting the dignity of man granted them the safety and self-esteem required to move to the stage of self-actualization.
This is the creative stage; people in Europe fight with their pens instead of their swords. They find it unfathomable that a person feeling aggrieved or offended can pick up arms and take the lives of other people. It is against the basic fabric of the society they have created for themselves. It is against everything enshrined in the laws of these nations. It is an attack on their way of life.
The terrorists are people seeking to drag the world back to a state of nature. Militant and terrorist organizations around the world tackle the resources to tackle states economically. They are unable to better their own lives due to a lack of resources. Instead of focusing on working their way up within the system, they look to bring the system down. A projection of a glorified past is crucial to a sustained effort to drag civilization back to the dark ages.
The reaction by some people shows how the terrorists are succeeding in doing so. The hashtag ‘KillAllMuslims’ started trending on twitter, some mosques were also attacked in France and the fault lines within Islam were accentuated by news reports. These reactions are against everything Europe has built in a post-World War II world. People partaking in such behavior are no better than the terrorists.
In response, rather than getting incensed at their ignorant opinions, we should show our solidarity with their pain. The world unanimously expressed their grief at the Peshawar tragedy, it is time we reciprocate. It is a long time before artists in Pakistan would be free to express themselves but we can show our some terrorists do not represent Islam by showing the world our humanity.
Islam and the modern world are not incompatible. In fact, Islam is responsible for shaping the modern world. It is only some people claiming to be the protectors of Islam who want to destroy that humanity has taken so long to build together. The human rights come from the United Nations but they are influenced by centuries of Islamic scholarship on the subject. The framers of the U.S. constitution list the Quran as one of their influences.
Islam has helped create the humanity that some people want to now destroy in the name of Islam. In response, we can either live our lives in constant fear of their guns or we can show the world that we are better than them. If 20,000 people can get together in New York to laugh at 9/11 on the day the terrorists kill 12 people in Paris then it is humanity showing the terrorists that they may take their lives but they can never take their humanity.
The show must go on.
In January 2010, I was putting up a play titled ‘Yeh Bhi Ek Kahani Hai’ dealing with the issue of terrorism at the Arts Council Karachi. Two days before the play we got a threatening phone call asking us to cancel the event or face the consequences. We believed the show must go on. We performed the play and it started a youth theatre movement in the city.
Artists are not soldiers; we do not look at them as figures of courage. We should not have to. Those two tiny words scribbled onto Louis C.K.’s shirt shows us how much courage it takes at times just to get up on a stage and perform. Perform while you are feeling a mountain of hurt crash onto you. Perform when you know anyone with a gun in the audience might shoot you. Or you may be the victim of the next extremist group but either we can stop doing what we love in fear or we can continue to work towards what we think is right. Each day we continue to laugh, is a day the terrorists lose. If the experience of Wednesday has taught me anything, it is that the show must go on.