Why I feel the controversial drawings by Charlie Hebdo were not satire
Understanding Satire in light of Charlie Hebdo
(Let me predicate this article by saying I condemn the brutal killings of civilians in any terrorist attacks and the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office on January 7th cannot ever be justified.)
It has been over a week since the violent attack at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Rallies have been held, protests have been organized and debates have been conducted. The battle lines have drawn between terrorists and the supporters of the Freedom of Expression. However, now the dust is starting to settle and the magazine has even come out with a new issue, I want to explore an avenue that has been left largely ignored; ‘how satirical is Charlie Hebdo really?’
In answering that question, you need to first have a brief understanding of what satire is and how it has been used over the years. Etymologically the word has its roots in the derivatives for the Greek word ‘Satyr’. At the fountainhead of western civilization in ancient Greece Satyr plays were organized during the festival of Dionysus as a way for the Athenians to release their emotional sides. The satyr plays were dominated by drunkenness, sexuality and most importantly mocking.
The performances inversed the traditional roles; the amusement was caused by things in the satyr not being in their correct place in society. The same inversing of social roles can be found throughout the history of performance culture in many European countries. The Roman comedies of Horace and Terrance, the Carnivalesque form and much of Commedia dell’arte used the same idea to create comedy.
Despite taking place under kingships, these performances were sanctioned by the state as a way for the common people to release their anger. They served as an exit valve within the system which allowed the system to breathe potentially restricting the chances of revolution. For one day the common people were allowed to mock Kings and Gods.
It was through theatre that satire became a part of the western culture. The rejection of grand narratives by post-modernity brought satire and irony center to the western traditions; in an age of self-reflexivity and rejection of universal ideas, satire became a natural way to attack ideas of antiquity and modernity. Samuel Beckett’s classic ‘Waiting for Godot’ perfectly encapsulates the attitude of many authors of the post-modern age towards the grandiose ideas of days gone by.
Despite Waiting for Godot becoming an English classic, it was originally written by Beckett in French, ‘En attendant Godot’, Beckett lived in Paris for most of his life. Paris is at the center of the world once again post Charlie Hebdo. Millions of people did not come out on the streets for the 12 people murdered in the terrorist attack but rather for the right of the people to express themselves, even if they did not agree with them or the editorial policy of the magazine. The attack was not seen as an attack on Charlie Hebdo, it was seen as an attack on France.
Satire is central to the French culture. The French revolution is regarded as the model for a democratic revolution but even prior to the revolution, the kings maintained buffoons allowed to mock the king. Satire writers such as Moliere and Jean de la Fontaine are a part of the fabric of French literature. It has become such an acceptable medium that most French people are baffled as to why even some people would take offense at certain drawings by Charlie Hebdo. They do not regard it as an attack on Islam or Muslims at all; infact the magazine has targeted all major religions of the world with its cartoons.
In isolation academically speaking the position take up by the French on the issue forms a perfectly jigsaw puzzle but where the pieces start coming apart is the reality of the matter. Any situation cannot be looked at devoid of its economics and social realities.
The truth of the matter is satire by design is created to target the powerful. It is against the state, or the powers that be. In many cases it is organized religion or ideas about God where satire is used as an active form of resistance to the acceptance of these ideas.
However, France is not a Muslim majority country. The state is not Muslim. The government is not Muslim. And Islam is hardly a widespread influence in their daily lives. The most impact anything to do with Islam has on their daily lives is the possible threat of Islamic militant terrorist groups but the magazine did not choose to satirize them in particular. It chose to satirize the most respected figure in the history of Islam devoid of any poignant remark on any Islamic militant organization.
In fact, the only time Charlie Hebdo even manages to draw attention to them is on the cover of its latest issue which shows a bearded man weeping for the deaths of those killed in the terrorist attack. The cover does not allude to who the bearded man is but it serves as a timely reminder that for those who believe that Islam is a religion of peace and the killing of one person is equal to the killing of all humanity in Islam, the loss of innocent lives in the name of Islam is worth weeping for. It takes the narrative used by the terrorists and inverts it against them, which has all the elements of satire.
However, all their previous covers do not fulfill these criteria. I am going to make the controversial claim that covers depicting the Holy Prophet (PBUH) by the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo were not satire. A quick look on the demographic of France will make it clear as to why it is not.
Muslims make for less than 10% of the population of France; they are effectively a minority in a largely Christian country. The state itself may be secular but once again you cannot look at things theoretically without acknowledging the ground reality. The ground reality is making fun of a minority religion is not satire. You are not targeting the powerful but you are targeting the weak. Inversely, making fun of Christianity in Pakistan would not be considered satire in my book; you are simply worsening the life situation of an already impoverished and suppressed minority group.
A large portion of the Muslim population of France is the immigrants from African countries such Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Algeria was occupied by France for over a century from 1830-1962. The country gained its independence after a violent uprising; an Algerian revolution for independence. The Algerians were never considered equal citizens by France, they had limited social and political rights and were often targeted militarily by France.
Tunisia was another colony of France which gained independence from France in 1956 whereas France has gone to war with Morocco twice. Despite the improvement of relations between these countries and France in the modern era the impact of the colonization and the repercussions of the psychological impact of the post-colonial mentality cannot be ignored.
Even if the law in France treats everyone equally, the Muslim immigrant population has been disenfranchised for so long that it is impossible for them to compete on an equal footing. The fallout of the civil rights movement in America and post-apartheid experience of South Africa proves that equality is not equity, and equality is not justice. A population treated as subjects for centuries completely robbed of their identities cannot compete with their perceived masters on an equal footing after gaining independence. The inferiority complex engrained into them by the colonial mindset persists.
Much of the Muslim population in France works at the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Despite having an equal amount of social and political rights as French citizens; they are not seen as their equals. The dialectic of the master and slave caused by centuries of war and occupation manifests itself in different ways.
The 2004 law passed by the French parliament banning outright visible religious affiliations was not specifically targeting at Muslims but it robbed them of another form of their identity; the veil. The law has been controversially referred to as the veil law. Despite the French experience with colonization being over, the forced assimilation purported by the law has elements of the colonial philosophy of stripping subjects of their identities.
Despite the intentions of the French parliament being completely different from the intentions of military leaders during the occupations, the law was seen as an attack on Muslim identity.
Muslims in France have had a historic cultural, social and economic disadvantage. The attack on Charlie Hebdo shows that the possibility of an attack motivated by a misappropriated sense of religion is possible but I would like to really step back and question, how brave was it for a magazine to satirize the most respected figure of a minority portion of the population in the country which has been historically disenfranchised by the country?
I do not know the answer to that. The repeated threats in the past and the tragic loss of lives on Januay 7th show that it must have required courage but I am still apprehensive to categorize the cartoons depicting the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as satire. They might not have been intentioned to worsen the social, economic and political condition of Muslims in France but the cartoonists should have been reasonably aware of those realities of the Muslim population in the country and used their platform to satirize the powerful, rather than the weak.
Satire is making fun of the guy sitting in an air-conditioned imported car, not the guy begging on the streets. To apply the rule that ‘either you can make fun of everything or nothing’ may sound principled academically but looking at it devoid of the social, political and economic realities, it is only a hollow statement that sounds powerful on a placard at a protest but in reality means further disenfranchisement for the weak.
Je Suis Charlie but let us not picture the magazine as saints; they did not some good and some bad. Not every joke is satire, some of it is bullying.