Opinion

When blasphemy is bigotry: The need to recognise historical trauma when discussing Charlie Hebdo

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I first learned of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices through a photograph of one of the cartoonists’ studios posted to Instagram by his daughter. ‘Papa is gone not Wolinski’, the caption read. My reaction was instant and visceral: my own father was a cartoonist with a workspace much like Wolinski’s, and I have experienced the same aching pain caused by seeing it after his departure from it.

I have also spent enough time in France to know that to reduce those cartoonists’ collective body of work to a project of pissing off Muslims is wrong. For the most part, these men spent decades engaged in creating satire of the best sort: that which punches up, ridiculing the powerful – particularly the French State – and providing comfort to the underdog. There is no question that their deaths are an unforgivable tragedy.

But it is seriously misguided, I believe, to channel the palpable grief these deaths have inspired towards an archly Voltairean project of defending free speech at all costs.

This is in fact not the first time Europeans have been killed over offensive cartoons. In 2006 Gunther Grass remarked that the infamous Danish cartoons – which Charlie Hebdo republished – reminded him of anti-Semitic cartoons that appeared in the German magazine Der Sturmer, for which the publisher was tried at Nuremburg and executed.

The key difference between the reception of the Der Sturmer and Danish cartoons, Mahmood Mamdani argues, is that the former are understood to be bigotry, while the latter are considered blasphemous. As he points out, the difference is that blasphemy offends notions of the sacred from within a tradition, while bigotry offends them from outside of it. Mistaking the former for the latter explains why many well-meaning liberals honestly cannot grasp that publishing insulting pictures of the Prophet is not equivalent to depicting the Pope in a bikini.

Whether we view Charlie Hebdo’s Islamic-themed output as blasphemy or bigotry depends on how we relate to two equally divergent historical experiences.

The White French majority overwhelmingly experience it as yet another chapter in an ongoing national historical struggle with clericalism, in which key moments of the accepted narrative of nation-building involved wrestling power away from the Catholic Church. In this view, the satirical depictions of Muslims and Islam, however distasteful they may be, are not merely defensible because they are manifestations of free speech, they must be defended because the tempering of religious power through blasphemy is fundamental to liberty of expression in the French experience.

Within an alternative history of French nationhood, however, the images came as yet another assault on Muslims’ right to citizenship in its fullest sense, to be of France rather than merely just in it. The Prophet metonymically represents the community as a whole, just as the schoolgirl’s headscarf has since the late 1980s. The images thus compound a sense of alienation felt by Muslims across Europe, generated by ethnic profiling, police harassment, physical assaults, discrimination in the labour and housing markets, attacks on mosques and general incivility. They reinforce the perception that the legislative limits to free speech are selectively applied, as demonstrated by the swift banning of a fashion advertisement which stylistically referenced the last supper, and the protracted legal case brought against a prominent Muslim anti-racism activist for her alleged racial vilification of whites. And they continue a long history of using the pursuit of republican values to justify the humiliation of colonial subjects and their contemporary descendants, from brutal public ‘de-veiling’ ceremonies in colonial Algeria, to the cruel pettiness of today’s public school officials refusing to provide alternatives to pork in children’s school dinners.

Some commentators acknowledge that the images constitute bigotry, but argue that we should tolerate the hurt they cause and champion them anyway in order to strike a blow against terrorism. This is the rationale guiding the French government and various media outlets’ enormous monetary contributions to the magazine and the promise to print one million copies of its next issue.

But that logic is flawed.

Islamist terrorist attacks are not aimed at liberty of expression. As Osama bin Laden quipped after 9/11, if al Qaeda hated freedom as claimed, why did it not attack Sweden? These atrocities are better understood as futile acts of vengeance against the West: against its perpetual attempts to spread ‘freedom’ by the sword throughout the Muslim world; against its nauseating recourses to Enlightenment ideals as justification for the resulting carnage. Cherif Kouachi said that he was drawn to violent extremism after becoming outraged over images he saw on television. But it wasn’t cartoons of the Prophet he was referring to; it was those gruesome photographs of US ‘liberating forces’ torturing Abu Ghraib prisoners.

This line of argument may appear to suggest the need for greater legislative restrictions on freedom of speech. But tinkering with anti-discrimination laws is unlikely to amount to very much.

The difficult task of living together in the wake of this atrocity requires that we instead shift the conversation out of the legal and into the ethical realm. It demands that we work towards elaborating an ethics of cohabitation based on a recognition of the universality not so much of liberal values, but of trauma. We have no difficulty recognizing the trauma that gunning down a bunch of guys putting together their weekly magazine has inspired. It’s blantantly obvious. What we need to better understand is how a history that may be different from our own informed the conditions that give rise to this and other similar crimes. We must urgently come to terms with the ways in which the historical traumas of the global south continue to haunt the postcolonial present.

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Thanks for this very valuable essay. Hadn’t considered French anti-clericalism. One lesson is that any message must be considered as an attempt at a communication, a communication between two people (or two life-experiences or two viewpoints). The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists may have been so captured by their own anti-clericalism as to have supposed their cartoons carried only that message. Assuming they did not set out to offend Muslims, they (unforgivably) forgot that the Muslims-in-France life… Read more »

“The satirical depictions of Muslims and Islam, however distasteful they may be, are not merely defensible because they are manifestations of free speech, they must be defended because the tempering of religious power through blasphemy is fundamental to liberty of expression in the French experience.” Nevertheless, 17 French citizens died at the hands of “radical Muslim extremists” a political reality that the French public saw enacted before them on national television. Front National political leader… Read more »

This is a great post.

RE: “What we need to better understand is how a history that may be different from our own informed the conditions that give rise to this and other similar crimes. We must urgently come to terms with the ways in which the historical traumas of the global south continue to haunt the postcolonial present.” ~ Middle East Chloe Patton SEE: ● REGARDING THE FRENCH COLONIZATION OF ALGERIA, SEE – http://mondoweiss.net/2015/01/dont-civilizations-again#comment-737140 ● REGARDING THE “QUASI-APARTHEID” OF… Read more »

The article is a good reminder that Charlie Hebdo isn’t some kind of far-right magazine, but a left-wing publication that degenerated and became a part of a trend of leftists–of center-leftists, actually–who think they’re taking a brave stand by attacking Islam and/or Islamism (and of course the former isn’t far from the latter for these people). It’s a group made up of militant atheists (probably the only genuine people in the bunch), pro-Israelis (hm hmm),… Read more »