[published in CounterPunch, 12 May, 2015]
In 2002, I would meet up with two friends, a couple, for frequent dinners in New York. My friends had this theatrical side of their relationship where they would “critique” conservative ideologies employing the effect and tone of certain comedy skits (it must have been their “inside joke”) in order to attack, ostensibly, racist stereotypes, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and the already evident anti-Muslim sentiment before and certainly after 9/11. These performances usually took the form of a satire, embodying the racist and homophobic discourses, emulating the likes of Glens Beck and John McLaughlin. Even when we would discuss the horrors of what were still the early months of the burgeoning Global War on Terror, my friends would intermittently respond rehashing FOX news taglines and popular culture epithets through these performative ten-second skits. One would refer to the beleaguered Afghans as “rag heads,” in showing his sympathy to the overtly racist reporting that had been taking place on CNN, Fox and other media sources, performative satire which was meant to evoke laughter since this was a racist term not uncommon in the military where my friend had served years earlier. The other would state how “all Muslims go to madrassa” (another long-standing media myth that madrassa meant “terrorist training camps” and not “school”) in order to contextualize the inaccuracy and insanity of media reporting.
As our visits continued throughout 2003 and 2004, I started to see this form of satire as something that went beyond pure critique and as a result I become uncomfortable with this format. Sure, I got it: I understood that this was their modality for expressing disgust with major media or for the historical wrongs done to dark-skinned people and other marginalized groups. But at a certain point, the satire wore down and the re-invoking of the stereotypes of the Right was simply no longer funny because it seemed to prey on the very representations inaccessible to most of the objects of such bigotry. My friends’ form of satire repeated the timeworn hurtful sentiments and language which, even if intended to critique, lost its power amidst the repetition and the reality that in fact, this satire of racism only extended the very tropes of racism by utilizing the very same gestures and language in the hope of mocking the very same gestures and language of racism. The problem is that such repetitions have their limits both in the performative and the real and what residue remains are the very artifices of what is still a long-standing, unresolved social problem. The residual tropes of racism are merely reified through satire and no actual critique ensues—all that remains is just a continuance of the familiar stereotypes, now recast for in-crowd entertainment because many who perform these “in-jokes” are not privy to the political weight and social oppression that such symbols manifest in the everyday.
More recently, the public revelations of police violence from Ferguson to Baltimore underscore only too well the reality of racism in my own country. And I am not referring to what some falsely believe to be a “recent upsurge” in racism, but rather I signal what, in reality, is part of a much larger continuum of racism in the United States: a long documented pattern of violence towards African American males by police forces across the country. Now mobile phones allow the encoding of such information with great facility and testimony; but let us make no mistake that there is nothing recent about these abuses and murders. Certainly, were it not for the mobile phone recording of the murder of Walter Scott, it is highly likely that Scott’s actions would be under question and not those of the police officer who murdered him. The realities of racism in the United States could not be more starkly marked today by the weekly accounts of police murders of unarmed black men and although most are only made aware of a few highlighted cases, there is considerable cause for concern with almost 1,500 police-involved killings over the past sixteen months. Yet in all the months of media coverage of these horrific, racist events, I have not seen any satire of these tragic deaths which recycles woeful racist tropes and turns them inward onto the victims of police violence. Most every comic representation of Ferguson has been either one of a harsh critique of the judicial system in Missouri or an even harsher critique of the double standards of racism within that town and within American society.
Over the past two weeks, I have been privy to frequent virtual discussions about the PEN awards where six prominent writers began a boycott of this annual event, among which were Rachel Kushner, Teju Cole, Taiye Selasi, Francine Prose, Michael Ondaatje, and Peter Carey. The reasons given for this withdraw were compelling and thoughtful responses with Kushner asserting that she is uncomfortable with the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and endorsement of what she calls a “kind of forced secular view” and Peter Carey writing to the New York Times contends: “A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?…All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
The response to this boycott ranged from people publicly disagreeing while stating their respect for their colleagues’ positions, to those who accused these writers of being apologists for terrorism, to Salman Rushdie’s admonition to these authors, calling them “pussies” and Richard Dawkins’ tweet which equates these individuals as complicit with the murders of these journalists: “Appeasers of Hebdo murderers. If motive is physical fear, OK. Contemptible if you think religion deserves free pass.” Following the initial boycott, a letter was sent out to the members of the PEN American Center signed by thirty-five writers (with 204 PEN writers having signed thus far) communicating the desire to distance themselves from PEN America’s decision to give the 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, stating:
[I]n an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.
Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.
To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.
I read this statement and wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment of the signatories. However, consequent to my agreement with these writers, I posted an article on Facebook which resulted in many exchanges regarding this affair, many of which were ad hominem assaults directed at me. The public Facebook discussions usually involved the defense of the Charlie Hebdo images, one woman in particular pointing to the importance that I remember “that people were murdered for blaspheming not for racism.” I was then told to look at the history of Charlie Hebdo, the story behind the Taubira cartoon, and the whole essence of laïcité (secularism) in France. Having lived in France years earlier, I was quite aware of this country’s quasi-religious fervor for secularism; yet, I saw the myriad contradictions in France’s practice of secularism, beginning with its Islamophobic stance on hijab (the veil) in the 1990s while other forms of religious garb simply have not received the same sort of condemnation. Likewise the political connections made between thehijab and fundamentalism, and then between fundamentalism and terrorism, were daunting as a blueprint to cultural and religious essentialism. Mohammad Mazher ldriss eloquently documents this debate:
While the French government have claimed that the new legislation will not permit any religion to express itself in the public educational sphere (ie the wearing of ostentatious religious dress by Catholics would not be allowed in state schools), there have been few or no reports of Christian or Jewish schoolboys being expelled for wearing crosses or kippahs and it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that the legislative policy pursued by the French government is really directed against only one group of individuals—Muslims. The legislative policy imposed by the French government demonstrates that a modern democracy has, probably for the first time and by legislation, ruled on what certain girls (or more specifically, Muslim schoolgirls) can wear in state schools. The principal reason put forward by the French government for justifying the new legislation has been the need to suppress “Islamic fundamentalism” and the government strongly believes that “radical Islam” now threatens the French Republic and needs to be controlled. One method to control this insurgency is to ban the hijab because it symbolises terrorism, or at the very least, implies that the wearer supports terrorism. However, what is the connection between the hijab and terrorism, and what is really meant by “fundamentalism”? To what extent is it fair to label a Muslim schoolgirl who wishes to wear the hijab a “fundamentalist.” (279)
If indeed religion were to be uniquely a private question then, why have so much media inside and outside of France, to include Charlie Hebdo, focused an inordinate amount of space to one particular religion’s cultural practices over the rest? And why focus so cruelly on a religion whose immigrant practitioners in France are at the butt end of jokes, the immigrants who are the most economically and socially disenfranchised in the country?
Generally there are several arguments that champions of Charlie Hebdo give to support the publication’s satirical cartoons. First, many argue that this publication follows a long line of literary and artistic satire dating back to Voltaire and Diderot where religion is “fair game.” While it is true that Charlie Hebdo continues a nineteenth-century style of political satire, such as the work of Honoré Daumierwho served a six-month prison term for his 1831 cartoon depicting King Louis-Philippe as Rabelais’ Gargantua, what is rarely discussed by those who unilaterally defend Charlie Hebdo’s satire is the fact that at the receiving end of these contemporary representations of the Arab/Muslim/Algerian as terrorist—usually rendered as one indistinguishable monolith—is also the very population of Muslim immigrants (or the children and grandchildren of these immigrants) who understand quite unequivocally the relationship between these images and the reality they live today in France. These individuals who are the living proof of France’s colonial legacy, the products of their nation’s or adopted nation’s colonial heritage and racist undertows still widely felt across France as the manifestations of 2005demonstrate, are directly affected by such representations and these very same people are likewise powerless to speak back due to their social and institutional disenfranchisement.
Secondly, defenders of Charlie Hebdo claim that the journal is an “equal opportunities offender” which takes to task all religions. The reality is that many of its journalists have publicly denounced what Olivier Cyran calls an “Islamophobic neurosis,” as he notes a radical shift in the publication’s ideology after 9/11 in his open letter to Stéphane Charbonnier and Fabrice Nicolino (2013):
Little by little, the wholesale denunciation of “beards”, veiled women and their imaginary accomplices became a central axis of your journalistic and satirical production. “Investigations” began to appear which accepted the wildest rumours as fact, like the so-called infiltration of the League of Human Rights (LDH) or European Social Forum (FSE) by a horde of bloodthirsty Salafists. The new impulse underway required the magazine to renounce the unruly attitude which had been its backbone up to then, and to form alliances with the most corrupt figures of the intellectual jet-set, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy or Antoine Sfeir, cosignatories in Charlie Hebdo of a grotesque “Manifesto of the Twelve against the New Islamic Totalitarianism”. Whoever could not see themselves in a worldview which opposed the civilized (Europeans) to obscurantists (Muslims) saw themselves quickly slapped with the label of “useful idiots” or “Islamo-leftists.”
And earlier this year cartoonist, Halim Mahmoudi, writes of his experiences at Charlie Hebdo linking the offensive images to his experiences of secularism in France, cementing the reality of life for many Muslims and North Africans:
The façade of secularism that made me suffer humiliating identity checks which have stained my heart and where I had to swallow my rage, evenings ruined because we couldn’t even get into clubs, a girlfriend who told me at the threshold of her front door that it was over because her parents do not want “me to go out with an Arab,” or even jobs refused to me because of customers who would not understand. Hundreds of letters and no job interviews! Few financial resources, and boredom stuck to cheap shoes sold in Tati’s shops.
The social, political and economic realities for Muslims in France today, even over five decades after the liberation of Algeria (and numerous other former Muslim-majority colonies) from France, is dire. The economic disenfranchisement alone speaks to the severity of the situation as unemployment rates for all immigrants in 2013 was almost 80 per cent higher than for non-immigrants with a 26.5 per cent unemployment rate for North African university graduates. These statistics mirror similar problems for British Muslims to find work as the unemployment rate for British Muslim men is at 13 per cent, about three times higher than for men of other faiths and backgrounds. In short, one cannot reasonably believe that such satirical representations can be made with the expectation that those affected French Muslims decontextualize and ahistoricize their very condition, casting off their humiliation, just for the sake of mostly light-skinned, privileged cartoonists and journalists to continue their political exercise of the French tradition of laïcité which supposedly critiques all forms of organized religion.
Lastly, defenders of Charlie Hebdo’s satire state that the images that cause offense to many are actually harsh critiques of racism. The subject of the Christiane Taubira cartoon became the focus a Facebook discussion with a few complete strangers on my wall and one private conversation with a dear friend from Paris, all of whom took an opposing view to my own. Assuming I did not understand the story behind Charlie Hebdo’s satirical comic, my friend explained how this Charlie Hebdo image was actually a critique in response to the Facebook representation of Justic Taubira by a member of the National Front, Anne-Sophie Leclere, who had taken an image of a baby monkey (labelled “At 18 months”) and juxtaposed this image with the “Now” photograph, that of Justice Taubira. The Charlie Hebdo image, my friend told me, was a response to this racist rendering of Christiane Taubira, literally embodying her as the monkey that Anne-Sophie Leclere pretended Taurbira really was. But I understood this level of counter-critique when I first saw the cartoon and read various articles related to the image in question. In fact, many of the ripostes against those who are critical of certain Charlie Hebdo cartoons is that we do not understand the history, the language, and/or the cultural context. But it is clear from the polemic on this subject that people actually do get it—they just disagree with what appears to be anything from thinly veiled attempt to justify racism to a sloppy counter-critique of racism.
The Taubira cartoon has been widely critiqued by French Muslims, however this debate was largely sidelined by the media in France. It was the New Statesman which published Mehdi Hasan’s response wherein he explains his position: “Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic.” Elucidating this sort of neo-orientalist posture, Hasan eloquently situates the tragedy of January 2015 within the larger social context:
In the midst of all the post-Paris grief, hypocrisy and hyperbole abounds. Yes, the attack was an act of unquantifiable evil; an inexcusable and merciless murder of innocents. But was it really a “bid to assassinate” free speech (ITV’s Mark Austin), to “desecrate” our ideas of “free thought” (Stephen Fry)? It was a crime – not an act of war – perpetrated by disaffected young men; radicalised not by drawings of the Prophet in Europe in 2006 or 2011, as it turns out, but by images of US torture in Iraq in 2004.
Hasan’s analysis indicates what most political pundits ignore: that the Charlie Hebdo murderers, Sharif and Said Kouachi, were born, raised and radicalized in Paris and that their inspiration came not from the Qur’an or the Hadith, but from a combination of their adolescence spent in care homes, marginalization as the children of immigrants, their mother’s suicide, poverty, unemployment, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Such analyses are not surprising given that research by specialists in this subject such as Juan Cole and Garikai Changu demonstrate the influence that such social and political realities have in creating young radicals. Moreover, organizations such as the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and the National Intelligence Council document the correlation between the War on Terror and the increase in terrorism. So what we are seeing in not a problem of radical Islam which is mysteriously creating a body of willing recruits for the intra-Wahhabi conflict between al-Qaida and the Islamic State, but it is the life-long formation of these recruits born, raised, racialized, and alienated within the west. Just as Timothy McVeigh was deeply influenced by the Christian Identity movement, the west hardly waged a war on Christian fundamentalism after the Oklahoma bombings. Nor did the west declare war on the Church, going after myriad violent anti-abortionist and homophobic militants, many of whom are fundamentalist Christians claiming to be “doing God’s work.” It is undeniable that when dealing with domestic issues there is a different yardstick used to understand the roots of violence, as opposed to the very racialized and Islamophobic reactions to any act of violence committed by young men from la cité (the projects) in France or young Muslim immigrants from Kazakhstan.Tariq Alidemystifies the political discourse driving Islamophobia quite plainly: “The real problem is not a secret: Western intelligence services regularly tell their leaders that the radicalisation of a tiny sliver of young Muslims (more work for the security services in Britain and France than for al-Qaida or ISIS) is a result of US foreign policy over the last decade and a half. Some of these Muslims have been happy to acquire new skills and priorities while fighting in Bosnia and, more recently, Syria.” Like any form of violence, the Paris killings in January must be understood in their own terms and not through a political spin of good versus evil, democracy versus Islamic fundamentalism, or even “our” freedom of speech versus “their” savagery. All violence must be understood within part of the larger socio-cultural framework in which it was born and not isolated through age-old Orientalist tropes of the bulbous-nosed Muslim seeking to convert the west to its belief system and replace its freedoms with calls to prayer of the muezzin. Indeed, read from the other side of this all too neat dichotomy, taking the position of those occupied and caricaturized, the neo-liberalism of western governments domestically and their constant wars overseas foment a radicalism of a different kind.
After posting an article about race in France putting the Charlie Hebdo images into its national and cultural context, one woman on my Facebook wall chose to question my political allegiances to women’s rights, all because I had recently signed a petition in support of Meghan Murphy’s work on the sex trade after a recent smear campaign against her. Yet this feminist failed to understand that the War on Terror is not a war for women’s rights even if the political discourse often parrots the freedom of “our women” using western women as a convenient symbol of freedom (meanwhile the rights to women’s bodies have been radically eroded over the past three years in the U.S.), with images of women in burqa and hijab paraded as some sort of elliptical “proof” that western sartorial tradition equals freedom. This same woman was quick to list me books and publications which she assumed I had not read, knew nothing of, informing me that I did not understand the history of feminist critiques of Islam nor the history of Charlie Hebdo, taking on a condescending tone about my own critique. (Had this woman been a man she would have been accused of mansplaining to me.) I told this person that I not only know the history of this matter quite well but that I find many of these accounts troublingly Islamophobic—not because they have no merit as to the truth of the biographical facts contained therein, but because, similar to the west’s conflation of Islam with terrorism, there are numerous media and educational institutions which happily open their doors to these “feminist” Muslim immigrants. And these women, despite having a sincere story to tell, are often more than happy to contribute to the growing Islamophobic exploitation of “Islam as the problem” with regards to women’s rights, in a new cultural topography where women are more easily digestible as victims and where the cause of their problems is one single religion. One can get a book deal and television appearances on neo-liberal talk shows to engage a receptive audience willing to hear about the “evils” of Islam. Hell, you can even start your own forum since there is a $57 million network of Islamophobia in the United States with money to spare. Like some of the PEN authors denouncing the boycott, you might even further the ethos within the western media to convince the public that the problem is not “us,” but “them”—that our multi-billion dollar wars and occupations have absolutely no bearing on how others across the globe perceive us, or how media images meant to critique violence cannot possibly end up legitimizing other forms of violence whilst victimizing the weakest in our societies. You can even obtain an academic position to posit “courage” as a unique quality (which will apparently count towards your degree at New York University)—courage to “do the right thing in the face of your fears.” Except, of course, if that means speaking out against Islamophobia. Then that’s not courage, of course—that’s terrorist sympathizing, a twist of the legendary wordsmith‘s original phrase,: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Even writers like Zineb el-Rhazoui, a French-Moroccan writer, whose 2013 article, “Si Charlie Hebdo est raciste, alors je le suis” (“If Charlie Hebdo is Racist then So am I”), a rejoinder to Olivier Cyran’s aforementioned article, employs the same false parallels between grave social problems (ie. women’s oppression) and Islam that my Facebook interlocutor presented me. In my own world view there can be no good that comes out of tarring one section of the earth’s population and cultures when lived experience suggests that women’s rights are under attack unilaterally and internationally, regardless of society, religion, or political persuasion. From regressive abortion legislation in the United States, the hundreds of women and girls kidnapped and systematically raped by Boko Haram, to the decline of women’s rights in Macedonia, the rapes of Manitoba Colony in Bolivia, the pervasive problem of femicide in Italy, and a documented decline of women’s rights in Canada, it would be intellectually dishonest to pit the oppression of women in countries like Morocco as the fault of Islam. Certainly religion can and does play a role in women’s oppression, but this is unfortunately part of a larger of a larger metadiscourse that is fed from social, political and economic narratives and which are likewise found in every single religion, be the subject secular or not. We also have evidence that religion is just an easy scapegoat as Anita Sarkeesian’s experiences with GamerGatedemonstrates and as the revelation of misogyny at the heart of New Atheism, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, demonstrates. Incriminating an entire religion for social ills when the very real causes and cultural myths which buttress misogyny are simply not being addressed seems illogical at best. Likewise, my Facebook interlocutor, in offering me “proof” that Islam (and Islamism—she conflated the two) was the problem, she quickly named Gita Sahgal, a writer and activist who has labored tirelessly to demonize Moazzem Begg and his work “to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror,” becoming director of Cage (formerly Cageprisoners) in 2009. My interlocutor then informed me how Sahgal was not religious and how she also critiques Hindu fundamentalism. Strangely, I could find no evidence of Sahgal making any attempt to link the Delhi rape of December 2012 to Hinduism or the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), nor taking such a similarly demonizing position to anything related to the Hindu faith.
Just as Muslim political prisoners’ human rights are incidental to Sahgal, this paradigm is similarly paralleled by el-Rhazoui for whom human rights seem only to exist for those in her universe—journalists in Morocco, writers in France, and finally her colleagues murdered at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January. El-Rhazoui’s experience of political repression as a journalist in Morocco was not unique, however, and is entirely representative of the experiences of many writers in her country of birth—both male and female—from the beginning of King Hassan II’s reign in 1961. And much of the more recent repression of journalists under King Mohammed VI is simply indicative of a society which pays lip-service to royalty and the ruling elite who have ushered in the same sorts of post 9/11 surveillance of alleged terrorists and control of the media in order to keep their political detractors at bay. (Such such censorship is not unique to Morocco.) What is problematic about el-Rhazoui’s article is that she employs the same conscious misreading of Cyran’s piece in precisely the same manner as the woman on my Facebook wall. El-Rhazoui consciously misreads Cyran, creating one straw man argument after another, even accusing Cyran of amalgamating all Muslims throughout the world as “one race,” when in fact this is precisely Cyran’s critique of what he witnessed at Charlie Hebdo post 9/11:
But let’s return to the question of “relationship” between Arabs and Muslims, racism and Islamophobia. Is the boundary that you trace with such bold assurance between the two categories really so clear in your minds? To read the beginning of your opinion piece, it’s possible to be skeptical. The edifying story about the “Arab taxi driver”, who refused the business of a contributor to your journal “because of its cartoons mocking Islam”, reveals a certain confusion in this regard.
El-Rhazoui goes much further completely jumping the shark in her article by indirectly holding Olivier Cyran responsible for a defamatory article written by a Moroccan journalist who claimed that el-Rhazoui had obtained her position with Charlie Hebdo by sleeping her way to the top and that her reporting was financed by Mossad. Much of el-Rhazoui’s article relies on similar complete distortions of logic. That Cyran’s critique of Charlie Hebdo will make her detractors back in Morocco happy premises that we must consider whose enemies or friends will be unduly pleased or saddened by our future writings. Or that Mohammed imposes his law on Morocco many centuries post-mortem, assumes that that Moroccan law is not largely based on French law. Sadly, el-Rhazoui frames her entire debate as one that is uniquely owned by the intelligentsia and which exists purely on intellectual grounds. For el-Rhazoui, the Charlie Hebdocartoons should only be evaluated and discussed by those who understand their nuances even though their impact is far greater than the elitist audience she imagines. How the marginalized North African youth of the banlieues interpret these cartoons or how they are affected by them on a human scale is immaterial to el-Rhazoui.
El-Rhazoui comes from a country with a long history of political repression of its writers specifically. Former King Hassan II was known to be a brutal dictator when it came to protecting his authority and stories abound throughout Morocco of the political imprisonmentof students, political protestors, and the Sahrawi (the people living in the western region of the Sahara Desert which is not claimed by the Polisario). Most notably, a great number of writers had been imprisoned by King Hassan II, to include several of my favorite writers to include: Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, Salah El Ouadie, Fatna el Bouih, Ahmed Marzouki, Abdelaziz Moride, and Abdellatif Laâbi. Having founded Anfas-Souffles in 1966, Laâbi was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1972 for “crimes of opinion” which he expressed in this journal. He was subsequently tortured, imprisoned, released in 1980 and, like el-Rhazoui, sought exile in France in 1985. In the mid 1990s I had the good fortune to meet Laâbi and his wife upon his return from exile to Casablanca, where they welcomed me into their home. Abdellatif spoke freely about the monarchy and he expressed hope for future changes towards a Moroccan democracy and the need to fight the growing inequalities between rich and poor. Several years later Laâbi would couch these same problems of the Arabo-Islamic world as specifically linked to the larger questions of trans-national politics which support unequal class structures:
Everything which the Arab reality offers that is generous, open and creative is crushed by regimes whose only anxiety is to perpetuate their own power and self-serving interest. And what is often worse is to see that the West remains insensitive to the daily tragedy while at the same time accommodating, not to say supporting, the ruling classes who strangle the free will and aspirations of their people. (x-xi)
While it is obvious that one cannot homogenize all Muslim or Arab countries as monolithically Muslim or whose inhabitants are all practicing Muslims, it is important to understand that one offensive cartoon can and does affect secularists as well as the devout because such representations speak in the name of stereotypes: that all Muslims are politically radicalized, homogeneously religious, and necessarily supportive of the terrorist acts. Because of this history and the prevalent discourses of Islamophobia, regardless of an immigrant’s potential secularism, s/he will inevitably be interpreted as a practicing Muslim and privy to the treatment that such reductions assume onto the subject. To defend the offensive nature that many feel from certain of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons because this publication has been staunchly against the Jean-Marie Le Pen and the FN (Front National) denies the reality of how racism is felt by the objects of any one representation, intended or not, and it disavows the mechanisms of racism that are not linear nor unilaterally maintained because of a publication’s general political allegiance to the Left. Likewise, to deny France’s problem with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia all because there are secularists out there reproduces the same hegemonic pattern of thinking which hierarchizes “good” from “bad” Muslims (ie. that “good” Muslims should first liberate themselves from this “backwards” religion) while presuming that the most enlightened of immigrants are necessarily the secularists and that the real problem is having a belief system that unfortunately coincides with the current western onslaught against Islam. What Laâbi offers above is, in my estimation, a more thoughtful and sane rendering of the current reality that puts the free will to desist from such base representations into perspective by throwing back the question of power to those who actually have access to it (ie. governments, media, the ruling elite).
Let us not forget that this War on Terror comes at a high price for people originating from Arabo-Muslim countries, a cost which simply does not end when one emigrates to the west, nor does it forgive the “culturally Muslim” subject whose body represents a potential threat to the myth of the danger their life does not uphold Moreover, there is a tight-knit relationship between the discourses of terrorism and nationalism whose vocabulary most every Muslim must learn in order to survive the surveillance of her body by the state. For not only has “terrorism” fed the divisive wars “over there,” but many world leaders, to include Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, have adopted the U.S. “terror model” in order to feed the larger economic and nationalistic machines that very willingly adopt the neoliberalism of the ruling class. Sarah Marusek writes cogently of the interrelationship between terrorism, nationalism, and neo-liberalism: “[T]he US has exported its discourse of “terror” so successfully that both allies and foes alike are now embracing the hegemonic framework, ultimately empowering this neoliberal axis of elites who financially benefit from the world being in a perpetual state of war.” Who is to say that the fanaticism which fuels the social interests and military movements of the Islamic State’s terrorism is really so different than the economic fanaticism and ideological justifications which drive the terrorism of China, Egypt, France, South Africa, Ukraine and USA in selling weapons to the Democratic Republic of Congo, sustaining the killings and rape in that country? Here, I am reminded of the Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun, who wrote, “The mistake we make is to attribute to religions the errors and fanaticism of human beings.”
Certainly, the Charlie Hebdo murders cannot be overstated as a horrific tragedy. But I question if the correct response to this crime is to decontextualize the socio-cultural history of the murderers, to disregard the voices of those who object to what they deem racist and Islamophobic representations, and to deny the deeper repercussions of such representations for the sector of the French population for whom the freedom of expression is a luxury simply because they are still struggling to live free from humiliation. The PEN Awards boycott is a challenge to all of us, pushing us to rethink the limits of satire and the ills that the “satire of racism” performs, even if the intention is to exercise another, separate muscle of freedom.
Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2014). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
ldriss, Mohammad Mazher. “Laïcité and the banning of the ‘hijab’ in France.” Legal Studies. Volume 25 Issue 2, April 2006 (260 – 295).
Tonneau, Olivier. “On Charlie Hebdo: A letter to My British Friends” MediaPart. 11 January, 2015.
Laâbi, Abdellatif. The World’s Embrace: Selected Poems. Trans. Victor W. Reinking and Anne O. George. Foreword by Ammiel Accalay. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2003.