When bigotry is confused
The need to recognise historical trauma
when discussing Charlie Hebdo
and why publishing insulting pictures
of the Prophet is not equivalent to
depicting the Pope in a bikini.
January 12, 2015
Newspaper headlines following the Charlie Hebdo attack.
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
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
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. About Chloe Patton
Chloe Patton is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the International Centre
for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding, University of South Australia.