Why I’m Not Charlie
The brutal killing of the cartoonists of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by two men reportedly belonging to the Al Qaeda has triggered a massive wave of protests in France. The dominant slogan in these protests has been “Je suis Charlie”, which translates as ‘I am Charlie’. In the process, everybody protesting against the barbaric attack on the cartoonists has almost perforce been drafted into the defence of Charlie Hebdo and its activities. And that is a serious problem.
Those defending the magazine insist that it is wrong to portray it as anti-Islam. The magazine, they point out, has lampooned not only Islamic religious figures, but organized religion of all hues as well as political figures in France and elsewhere. This is indeed true, though whether the caricaturing of religious figures has been as even-handed as they would like us to believe is a more contentious issue. Let us, however, for the moment take them at their word and accept that their intention was not to target any specific religion or religious community any more than others and that they have been scrupulously even-handed in their satire. Does that automatically mean we must accept their satire as a noble project, one that must be defended at all cost, because freedom of expression is at stake? Most certainly not.
In India, of course, many of the cartoons that have aroused such controversy would simply not have been published. That is because the law here recognizes that there need to be restrictions on freedom of expression, including the freedom of the media. In fact, the very first amendment to the constitution, done in 1951, was to impose “reasonable restrictions” on that right. Among these restrictions are Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, dealing with promoting enmity between religious or other groups, Section 295 prohibiting defilement of a place of worship or an object held to be sacred and Section 295A dealing with blasphemy, or the outraging of religious feelings. France, like many other Western nations, tends to view freedom of expression as closer to an absolute right, though – as the action against those voicing support for the terrorists has shown – there could be doubts on whether there are double standards operating.
Quite part from the legal question, the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo must not be judged on the basis of what the intentions of the cartoonists were or whether they personally subscribe to an Islamophobic worldview. They must be judged on the touchstone of what role they have objectively played in the specific context in which they were made. Many, including this writer, would feel that some of the cartoons exhibited puerile humour, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. The question we need to ask is this – did the cartoons act as weapons in the battle of ideas against Islamist fundamentalists, or did they in fact serve the cause of those same fundamentalists remarkably well, even if that was far from the intended effect?
That battle of ideas clearly needs to be fought on two terrains. The first of these is within the Muslim community, where the fundamentalists seek to gain fresh recruits to their cause. What effect do cartoons that ridicule the Prophet have on this section? Can they possibly help in isolating the fundamentalists? Clearly not. On the contrary, such cartoons can only help the Islamists convince their co-religionists that the religion, and hence the community, is under attack from the “other”. In the context of a Muslim community which is not only a religious minority (as in France), but also consists largely of people from the former colonies who are also ethnic minorities and for the most part disempowered, this becomes even more likely.
The second terrain in the battle of ideas against Islamist (and other) fundamentalists is in the non-Muslim communities. These need to be persuaded that their Islamophobia is misplaced, that the overwhelming majority of Muslims – like of other communities – are not fundamentalists and do not share the worldview of an Al Qaeda or an Islamic State. They need to be convinced that they must join hands with this majority of peace-loving Muslims in the fight against fundamentalists rather than treating the community with suspicion. How do the cartoons measure up against this? Most objective observers would agree that they fail this test too. If anything, they serve to stereotype Muslims and Islam and hence add to the already existing Islamophobia.
The harsh reality, therefore, is that the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo that ridicule the Prophet have admirably served the cause of those whom they ostensibly seek to lampoon. There is a broader lesson to be learnt in all of this. The “with us or against us” approach of a George Bush or the “clash of civilizations” attitude of a Samuel Huntington does not serve the purpose of fighting fundamentalism. That is a fight that can only be won by isolating fundamentalists within the communities they claim to represent. Any action that helps them polarize, helps them drive wedges between communities, as these cartoons did, serves as a weapon for them, not for those fighting them.
It is important, therefore, that each of us who is alarmed by the rapid spread of divisive forces says loud and clear -- ‘No, I am not Al Qaeda, but nor am I Charlie’
Why I’m Not Charlie
Why I’m Not Charlie