Vinoth Ramachandra

I’m Not Charlie Hebdo

Posted on: January 17, 2015

The Western media, which comprises the bulk of international media, have provided us with round-the-clock coverage of the Paris shootings, while conveniently under-reporting other deadly attacks against civilians. Violent incidents in Nigeria and Yemen in the last week led to far more civilian deaths than in Paris, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nigeria lamented that Western countries were simply ignoring the threat in his country posed by Boko Haram.

When hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram last April, Obama and Cameron outdid one another in making resounding promises of support for Nigeria. But precious little has been done since then (by way of technological,logistical and perhaps even military help) for the Nigerian government and army to free the schoolgirls and defeat a brutal militia. As so often in our recent past, terror has to strike at the heart of Western cities before the “dark side” of our global interconnectedness awakens people from their slumber.

But awakening can lead to panic and knee-jerk reactions, rather than to a new commitment to understand the historical backgrounds to global events or the causes of Islamic radicalization in Europe. That is what we have witnessed in the more popular sections of the Western media last week. The killings fanned the growing hysterical propaganda about the “Islamification of Europe”, and far-right demagogues were suddenly claiming to uphold “Judaeo-Christian values”!

Surely, a central “Judaeo-Christian value” is hospitality to strangers. Another is self-restraint in speech and action when dealing with particularly vulnerable communities experiencing alienation from the mainstream. A third is “taking the beam out of one’s own eye before one tries to take the speck out of another’s eye”.

All these values have been jettisoned in much (albeit, not all) of the media coverage.

The solidarity rally in Paris was attended by several international leaders who are enemies of free speech and independent journalism. Benjamin Netanyahu was prominent among them, even as the International Criminal Court launches an investigation of Israeli state-inspired terror in Gaza last September. The irony was not lost on Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop, who said: “We vomit on all those people who are suddenly saying they are our friends… I’ve got to laugh about that.”

In terror attacks like this, the epithet “Muslim” is always applied to the perpetrators, but rarely to the victims or the heroes. The murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet was a Muslim, and so was Lassana Bathily, the immigrant from Mali who saved many Jewish shoppers in the kosher supermarket that was attacked. Responding to a petition signed by 300,000 Parisians, President Hollande has publicly honoured him with French citizenship. The stories of these Muslims need to be told more widely in the American and European media.

One can condemn the sheer wickedness of the Charlie Hebdo massacre without condoning the double standards employed when it comes to “free speech”. All civil rights are limited by other rights and responsibilities. France has tough laws not only against defamation and libel, but also against the denial of the Holocaust (but not other genocides). I doubt if Charlie Hebdo or the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten would publish satirical cartoons offending women, homosexuals or Jews.

The fall out in other countries of the irresponsible application of “free speech” also needs to be taken into consideration. Violent attacks on “soft” targets – such as local Christians in Pakistan and Niger (as this week)- regularly accompany what Western cartoonists may regard as innocent fun. If I know that my exercising “free speech” is going to result in the killing of innocent others elsewhere, and yet persist in that speech, am I not partly responsible for their deaths?

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has pointed out that those who have untroubled access to the dominant discourse in a society like France or Britain simply assume that their moral position is natural. Not so. He wisely observes:

“If I can say what I like, that is because I have the power and status to do so. But that ought to impose the clear duty of considering, when I engage in any kind of debate, the relative position of my opponent or target in terms of their access to this dominant means and style of communication- the duty which the history of anti-Semitism so clearly shows European Christians neglecting over the centuries.”

And he concludes: “The sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grate on the ear. Context is all.” [Faith in the Public Square, 2013]

The abuse of liberty may be the surest way to kill it.

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12 Responses to "I’m Not Charlie Hebdo"

Hi. I am the minister of a small Presbyterian Church. I was wondering if I could print around 35 copies of this blog post for distribution in my church (many of our older folks don’t “have the internet”). I think this post might help foster further discussion. It would printed unaltered, with full attribution to the author and include details of this blog. Kind regards.

Go ahead. Thanks for asking permission!

Charlie Hebdo featured many cartoons mocking orthodox Jews, as well as the invocation by some radical Jews of the holocaust to justify the occupation of Palestine. The Catholic church wasn’t spared either, nor was the far right politician Marie Le Pen in a series of outrageous cartoons. As a left-liberal newspaper with a stated political bias, I doubt CH would’ve wanted to lampoon women and gays qua women and gays. It’s hard to see how their humour can be said to be insulting Muslims qua Muslims, unless all Muslims take collective offence at an insult directed to a few. CH was opposed to conservative Islam with an evangelical fervour, and they used the image of the Prophet to convey their views.

What’s interesting is that some of the recent depictions of the Prophet have been exceedingly kind. And by taking out the insult, they have confronted us with the question at the heart of this issue. Do the rules on blasphemy adhered to by some, and the offence taken by some at any violation of those blasphemy rules, require those who don’t believe in those rules to censor themselves? In other words, if some Muslims claim to take offence at the depiction of their Prophet, should we all just agree to not draw the Prophet. If this idea is taken to its logical conclusion, even the right to profess one’s non-Islamic faith – considered blasphemy under some interpretations of Islam – will be under threat. Charlie Hebdo is dying at the frontlines of a battle I’m glad they’re fighting, because there’s a lot more at stake here than the right of a cartoonist to poke fun at Muslims. And for this reason, je suis Charlie!

I have to correct you, sadly misogyny is alive and well in western media.

Wonderful! Actually the US did send help but withdrew it when it was obvious the Nigerian government wasn’t interested. The government does not need money. The refugees do. Groups like Boko Haram slaughter indiscriminately whether Muslim or Christian, although their initial targets were Christians. But I agree with your main point…as far as possible, live in peace with others.

Appreciate your thoughts on restraint in journalism. I do think that while we protect freedom of speech, this comes with the responsibility to realize the power of words to educate, to advocate, to inflame or help reconcile. I’ve written more about an alternate ideal at http://bobonbooks.com/2015/01/16/je-suis-ida/

Niren, you are right, in Pakistan a strict interpretation of the Sharia Law and Section 395C of the Penal Code can be used against you if you say, “Jesus is God, the only way to the Father, etc” because by implication you are saying something negative about Islam.

Niran, I rather think you are whitewashing the magazine. Recent depictions of Muhammad may have been benign, but not so earlier ones which were crude, even vicious, at times.

But what you and I think is, quite frankly, immaterial. What matters is how texts and images are received by those who feel already alienated from the mainstream and lack the intellectual skills and social voice to respond. They are those who fall easy prey to extremist groups.

Political satire should be deployed against the powers-that-be. Not against the vulnerable, or those who because of their positions cannot respond. (Consider the obscene cartoons of nuns and clergy: how are they expected to respond?)

Secularist legal theorists and politicians regularly fail to grasp the depths of religious sensibility in communities (because it is rooted deep in human nature). People will die rather than spurn what they regard as “sacred”. And secular states have their own equivalents of the “sacred” which it is prepared to kill others to protect. It is not only Muslims who find the secularist fundamentalism of laicite as oppressive as its religious counterparts!

The “left-liberal bias” of CH that you mention has been forgotten in the present furore. It is this that exposes the double standards. I doubt if a right-wing equivalent of CH that mocks feminists or all immigrants or gays will be protected with equal passion by those who currently invoke “free speech”. What is being staged in the media is a polarized caricature: a monolithic, abstract “Islam” versus a monolithic, abstract “liberalism”. All the contextual nuances, variations and subtleties are lost. I think that is the tragedy.

[…] are a few pieces that I found useful to read, by Josh Healey (Common Dreams), Vinoth Ramachandra, DeWayne Wickham (USA Today), Patrick Jackson (BBC), Tom Humberstone (The New Statesman) and […]

Olá meus amigos, como é maravilhoso encontrar sites com este seu. Parabéns pelo belo trabalho, já estou seguindo.
Aproveitando a oportunidade gostaria de compartilhar com você nosso
blog. Ficaremos felizes por vossa visita e mais ainda se seguir-nos.

AGUARDAMOS SUA VISITA

Atenciosamente

Josiel Dias
http://josiel-dias.blogspot.com
Rio de Janeiro

Here is an interesting perspective by an American scholar of the Middle East on the French terror attacks:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/01/charlie-hebdo-islam-cartoon-terr-20151106726681265.html

[…] interesting reactions to the whole Charlie Hebdo thing from Khanya in South-Africa and Vinoth Ramachandra in Sri […]

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