In the midst of the Arab uprisings, the now famous magazine Charlie Hebdo published one of their traditional satirical covers. They titled the issue “Killings in Egypt” and drew the figure of a Muslim religious activist who was riddled with bullets. The subtitle was more than eloquent: “The Koran is a piece of shit,” the agonizing Muslim was made to say, because “it does not stop bullets.”
Charlie, as the collective became known around the world in the aftermath of the unequivocally condemnable shooting, had no problem laughing about the bloodshed in Egypt. Yet, one could only wonder what would happen if critical voices were to reproduce the same cover that Charlie offered a few years ago with the portray of the murdered director of the newspaper. It could be titled “Killings in France. The Pencil is a piece of shit. It doesn’t stop the bullets” and tweeted/facebooked under the hastag #Iamthethirdkouachi. Indignation, rightful indignation, would inundate the Western press and public sphere. The fact is that Charlie’s right to create a satire is protected under freedom of speech. But its alternative would be considered of bad taste and an insult to the solemnity of the tragedy. This double standard makes us question what is veiled when the discussion is framed in terms of liberal rights.
Historical perspective can provide further insight. For at least 250 years French colonial discourses have insisted that they can gain deep knowledge of the “Muslim mind” by just reading the Koran. Employing this discourse to launch a bloody colonization in Muslim majority regions, they ultimately reified their own construction. Disregarding the diversity of exegetical and hermeneutical methods practiced by major Islamic schools of thought, they have argued that complex social movements intend to find all their answers in the most simplistic literal meanings of the text. Charlie, in full accord with this discourse, portrays the Koran as the only source of action. It suggests that Muslim social movements are barbaric forces that believe in the almost magical omnipotence of their source. These powers, according to this reading, are not only programmatic in offering an orthodox path to follow, but also are very pragmatic, as they seem to stop the bullets directed to them.
Charlie, however, not only writes a script for Muslims activists, but also announces its failure. The irrational omnipotence does not work and the bullets perforate not only the body of the Muslim, but also the Koran itself. This double failure serves as a point of entry into the political outcome of the satire. In the first place, the Muslim is presented as a barbarian whose murder is trivialized because he (as the image is usually masculine) did not die for the strength of his convictions, but for the stupidity of his beliefs. Second, the Koran, the alternative to Western rationality according to the narrative, is unable to provide any substitution and the Muslim acknowledges its uselessness before dying. During a time when Western powers were fearful of the momentum that a proscribed Muslim movement was gaining, Charlie trivializes the death of Muslim fighters, portrays them as stupid barbarians, and ultimately rejects the possibility that a Muslim social organization can offer any actual alternative to the Occidentalized rule.
Following the lamentable attack against Charlie’s offices, the publication became an icon of Western civilization. While the Muslim dies for “his” stupidity, Charlie is murdered for the strength of its convictions. This is why in the homages the former is presented as a coward and the latter as a hero. While the barbarian is unable to express himself civilly and recurs to the language of ethnocentric violence, the civilized expresses itself through the creativity of humor that naturally achieves a universal(ized) character and transcends frontiers and languages. This is why over the past few days, Muslims are always represented as masked “men” with their arsenal and Charlie as romantic poets with the strength of the pencil. As some other commentators have mentioned, however, Charlie’s heroic creativity should be put into question when we realize that they have been targeting some of the most marginalized members of French society (first to third generation Muslim immigrants from former French colonies). Refashioning the discourse in the words of an American commentator, “white men punching down is not a recipe for a good satire.”
Yet, the bastion of American liberal intellectualism, The New Yorker, preaches to its readership to “try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.” Since being Charlie has become a precondition for civilization, the most popular hashtag after the attack did not just call for solidarity with the publication but expressed the desire to be the publication: #Jesuischarlie/#Iamcharlie. This attempt to create a national (unified) front in the face of what is perceived as an attack is not new in the metropolitan Paris scene. When in May 1968, protesters shouted: “We are All Jews” in response to the anti-protesters’ identification of one of the leaders of the revolt as a post-Holocaust stateless Jew and their wish that he be shipped to a concentration camp. On that occasion one of the most important Jewish intellectuals, Emmanuel Levinas, rejected this identification. He argued that tragically the only possibility for normative populations to understand the suffering of minorities is to make it their own by erasing the specificity that led to the suffering in the first place. Complementing Levinas it can be argued that not all trajectories are ethically available to everyone in the population, especially when the suffering is consequence of racial stratifications that are generally externally constructed.
The hashtag #Jesuischarlie/#Iamcharlie stands as the complement of the “We are all Jews” chant and, tragically, it ultimately becomes a form of civilizational blackmail. In the 1960s’ ignoring that some trajectories were not available to the normative population, there was an attempt to erase the specific character that led to the suffering. Today, ignoring that some trajectories are simply not available to minority populations, there is an attempt to obscure the extent to which the suffering of last week’s events was tied to the values and interests of the normative population. The problem of the former case was that the perpetrators could exculpate themselves as victims. The problem of the new case is that people who are structural victims now are forced to express their pain for the suffering of those who were traditionally the perpetrators. In this way the millions of former colonized today living under rampant Islamophobia in France are forced not only to condemn the condemnable shooting and suffer the normative backlash for the actions of a few individuals. They also need to show their solidarity by identifying themselves with a racist publication. If they intend to find an alternative to a full identification with Charlie, suspicions of their terrorism and talk of their impossible adaptation arises, turning the hashtag into a form of civilizational blackmail.
Of course there are other options in the Twitter/Facebook market. Some people have expressed reservations about the newspaper creating the apparently more bellicose hashtag #Je ne suis pas Charlie/#Iamnotcharlie. This is indeed a viable option but it is ultimately defined by the agenda of the previous hashtag, trapped in it. The slogan does not say anything about the shooting. Yet, the proponents of this possibility need to balance their critique by insisting once and again that they condemn the attack, thus compromising the strength of their position. It comes as no surprise when an attack perpetrated by a white Christian is presented as the action of an individual with mental problems and an attack supposedly perpetrated by a dark Muslim is presented as a formal statement on behalf of one of the largest and most diverse religious communities of the world. But by being required to denounce the attack as a prelude to any other statement, they need to accept the rules of civility as a precondition to expressing their concerns about the publication and/or the silent oppression that millions of Muslims are suffering on the outskirts of Paris every day. Even when the disclaimer is offered, the courageous individuals and organizations will suffer the double suspicion that they are not only naturally barbaric, but also potential terrorists.
A third option arises that balances the positivity of the first with the alternative identification of the second: #Jesuisahmed/#Iamahmed. In this hashtag Ahmed Mebaret, the Muslim policeman who fell in battle, replaces Charlie. According to this narrative if a Muslim was able to offer his life in order to save the freedom of speech (of Islamophobes) there is hope for the barbarian’s regeneration. On the one hand, this possibility effectively escapes the previous dichotomy emphasizing an identification that is biographically closer to the victims of structural marginalization. Yet, it also fails to avoid the civilizational blackmail as it reproduces the dichotomy between good/bad Muslim that Mahmood Mamdani popularized in the American context. The problem is not only that the closer one is to French normativity, the more acceptable it is a model, but it is also that access to this normativity is heavily regulated, making it just impossible for the great majority of Muslims in France.
To conclude this reflection we could ask whether or not we are being duped with hashtags. I would like to return to the satiric possibility I offered in the second paragraph. What would happen if critical intellectuals were to reproduce the cover and under #Iamthethirdkouachi write “Killing in France. The Pencil is a piece of shit. It doesn’t stop the bullets.” The indignation would be rightful. This would be an insult against the memory of those who fell in the tragedy. Furthermore, it could be considered hate speech. Yet, when Charlie keeps producing their covers in the offices of (traditionally left-wing and today more liberal) Liberation, their work is considered heroic, almost redemptive. As far as this form of normative hate-speech is protected under freedom of expression and the alternative hate-speech is condemned as barbaric, the true discussion is only veiled when presented as a problem of liberal rights. The discussion is not about freedom of expression, but about the longstanding patterns of racial stratifications that set the differences between one option and the other. And no hashtag will ever make justice for centuries of oppression.
Santiago Slabodsky is Assistant Professor of the Ethics of Globalization at the Claremont School of Theology and the author most recently of Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking.
Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse (Bloomsbury Academic, 2007).