I had gone to sleep incredibly early on the 6th of January. It was barely dark, but the combination of a particularly hot Brisbane summer and the soporific effects of early pregnancy made me crawl into bed, resigned to dreaming ordinary dreams. I would not know until the following morning that around the time that I closed my eyes, a nightmare had begun to unfold halfway across the world.
It seemed from a cursory glance at the newsfeed while fixing up a quick breakfast the next morning that something big had happened. There were profile picture changes en masse, the sharing of headlines and a tone of intense gloom. Everybody seemed to be identifying with some guy named Charlie. It was only when I tuned in to the national radio en route to work that it all became horrifyingly clear.
In Paris, on a normal weekday morning, 2 gunmen broke into the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, singled out key cartoonists, and unleashed a torrent of bullets, killing those they sought as well as others who happened to be present. God is Great, they announced as they opened fire, piety from the mouths of murderers. As they made their getaway, they shot a policeman on the curb outside the building, at first only injuring him, but then running back towards him to kill him point blank.
Our shiny New Year was not yet a full week old. It seemed to mock us, we with our resolutions and aspirations, daring to hope for a bit of peace and tolerance in the world. “More fool you,” it said. “If the haters say they are Muslim, doesn’t that mean you’re a hater, too?” Once again, the Muslim community has been betrayed by the actions of a couple of masked idiots who help to litter the media with associations of terror and the holy names of God and the prophet.
I raged at these madmen who, in my eyes, were so overzealous, not in their faith, but in their hate. “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” they called out, triumphant in their sins.
In the following days, I reflected upon my own feelings and observed how the world reacted. All around the globe, people were stunned. But in Paris, I believe that they were truly hurt. I commiserated with the unjust killings of the cartoonists, but it did not mean that I held them in my highest esteem. Charlie Hebdo was not everyone’s cup of tea, even in France, where the culture has embraced satire for centuries as a national costume. The publication usually prepared 600,000 copies a month, which is modest as far as newspapers and periodicals went. Many of the satirical cartoons, including the ones of Prophet Muhammad pbuh, were distasteful. There were penises dangling everywhere, brazen depictions of lewd sexual acts. The only thing they can say in their defense was that they ridiculed and offended all religions equally. Had I walked past it, I don’t think I would’ve bought it, just as I would not be compelled to buy any right wing capitalist periodicals nor the horrendous glossy magazines that glorify human tragedy and 1st world problems. But perhaps that’s the point. Don’t buy it if it upsets you so.
During that first day alone, Parisians spilled onto the street in a rally / mourning / vigil chanting “Je suis Charlie” and “On est tous Charlie.” In one of their largest gatherings, the numbers swelled to 3 million. On the 11th of January, a bevy of world leaders walked arm in arm ahead of one such gathering, a gratifying show of unity against terrorism and all for freedom of expression. Sadly, it was but a smoke screen, which lifted our injured spirits but for a moment. As the smog cleared, the faces of the terrorist superstars were all too familiar. There was, for example, Benjamin Netanyahu who stood in line with the others despite being asked not to attend, a blatant war criminal who had protests held against his actions in Palestine on those very streets of Paris only half a year ago. And that was simply the beginning … the full narrative of heads of states who held journalists imprisoned back in their home lands were detailed by the resourceful Daniel Wickham in his list of the “staunch defenders of the free press“.
So if the show of unity was not a sincere one, will there ever be a solution to this plague of terror that we want so much to overcome? What is understood in this tragedy, and what is glossed over? What agenda has brought presidents, prime ministers and chancellors together for an impromptu linking-of-arms in Paris when we know that half of them do not truly support freedom of expression or journalism in their heart of hearts? In this space, I’d like to share one of the many commentaries that’s made their way to our social media screens in the wake of the events.
There was also a flurry of efforts against self-censorship all around the world, notably in the so-called West where freedom of speech was championed as the bread and butter of civilised society. Along with such sentiments, came folly. A particular discussion on the radio one morning had me reeling in disbelief. The debate was about the racial anti-discrimination act that Australia already had in place. This act made it against the law to publicly express anything derogatory that was targeted at a person of a particular race. In light of the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were actually members of the society who wanted the act amended in order to allow collective persons within the community who share a similar belief to be criticised without reproach. Some even argued that if it was a criticism purely of someone’s beliefs, regardless of race, then it would not be redolent of racism, and should therefore be allowed as it was in line with freedom of speech. It made me wonder if they actually understood what this meant?
It is clear that we cannot choose what race we are when we’re born, nor can we change it. So I’m glad that it’s at least agreed in theory that no one should be discriminated against based on this criterion alone. But I suppose one could argue that you can, however, choose your religion, political loyalties, ideals and then under certain circumstances, are able to change them. So, does that make these other identifying categories fair game for insult and injury?
Imagine that this were the case …
How indeed would you criticize a Buddhist person in a cartoon? May I bet that the caricature would have some semblance to a person of the Chinese of Tibetan race, perhaps with unmistakably slanted eyes and a less-than-aquiline nose? I might wager that a generic Muslim man will not be drawn that generically afterall, rather with a turban or keffiyeh, sporting a beard and Arabic facial features making him immediately identifiable to a dominantly Muslim race. A Jewish caricature, such as those distributed widely by the Nazis during the second World War, would invariably have an exaggeratedly generous nose, curly sideburns and a kippah to close the deal. Might as well just draw a big-lipped darkie and throw in a token Afro-Caribbean guy in the mix, whatever the heck his religion might be.
When and how do you separate culture and religion from a race in order to draw an offensive caricature in the bid for active public criticism and freedom of expression, and more importantly, why would you need to?
Since when did freedom of expression preclude having respect for others of different backgrounds. Are you less free if you refrain from taking cheap shots at the people whom you intend to discuss? Are you less expressive if you aren’t able to sketch them liberally with their pants around the ankles?
Cartoonists work fast, especially when they’re talented and impassioned. By the time I woke up that morning, dozens of cartoons drawn in solidarity for their fallen comrades had hit the web and made their rounds. One of the most poignant ones was drawn a few weeks before, presumably geared towards a more general cause, but it was so valiant in its message that it easily found its place with the rest:
Yesterday, today, tomorrow. Sometimes a simple tripartite can evoke all sorts of emotions. If you have ever come across the French national motto, you would be hard pressed to think of any other 3 words that could summon the same honorable sentiments of a world that might be put right with a simple adherence to these worthy codes:
Liberté is the bloody race towards freedom that the world is falling over each other to achieve. In almost every corner of the world, oppression lurks in its many forms and guises. In the dusty and desolate deserts, people are dying in the hundreds of thousands as their freedom of basic human rights are denied. In the offices of Paris, there is a battle to safeguard the freedom of expression, no matter how displeasing its form.
Égalité, that most elusive of mistresses, feeding us with dreams of grandeur and yet always lurking out of reach. We want to be equal as man and woman, as black and white, as believer and non-believer, as east and west. In pursuit of this equality, we sometimes lose our way and fail to remember the beauty in our differences. Equality does not mean the same. For if it did, the ever-elusive equality would become unattainable still, because mankind was not ever created from an identical mould. In the Qur’an, it is stated: “All you people! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into different races and tribes so you can come to know one another. The noblest among you in the sight of God is the one who is the most mindful (of his duty to Him). Truly, God knows and is aware.” (Al Hujurat, 49:13)
Fraternité is how I believe everything can come together. This last one is where I would pledge all of my hopes. We are a fractured family, this wonderfully absurd mankind, and we can only truly move forward from this and from any other monstrosity that will harangue our lives, when we realize that we are brothers.
Won’t we fight for that?
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PS Charlie Hebdo did not stop publications. They released their newest edition last week, selling out a booming 5 million copies, reaching a larger readership despite the act of cold-blooded murder intended to halt them. Their depiction of the Prophet still made it to the front page, crying as I imagine he would if he were with us today. Happy now, cons?