To explain the comic: It is my impression of the comic Charlie Hebdo might have run, had they not been the office targeted in the recent attack. It is itself a parody of a comic that Charlie Hebdo actually did run, immediately after over 1,000 Egyptian Muslims were murdered by their military, in a coup backed by Western governments. The original cartoon, which ran as a cover of Charlie Hebdo, shows an extremely stereotyped Muslim being shot to death while holding a Koran. It says, roughly, “The Koran isn’t worth shit, it can’t stop bullets.” My version says (I hope), “Universal platitudes aren’t worth shit, they can’t stop bullets.” I might not be the first person to satirize the Charlie Hebdo cover in this fashion, but I still felt the need to write this essay, because I feel like the debate that we are hearing, including the nonsense coming from the “Left,” is extremely divorced from reality and nauseatingly supportive of the violent, colonialist approach to the Middle East that we’ve become so accustomed to from our own governments and media.
People shouldn’t shoot each other. It is a totally fucked up thing to do. Killing somebody is not OK, probably in any circumstance. Is that really something I needed to type? So far, I haven’t read or heard anyone attempting to excuse this barbaric attack, and I certainly am not about to. I obviously don’t justify violence on the part of some lunatics in France that felt like killing cartoonists would somehow accomplish something, but I’m also not comfortable with allowing small, disconnected acts of violence perpetuated by people who happen to be persecuted minorities to become a justification for further oppression of that entire group of humans.
First off, the shooting had nothing to do with “free speech” being infringed upon. The French government is not going to adopt Sharia law because of this attack. It won’t limit the rights of French citizens to criticize a foreign religion; I doubt the shooters ever thought it would. It wasn’t the French government that murdered the people in that building. Rights are things that come from the government, and government censorship did not kill these cartoonists, nor the other people in the room. The idea that speech uttered by disconnected, privileged individuals, no matter how insipid, should have no consequence, is not the same thing as championing free speech. The government can guarantee you the right to say what you want without imprisoning or killing you, but it can’t guarantee that an angry lunatic won’t hunt you down when you piss off him and his friends. That is, technically, a risk you take with everything you say.
When Gabby Giffords was shot, we didn’t say it was a crisis of “free speech” vs. “censorship”, despite the fact that the gunman thought the things she said and stood for were things worth killing over. He has the luxury of being white and American, therefore, he must have a legitimate psychology problem. He wasn’t the product of an extreme culture, a silly religion, or anything else that might make the powerful look bad. We see him as a crazy individual acting alone, whereas, every violent outburst by an Arab or Persian suddenly represents the will of millions of separate people, residing in a number of varied, diverse countries.
The idea that violent outbursts are culture-specific is extremely problematic. The media has never waged a campaign suggesting that Christianity leads to school shootings in America’s high schools, despite the fact that the majority of school shooters are raised by Christian parents. Some of these school shootings have killed more people than were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo office, and they were primarily targeting the most innocent kind of person: children. These victims hadn’t even had the chance to live successful lives as famous cartoonists who focused their time lampooning people they had already received death threats from. However, none of these kids got marches in their honor, or even legitimate policy discussions about cutting down on gun violence or limiting access to weapons of mass murder. The 2011 attacks in Norway could be connected to Right-wing rhetoric coming from America, but we don’t see any large groupings of national leaders unified under the idea that Fox News shows promote a violent ideology that leads to murder. A lot more innocent children were killed in those attacks than were killed in France at the cartoonists’ office, if any perspective is needed. Why are we so much quicker to rally against a menace that is already largely being dominated both militarily and culturally, than one that consistently kills far more people? (Seriously, there is no way you can argue that more Westerners are killed by Arabs and/or Persians yearly than vice versa.)
Unfortunately, these days, mass shootings aren’t really that uncommon. When white people do it, they have a “disorder.” When people of color do it, they have “a culture of violence.” The powerful are always given the privilege of having an individual identity, while the powerless are relegated to being part of an amorphous mob. The thing is, similar power dynamics also exist among white people. Charlie Hebdo is a relatively famous publication, so the murder of some of its employees is considered a great loss that needs to be discussed endlessly and remembered as some sort of 9-11, while the victims of the endless stream of school, theater and mall shootings in the US are just written off as an externality in our cost/benefit analysis of having a strong gun lobby. They weren’t famous, so their deaths are lower on the totem poll of things that are newsworthy, even though they’re all mostly white. Hierarchies exist both within and among races.
The one point I have seen brought up intelligently in other pieces is the idea of satire aiming up instead of down. The reason I made the most horrifically insensitive comic that I’ve drawn (so far) in my life, is because of how racist some of Charlie Hebdo’s content has been. “Satirizing all groups equally” is not a thing, when all groups do not have equal footing in society. Making fun of a powerful politician (which actually did get Charlie Hebdo censored by the government back in the day) is a way of aiming up, poking fun at the powerful, actually taking risks as a social commentator by challenging authority and giving a voice to the frustrations in the average person’s spirit, when he or she feels powerless. Creating racist propaganda in order to humiliate and ostracize a minority of citizens that already feel alienated and neglected, if not outright targeted, is not what makes satire subversive. Reinforcing the leading paradigm of power in society is not a challenge to authority, it’s just a cowardly way of bowing down to it, while still pretending to be a rebel. France has a horrific history of colonialism in the Muslim world, including an extremely violent war in Algeria in which France’s primary claim to fame was its overuse of torture as a war tactic. (Being France, of course, they still lost the war in the end.)
The use of propaganda against Muslims in France has a long, violent history, and is nothing new. France was even messing around in Mali again, recently. I don’t remember Mali or Algeria ever invading France, if we’re wondering who the aggressor is here. Cartoonists didn’t personally conduct airstrikes in Mali, but how do we know that every Malian killed was a militant? When you’re at war, innocent people die, and our governments seem intent on waging war forever. We’ve never been at war this long before, and it just keeps going…
The Western, mostly Christian world, wages constant violence against Muslim countries. We invade them, bomb them, prop up dictators that support our interests over their citizens’, send drones to kill their people, kidnap and torture their citizens and profit off of appropriating their resources. None of these things is really debatable, even, at least not the fact that we do it. The reason we do it is another thing entirely. That’s the “debate” we get to have here, in the heart of empire. The fact that we will commit violence against the Muslim world for the foreseeable future is a given, the justifications for doing so are where the “debate” supposedly lies. Maybe they live in the “stone age”, which means we should keep bombing them back to it; maybe their religion is “barbaric”, so we should constantly barbarize them; maybe their culture is “backwards”, so we need to civilize them; maybe we need their resources, so we’ll declare war when the trade deals don’t work out; maybe they’re a threat to “our way of life”, because once and a while a couple of Muslims actually fight back; and the list goes on and on. Is this violence that our military and our allies’ militaries consistently visit upon these people because we live in a Christian country? Maybe. Maybe not. Is it because people that speak English, eat fast food and tend to have white skin are backwards and violent? From the evidence, it seems just as likely as the notion that people who speak Arabic or Farsi, eat hummus and have olive skin, are all part and parcel to terrorism. Religions are problematic, but it is hard to make the case that, out of the major religions, Islam is somehow more violent than the others. Politics and history can explain a lot more than reductive views of foreign cultures and attempts to categorize people with simplistic narratives that just so happen to serve the interests of the powerful.
***Not to appear insensitive, but here’s a version of the comic that incorporates British/American xenophobia against the French for added comedic affect.***