Racist cartoonists must be allowed to operate freely. There are good reasons for this just as it is important for Muslims to confront the fact that those behind the Charlie Hebdo attack were Muslim and defined themselves as such.
Towering high over a magnificent square in a beautiful city in Northern Italy stands a tall and splendid cathedral. Inside its chapel there is a fresco of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308-1321). If you look carefully towards the centre of that mural through the iron gate of the dimly lit chapel you will see Prophet Muhammad depicted in the depths of hell.
I was taken there by Italian friends (while I was visiting a university there to give a lecture) with something of an apologetic look on their faces. I took a glance, reached for my I-Phone and took a few snapshot of it so I could examine it close up to see how the iconography of the time worked, and looked back at my friends with a reassuring smile.
We continued with the tour of the rest of that marvellous cathedral and afterwards, we all went to a beautiful café across from the resplendent cathedral and sat under the generous sky of Northern Italy and had cappuccino and cannoli.
I do not like Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons — never did. They, as Jacob Canfield has correctly pointed out, “often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.” The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole of the New Yorker was even more emphatic and precise:
“This week’s events took place against the backdrop of France’s ugly colonial history, its sizable Muslim population, and the suppression, in the name of secularism, of some Islamic cultural expressions, such as the hijab. Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defence is that a violently racist image was being used to satirise racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.”
How did the media respond? In predictable fashion, says Tim Llewellyn
There are people who go even further and understandably compare Charlie Hebdo with the notorious Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, published by the infamous anti-Semite Julius Streicher who was convicted of crimes against humanity and executed after the war. One can also see the antecedent of Charlie Hebdo’s racism in the blackface “Darky” iconography in the US and “Golliwog” ragdolls in the UK, where across a whole spectrum of visual imageries African-Americans were systematically ridiculed and denigrated.
Rule of reason and sanity
If I were to think of cartoonists I love and admire, the legendary Palestinian Naji al-Ali (1938-1987), or Iranian Ardeshir Mohassess (1938-2008), or American Art Spiegelman, or Maltese-American Joe Sacco, and their defiant pens placed at the service of ennobling causes. I get positively nauseated at Charlie Hebdo.
But I also believe every culture has, needs to have and thus produces its own bigoted and racist buffooneries, and as a Muslim living in the US and frequently traveling to Europe I have developed a thick skin, so have all other Muslims—except of course in the colonised mind of the white-identified secular fundamentalist of the Iranian, or Arab, or Indian vintage who actually identify with their colonsers. Fanon fully diagnosed them in his Black Skin White Masks (1952). I have updated Fanon’s diagnosis in my Brown Skin White Masks (2011).
There is a compelling reason that these racist, homophobic, Islamophobic cartoonists must continue to operate freely. They are the symptoms of a social disease. It is not just who publishes tabloids like Charlie Hebdo or Stürmer — but who reads them, laughs and giggles with them, thinks them hilarious. It is far healthier for us to know the full spectrum of a social disease so we can deal with them openly, freely, and democratically in a free and fair public sphere.
Silencing, eliminating, or denying the existence of these symptoms is like disregarding or hiding the symptoms of an ailment in a person. I categorically and unconditionally support the freedom of racist Islamophobes like Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Pamela Geller, ad nauseam, to utter their gibberish fully and freely. Thus, like a physician, I get to know what ails the society I live in. Countless people, Muslims and non-Muslims respond to someone like Maher and expose his malignancy. We do not run away and hide. We stand up, write back, expose, name and shame. That is a far superior and noble battlefield.
The brutish cruelty of gunmen attacking the offices of Charlie Hebdo was handed a well-worn script in the media. The BBC and similar European and North American outlets that had the coolest and most “objectively” calculated choice of words when thousands of Palestinians were murdered by Israel in Gaza this last summer, now suddenly opted for the word “massacre”.
They went nowhere near that word when Palestinians were being slaughtered in Shujaiyeh neighbourhood or anywhere else in Gaza, or when UN shelters were being deliberately targeted and destroyed. That was not a “massacre”. That was a “conflict”. The mass murdering Israeli warlord Binyamin Netanyahu who ordered that slaughter is now a guest of honour in Paris to march shoulder to shoulder with President François Hollande in a parade of civilized protest against barbarians at the gate.
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”. T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1920) finds its truth.
A cliché-ridden script
Arabs and Muslims, meanwhile, were put on the defensive and their self-appointed “leaders” rushed to denounce the crime and proclaim Islam as entirely peaceful and innocent. The script didn’t veer from cliché.
The heinous murder was a criminal act perpetrated by known criminals. But its aggressive politicization is the result of an Islamophobic environment in Europe and the US where if an Arab, or a Muslim, or an African-American, a Latino, etc. commits a crime it is racialized and their entire “people” are held accountable. I have in my Brown Skin White Masks (2011) already argued how this politicisation of criminal acts is paralleled by the criminalization of political acts. It is made a crime to protest an injustice in Ferguson or New York for the same spectrum of reasons that a criminal act by a Muslim is politicized to serve larger political projects.
But politicizing a criminal act like the murder of satirical journalists in Paris does not mean Islam or Muslims are off the hook. The politics of naming is in effect here.
Three murderers who go on a rampage killing people are “Muslim”, but the Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet who gave his life defending the magazine that regularly made fun of his faith and culture is “French”. Muslims in Europe or the US are not the first victims of this racist branding.
“If my theory of relativity,” Einstein is famously reported to have said, “is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”
But the ruse of branding is bifocal. The habitual reaction of some self-appointed Muslim leaders that these acts are not Islamic and Islam is all fine and dandy is factually flawed and logically lopsided. No one can tell Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi he is not a Muslim if he says he is a Muslim. Those criminal murderers who were shouting Allahu Akbar, as they were murdering people in Paris are as much Muslims (if they so identify themselves) as millions of peaceful Muslims around the globe.
One can point to those malicious murderers and say this is Islam. That, of course, would be the business of racist Islamophobes like Bill Maher and Sam Harris. One could point to those millions of peaceful Muslims and say that is Islam. That would be the business of self-appointed Muslim leaders who refuse to see something is rotten in the state of Islam.
In between these two untenable positions remains the fact that the global configuration of Islam and Muslims has in fact radically changed. The world is no longer divided along the Muslim-Crusade frontiers of two imperial bodies at each other’s throat. The Battle of Poitier (1356) was waged and won, launched and lost, as was every other battle between the Muslim East and the Christian West. The Crusades of the Thirteenth century have long since become an enduring metaphor.
A nasty history of European imperialism brought Europeans into the heart of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the course of the post-colonial ravages globalised capitalism occasioned and visited upon the world, Muslim labourers subsequently moved in significant numbers to the capitals of their former colonisers (Algerians, Tunisian, Moroccans to France, Indians to Britain, etc.).
Over the last two hundred years, marking a seismic change in world history, Islam in its vast civilizational spectrum was transformed into a singular site of ideological resistance to European colonialism—and no one is more responsible for this calamitous degeneration than Muslims themselves, their self-declared leaders and their prominent intellectuals in particular. Acts of murderous violence are symptomatic of this historic synergy between the coloniser and the colonised, as Albert Memmi fully theorised them in his seminal book The Coloniser and the Colonised (1957), and later Ashis Nandy diagnosed them in fuller psychological detail in his Intimate Enemies (1983).
Smile and wave, boys
By the force of the cold and calculating globalised capitalism, those colonisers and their colonised are now brought together to live under the same skies in Paris or Amsterdam or Madrid or London or Berlin. They share a public sphere. Within that public sphere and under current economic hardships, racist Islamophobes, neo-Nazis, militant secularists, as well as Evangelical Zionists have ample occasion to target weak Muslim immigrants. The Banlieue riots of 2005 were the most violent social protest manifesting this malady.
Even in these conditions – and as the anti-Islamophobia rally in Berlin just last week clearly shows – Muslims have a fighting chance to counter that racism, address the root causes of social anomie and redirect the focus away from occasional acts of violence that only muddy the water.
But the critical task of European Muslims (and in fact all Muslims at large) is not limited to joining such rallies. They need also to defend, as police officer Ahmed Merabet gave his life defending, the very freedom of expression that ensures that their sacrosanct beliefs find a renewed significance for them and for the world at large. That significance will be articulated and cultivated by Muslims generally on the free domain of that public sphere and through the particularities of a public reason, and not by some self-appointed Muslim leader.
How did Arab cartoonists respond? See our gallery
One billion plus Muslims are today caught between racist Islamophobes telling them their religion is one thing, their clueless leaders telling them Islam is something else, and murderous criminal gangs – from Boko Haram to the Islamic State group to al-Qaeda – claim their ancestral faith as their common ideology and raise the banner of their communal faith. The task of confronting all these mixed messages, retrieving the nobility that remains at the heart of a divine message, rearticulating its doctrinal principles, falls to a new generation of Muslims who will rescue and rearticulate their ancestral faith in a far more robust manner than they have received it.
Muslims away from the Muslim world have to see themselves as a gift to their new homelands and to reassert and re-signify the democratic ideals of their host countries as they become native to these countries. They have to defend and protect the categorical and unconditional freedom of expression, denouncing any act of violence especially against journalists, defending and enriching the free and open public debates, including and in particular the sublime significance of satire—and especially when those satirical gestures are obscene, intolerable, offensive and abusive. This will amount to a Muslim “renaissance” in the widest sense of the term: allowing for the most sacrosanct principles, canonical beliefs, ennobling allegories, and sacred symbols of their faith to be tested, fortified, articulated and theorised in a free and open public sphere, an opportunity Muslims at large have never had in their colonial and postcolonial encounters.
So when you see a satirical take on the Prophet, pinch yourself a bit, to paraphrase a Persian proverb, before you punch anyone in the face. Take your cue from the magnificent Skipper Penguin in “Madagascar”: “smile and wave, boys, smile and wave.” Or, if you are not into cartoons and animations, then follow the advice of that other fabulous philosopher Peter Clemenza in The Godfather: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
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