Nothing funny in Europe: Charlie Hebdo's 'right' to offend Muslims

  • Viju Cherian, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 15, 2015 13:41 IST

Charlie Hebdo has done it again--with a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad--and this time in its latest edition. The cartoon has a weeping Prophet in white holding a sign reading 'Je Suis Charlie', and above him are the words 'Tout Est Pardone' meaning All is forgiven. Muslim extremists last week attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and gunned down 10 of its staff, including 5 cartoonists, for 'disrespecting the Prophet'.

At one level the cartoon is a befitting reply to the extremist forces that cannot have a laugh and muzzle secular voices. What other way than a cartoon of a weeping Prophet to condemn the attack! As Luz, the cartoonist, explained to Libération's Isabelle Hanne, "With this cover, we wanted to show that at any given moment, we have the right to do anything, to redo anything, and to use our characters the way we want to. Mohammed has become a character, in spite of himself, a character in the news, because there are people who speak on his behalf." Yet, at another level, the cartoon --when Islamophobia is on the rise--is also saying, 'It's my freedom, little sympathies for you'.

The shootings have initiated a whole lot of discussion on freedom of expression--and whether there is a limit to this freedom. The answer to it depends on which side of the debate you stand for. Do we refrain from hurting Muslim sentiments since many (wrongly) believe that it is a taboo to portray the Prophet? Or, we exercise our right and defy this rigid interpretation propagated by extremists? Interestingly, the Quran forbids idol worship but not pictorial representations. Illustrations of the Prophet can be dated back to the 14th century in Iran and Turkey. Christiane Gruber, in a recent Newsweek analysis, says, "...the decree that comes closest to articulating this type of ban was published online in 2001 by the Taliban, as they set out to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan."

Richard Malka, a Charlie Hebdo lawyer, was quoted in the Telegraph as saying, "We mock ourselves, politicians, religions, it's a state of mind you need to have. The Charlie state of mind is the right to blaspheme." This is in line with what Britain's deputy PM Nick Clegg said about the 'right to offend' on LBC Radio.

The argument is not so much whether one has the right to free speech--it is a non-negotiable freedom. It is whether that right can be used in a more amiable manner.

Do we have to offend a minority community, which has not yet integrated with the mainstream, for the sins of a few extremists? In the recent years, the integration of Muslims into the mainstream has become one of the thorniest issues in the immigration debate in Europe. The bans on burqas in France or minarets in Switzerland or the criticism against Muslim councils in Germany are pointers to this uneasy debate.

Added to this existing unease is a growing Islamophobia, which attacks like the one in Paris increase by several notches. It is not a coincidence that a Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West, a political group that is against Muslim immigration) rally called in Dresden, Germany, on Monday saw a record turnout of 25,000 people, some of whom were carrying banners that read: "Asylum seekers go home!"

Thus, it is not the theological unease that prompts one to question the cartoon(s) but this societal reality of a group being seen as what Edward Said has called 'the Other'. The unease with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should be seen from this vantage.

On a larger context, this schism reflects Europe's unease with the 'outsider'. If from the Renaissance till up to about the mid of the 20th century Europe pointed its finger at the Jew, today it is pointed at the Muslim. Anti-Semitism was so prevalent in Europe that the cunning moneylender Shylock, who demands his pound of flesh in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, or Voltaire's anti-Semitic statements were not aberrations.

By the 19th century, because of the growth of nationalism, anti-Semitism had taken a racial colour. The works of theorists like Arthur de Gobineau (An essay on the inequality of human races) greatly contributed to this approach. The Jews, when compared to 'superior' Europeans, were seen as 'inferior' beings. Today, a similar streak of indifference is seen towards immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe--many of whom are Muslims.

Instances like these underline the importance of secular and democratic institutions. European leaders cannot let their minorities 'survive' on the margins of society if they really want them to integrate and prosper. The rise of the Right in many countries in Europe, from Britain to Germany to France, does not inspire hope about a seamless integration. A majority, by nature, is not a threat to a minority, but it becomes one when a group within that majority starts to impose its narrow, bigoted views on the minority. And that's not a cartoon.

(The views expressed are personal. Tweet to the writer at @vijucherian)

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