Yesterday, the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris was attacked by three masked gunmen, wielding Kalashnikovs. They opened fire during an editorial meeting that killed ten staff members, including cartoonist Georges Wolinksi and the editor Stephane Charbonnier. Two police officers were also killed, one of them a Muslim. Videos of the shooting have emerged, showing unidentified men crying ‘Allahu Akbar’. The police have naturally profiled the attackers as Islamists and the attack has already begun to be narrated as a brutal and thoughtless response to the brave satire of religious excess that the magazine carried out. Since yesterday afternoon we have seen a steady and loud stream of grief, solidarity and unconditional support towards the friends and families of the casualities as well as the survivors of the attacks, four of them critically injured.
It is incredibly heartening for me to see this kind of engagement and support on an international scale as both someone who wants to become a journalist and an Indian citizen. Scroll, an Indian digital newspaper, has been prompt to denounce the attack and carry out excerpts of Salman Rushdie’s public statement on the subject. Rushdie, in what is now common knowledge, called fundamentalism a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam, right after dismissing religion itself as a ‘mediaeval form of unreason’. Rushdie would know. His work The Satanic Verses led to a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. The fatwa lasted for a decade, during which he lived pretty much underground under heavy security and criticism for wasting the British taxpayer’s hard-earned money – a subject he explored in depth in Joseph Anton: A Memoir.
Tariq Ali, a noted British-Pakistani journalist and staunch critic of Muslim fundamentalism also located the beginning of the trajectory of violent response to satire of Islam in the fatwa against Rushdie in 1989. However, he made a crucial qualification when he pointed out that the atmosphere in France has been quite Islamophobic for a considerable time, and it was all quite ‘ugly’. What he stopped just short of articulating is a problem that most of us are grappling with right now. For many of us whose engagement with politics does not go very far beyond the specifics of local news every day and whose political comprehension rests on a lovely binary of leftist-liberal vs rightwing-fundamentalist, we find it incredibly hard to stand against the ideal of absolute freedom to speak. By the right to freedom of speech, most of us in our heads immediately conjure up images of courageous dissent against powerful institutions and practices. We think of investigative journalism, criticism of the government and since the fatwa, the right to offend old unforgiving fogeys.
Stephane Charbonnier or ‘Charb’ made a robust defense of this last right, and in the last twenty-four hours, a public language of grief has been fashioned that sees him a martyr to this ideal. This language, helped by Rushdie himself, places Charbonnier, Cabu and Wolinski as the heirs to the tradition of defending free speech at immense personal costs.
In this, as an Indian citizen, I should only have complete solidarity. India has a long and painful history of violence against dissenters, not limited to the murder of the playwright Safdar Hashmi and the constant stream of threats that critics of the government like Arundhati Roy, the late Mukul Sinha and Irom Sharmila live with. Salman Rushdie himself was prevented from visiting the Jaipur LitFest thanks to threats made by religious organizations. To give a further example of how screwed up things are, there exists the obsolete and draconian piece of legislation, the IPC 124A, also known as Sedition Law, which stands in the way of any recognition of Kashmir’s right to self-determination in spite of the widely documented use of torture, murder and rigged elections by the Indian government in that region.
Personally, I worked for an anti-caste publishing house last summer in Delhi, where many days started with funny anecdotes about Facebook trolling and threats made by Hindutva fanatics against my boss, also the founder. While the idea that people would simply walk in and gun us down was unthinkable, I did wonder from time to time if my superiors would have the same nonchalance a decade into the saffron regime. I still worry.
Believe me then, when I say that the freedom to dissent is something that I hold in the deepest respect; something that comes very close to demanding sanctity in my world-view. That it is from this position that I both mourn the violence and loss that the staff of Charlie Hebdo and their families experienced yesterday even as I find myself unable to support many of their previous publications and what they meant for the French public discourse on Islam.
For one thing, the main difference that I immediately see about the free-speech debate in India and France post Charlie Hebdo controversies in 2005 and 2011 is the government’s tolerance for the newspaper, providing them with security and in the case of Sarkozy, defending their right to offend. It is important, at this time of coarse Manicheanism, to remember that Charlie Hebdo was not exactly a lone voice speaking unpleasant truths in a way that Moazzem Begg or Snowden did. This newspaper spoke with, at the very least, tacit support from a government that was independently creating Islamophobic legislation. Let us not forget that in 2004, France banned burqas, crosses and other religious symbols from schools and very recently it became the first EU nation to ban pro-Palestine protests. If we want to talk about an unqualified freedom of speech, we should perhaps take the debate back by a few years instead of portraying the attack on Charlie Hebdo as an incomprehensible display of brutality taking place against defenders of free speech in a political vacuum; an event that, according to Obama, Kerry and Netanyahu, can only explained by the inherently violent nature of Islam.
The truth unfortunately is far more complicated and unsparing. The relation between the radicalization of Islam and the half-arsed intrusions of the U.S. and the erstwhile colonial powers is nothing if not obvious. If you are in doubt, look at the timeline of the rise of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda against the end of the Cold War and the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the rise of the ISIL against the American occupation in Iraq. Does that absolve Islamism of its responsibility? Fuck no. But it does create a need for history that is not dominated by a thoughtless heroization of Western ideals. We do not need another Hegelian stage-fight between the rational, mature, rights-recognizing European Self and a crazy, inscrutable Other. The scarring is too shared for that to work now.
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, or at least the ones I have seen variously translated so far, make no acknowledgement of the horrific assaults that Islam has gone through in the 20th century. I also found little sensitivity to those victims of radical Islam who were not white French atheists. One cartoon depicting the pregnant survivors of the Boko Haram mass abductions make them out to be welfare scroungers. I am sorry, but as a feminist I find that unthinkable, and if I do not raise that point at this critical juncture then I am failing to remember the suffering of those women in my quest to commemorate the suffering of the staff of Charlie Hebdo – a simplification I refuse to commit.
The Charlie Hebdo newspaper was operating in an atmosphere that lauded rather than resisted them. They indulged in so-called harmless humour that incorporated an already alienated minority into a consumable Other, an object of easy, outright derision. Their beginning in the satirical reporting of Charles de Gaulle’s death had very different moral weight to the later trend of easy satire against religion in a militantly secular country. It is important to note that the satire of de Gaulle, interestingly, elicited a very strong reaction. What existed till then as Hara-Kiri Hebdo was banned. It came back as Charlie Hebdo in 1970.
Remember too, that the cartoonist Siné’s anti-Semitism (surely also permissible under absolute freedom of speech?) led to his firing from the same office. The comparison between attacks on Catholicism, whose experience of persecution has been less in scale and consistency though it has been very much been there, and attacks on Islam, a religion undergoing trauma and radicalization on a transcontinental scale right now, should be re-examined in the light of attacks on the Jewish faith, which occupies a middle ground between these two models. In any case, we may have to re-examine the acceptability of ridiculing Catholicism without adequate discussion as well. When I wrote this earlier today, I had little idea of the contemporaneity of the persecutions against the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. When my friend called me out on it after reading it, I attributed it to the fact that my engagement with international politics is relatively recent and there are embarrassing loopholes in knowledge. He said, however, that the ignorance of persecution against Catholics is painfully common in the UK, which has since made me think perhaps satire against communities (as opposed to specific political actions) need qualification and some degree of respect. Since these are rather hard to incorporate into effective, entertaining satire, I must ask if communities can ever be suitable objects of this particular form of critique. This is very much an open question.
I hate what happened yesterday. I hate it with all my heart. It makes me sick to my bones and it put me off wanting to become a journalist for half a day. No one should ever have to face a gunman in their office. No one should ever have to die because they poked fun at the empty, hateful rhetoric of a man as disgusting as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. I will grieve this carnage as someone who believes in the sanctity of human life and unarmed resistance.
But I am not Charlie. I cannot be Charlie as an Indian woman who has seen the sheer arrogance of Western rationalism in my own university. I cannot be Charlie because the freedom to dissent is never the same as the freedom to create racist caricatures from a position of relative privilege and power.
Which is why, as I mourn the horrific violence, I must also stand guard against the poverty of the good-vs-evil discourse. The slain are seldom unproblematic heroes. This however neither justifies their suffering nor for a second makes it okay to blame them for it. It simply means that we have to practice that same difficult freedom of reiterating unpleasant details and guard ourselves against the myth of martyrdom. It also means that we cannot, even for a moment, consider that pleasurable instinct towards collective punishment that often comes out of collective trauma. If this was indeed committed by Islamic fundamentalists, then Islam deserves our most undistracted and compassionate attention, because there are many, many more lives at stake on all sides.
(Note: A revision was made to this article in order to recognise the extent of Catholic persecution- a fact that was neglected in the original)