Dipsikha Thakur | Mais je ne suis pas Charlie

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.

Taking "satire" too far
Taking “satire” too far

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)

26 thoughts on “Dipsikha Thakur | Mais je ne suis pas Charlie

  1. But “Je Suis Charlie” means “I agree with the journalists/cartoonists right to free speech” not “i agree with what they draw” … so i think that maybe you are Charlie after all. I am Charlie too. I agree however that this particular image seems shocking, even possibly racist and making a mockery of a violent and sexist crime, and don’t understand why they are linking sexual slavery by Boko Haram with Benefits (le CAF or Allocs) although i have a feeling that we may possibly taking this cartoon out of a context we don’t get. But that is beside the point. However much I may hate what someone says, they do not deserve to die for it … so we are Charlie.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. >If you are in doubt [of US culpability for the rise of Islamism], 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

    Islamist paramilitary groups have been a tool of Pakistani foreign policy for decades before American assistance for the mujahideen, in both Kashmir and the quest for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. The timeline stretches back much further than the 1980s, despite the popular narrative.

    >and the rise of the ISIL against the American occupation in Iraq.

    Daesh was reformed in order to fight the Shia (i.e. takfir to Daesh) Assad regime in Syria. It was built from the bones of Al-Qaida in Iraq, but that itself was a pre-2003 organization which was ultimately defeated in Iraq by the USA and the Iraqi Army.

    Islamism does not rely on Western meddling in order to grow stronger, and it can be defeated by the West and its values. I appreciate your approval of CH’s right to publish and I understand your choice not to be Charlie, but… I dunno, your treatment of Islamism seems rather shallow. I feel a clearer distinction between Islam and Islamism needs to be made in order to (and maybe this is my sheer arrogance talking) utterly condemn the latter within the framework of rationality and pluralist liberal democracy. You say that you reject a good vs. evil discourse – whilst I’m not sure the entire rest of humanity could sum up to being “good”, I don’t have any qualms with describing Islamism as evil, and I’d actually consider it a necessary consequent from liberal values.

    If you’re anti-fascist, sometimes you’ve got to fight fascists. We should never be embarrassed about doing so.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your caption
    Taking “satire” too far
    hurts me exactly like a machine gun!
    If it has limits it’s not satire!
    If you really want to criticise satire, learn what it is!

    France has banned religious symbols from schools:

    The ban to protest for Palestine is a faux pas, yes!

    But today, if you are not Charlie, you are either:
    1) an ignorant who doesn’t know what happened;
    2) The enemy.

    My view is:
    all religions are scum, and religion people should pay for it, like smokers pay a lot for cigarettes,
    cause religion kills exactly like smoking.


    Pay council tax (at the moment they don’t)
    Entrance to cult places (church/mosque/temple/etc/etc):
    5 pounds

    Wanna wear a cross/niqab/turban/etc/etc/etc?
    500 pounds a year.

    1000 Pounds a year.

    Etc Etc Etc

    You’ll see how religious people thin the fuck out!

    FREEDOM OF BELIEF is bullshit!
    If you believe in any god, you are just a fucking underdeveloped monkey!


    1. Firstly, you say that ‘If it has limits, it’s not satire. If you really want to criticise satire, learn what it is!’ Well here are two definitions of it I found 1) A way of criticizing people or ideas in a humorous way, or a piece of writing or play that uses this style, 2) The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. It does not say ‘unrestrained offensive expression of racism, stereotypes, prejudice or other forms of hatred’. In your case, in response to your ‘If you really want to criticise satire, learn what it is’, I would suggest that if you really want to uphold and defend satire, learn what it is NOT!

      Don’t get me wrong – I in no way support, uphold, approve or encourage the Charlie Hebdo killings, nor the hostage takings that have taken place. I’m living in Paris right now, in the adjacent arrondissement to where all this has happened; I’ve heard police car sirens throughout the day; I’ve been listening to live news updates of what has been going on; I have friends who live and work in the actual vicinity, even on the same road, as where all this has happened, and I will be at the Unity Rally on Sunday. If you think I’m ignorant as to what’s going on or that I am an enemy, I’m sorry, but I think you’re going to explain to me what these principles that you hold onto are, and to which I am apparently an “enemy”.

      It seems to me you’re using this event as an excuse to fuel and support your hatred of religion, but you haven’t actually explained why you feel that way. Do you actually know what Islam, or any religion, is about? Have you actually studied it for yourself? Also, how can you say you support freedom of speech and then in the same breath say ‘Freedom of believe is bullshit’? What is the point of freedom of speech if not to express freedom of belief? Would you rather that we had a system where anyone who doesn’t conform to what someone else says what we should believe are hunted down and persecuted? It’s freedom of belief that lets you say statements like ‘If you believe in any god, you are just a fucking underdeveloped monkey’, ‘You’ll see how religious people thin the fuck out’ and the many other hateful things that you have said. And may I also point out that it’s unjustified hatred and anger that caused the Charlie Hebdo shootings to take place in the first place?

      I cannot believe that you’re using an event as serious as this to just make hateful comments that isn’t going to help anyone. While France, the first hand victims of the killings, is focusing on remaining united and support their ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, you’re more interested in making very biased and offensive claims.


  4. Somehow this article appeared on my timeline and after wondering if i should reply here, still if the comments section is open here, i take liberty to point some issues with this article. In fact there are many issues.

    For starters, any person reading the article will remain confused about the connection of kashmir and charlie hebdo. Writer mentions that there are large scale rigging and no right to plebiscite which is a lazy analysis. Kashmir has got history of rigging in polls but it doesn’t mean that it keeps happening. Elections have happened few weeks back and no political party from kashmir has blamed of rigging.

    Writer claims that india has a long history of attacks against FOE and some sort of blasphemy law by mentioning death of safdar hashmi who was murdered by few goons of congress party and it was political violence for which they were found guilty by court and rightly so,or threats to Arundhati roy, she keeps participating in anti – india meetings on the land of India on regular basis but never heard of her being attacked physically. If people shout slogans in front of her, it is their right and she being a public figure has to learn to accept that.

    Writer tries to portray that radicalism has come to islam because of ‘invasion’ to Iraq, may be the writer is not informed that killings on the pattern of charlie hebdo have happened much earlier in India, in 1929 (no US invasion) the editor of book ‘rangeela rasool’ (colourful prophet), was killed and the book was banned by government later on and on the basis of that killing a new law was created to protect the religious sentiments of people (muslims to be correct). As in India, liberals keep showing hindu gods and goddesses in extreme bad light but nobody was killed because of that. Only few months back leftist magazine forward press published cartoons of goddess Durga showing her as a prostitute while Hindus worship her as mother goddess.

    In place of accepting the problem and get ready to solve it, writer blames islamophobia in france for such act, france banned pro Palestine processions as they were always leading to anti jew riots in france or always turning violent with loss to public property. If burqa was banned, 3 muslim women members of sarcozy govt led that movement to ban burqa and that is really interesting how a ‘feminist’ as called yourself comes in support of burqa for the sake of religious tolerance.

    The very role of a cartoonist is to provoke the society as provocation leads to debates and helps in correcting the society but you show a cartoon of boko haram and voila the cartoonists become somehow white supremacists. Oh come on!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: My Blog
    1. Quite sure that anything a little more than cursory reading would disabuse you of that idea. Everyone has a right to express their opinion. But where we come from, the platform we occupy, our audience and the time of publication make enormous differences to the moral weight of our statements.

      A satire by a Muslim activist in Saudi Arabia or that by an Indian citizen about Hinduism in India would elicit more support from me than what CH did, for the pure and simple fact of the asymmetry of power that a white atheist organization in France can wield upon the Muslim minority. When you attacking those that are already objects of derision and mistrust, it is satire, it is simply opportunism.

      Doing it without nuance, needless to say, is worse.


  6. What if the language and narratives in this case are not deliberately devious tools of power, but rather genuine expressions of grief and anger? I know you can’t really deconstruct deconstructionism, but you make a lot of unsubstantiated theoretical assumptions in your analysis of the issue.

    Murder is brutal. That is not some made up narrative by the media, but asserting that it is only causes further obfuscation.


  7. Reads like an undergraduate essay on postcolonial theory. Well done for your radical destabilisation of binary logic, I’m sure the dead journalists would thank you if they could.


  8. A nicely written piece but I don’t think the author fully gets the very specific cultural context of Charlie Hebdo illustrations. E.g. she writes: “One cartoon depicting the pregnant survivors of the Boko Haram mass abductions make them out to be welfare scroungers.” Well no it doesn’t. The picture in question is combining two concurrent news stories to make a provocative joke – something the magazine often did (in bad taste perhaps, but this was the magazine’s style and it did this in every conceivable direction). In this case the cover refers to a decrease in French welfare allocations, which took place around the same time as the kidnapping of the Chibook girls. In this cartoon, the absurdity of raped and pregnant Boko Haram sex slaves enacting the welfare queen stereotype is used to parody the absurdity of the welfare queen stereotype itself. Of course if you merely take the picture at face value it’s appalling, but things aren’t really that simple.

    In reality, Charlie Hebdo is a far-left, secular, pro-immigration publication, and many of its staffers had worked with anti-racist organisations. Also worth noting that this particular issue was preceded and followed by anti-Le Pen front pages.

    Basically, if you’re going to call murdered cartoonists racists, make the point properly. Do the research, interview people, read the magazine, understand its particular place in French culture (as unique to France as Private Eye is to the UK). Don’t lazily take things out of context and dishonour their memory. #JeSuisCharlie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lola here.

      A subversive and complex image can still be racist… it’s more than just “poor taste.” That may not be the intention behind the image, but it is a valid criticism nonetheless. Any analysis of satire or comedy without taking into account the power dynamics in our society is useless. You have to understand that the very notion of “freedom of speech” is rendered useless by some who argue that such images serve only to reproduce and reinforce an oppressive power structure whilst silencing those who dissent by telling them that “they just don’t understand the image” they ~don’t get the point being made~
      We get it. We also recognise that its portrayal was racist. Those two things can happen at the same time.

      Also I don’t see this article as a personal attack (though saying that the staffers worked with anti-racist organisations is a bit odd, is that supposed to imply that they could never be racist? That is basically the equivalent of “I have a black friend” but okay…) – I think it merely recognises that the work of the cartoonists was deeply problematic, that is where the aversion to ‘#JeSuisCharlie’ comes from.
      And maybe the hashtag is just a knee jerk response, a way to show solidarity and grieve, nobody disputes this.

      I think we can all agree that those cartoonists should be alive.


      1. All I’m saying is, perhaps having A-level French and seeing a few cartoons out of context this week with no understanding of what the jokes were isn’t enough.


      2. Madeline, this essay is by no means a last word on this event. Of course it is not ‘enough’.

        It was researched and written within a day of the attacks; I am certain that there are inadequacies. Of course I will learn and refine my argument.

        But it was urgent to establish a counterpoint to the tidal wave of #jesuisCharlie and the accompanying Islamophobia that I saw on social media and the news. Mosques were being attacked; denouncements against both the inaction of moderate Muslims and claims of the very nature of Islam as violent appeared quite soon as well. My piece is hopefully a start to a more nuanced debate.

        It also surprises me that you see my article as something that dishonours the memory of the deceased when I make repeated assertions throughout that I find what happened to them horrifying and justifiable under NO circumstances. If it was not clear from the essay, I am saying it here again.

        But there is a difference between remembering and sacralizing. That is all.


  9. “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.”

    Well, duh. The editors/cartoonists had received death threats. Of course they were provided with state security. That would have happened no matter how much they agree with the government du jour, and let’s not forget that Charlie were always pretty firmly anti-Sarko.

    You appear to be implying that the fact that they get state protection somehow makes them complicit with the government’s actions. In actual fact all it means is they’re based in France.

    That being said, it’s true that they weren’t oppressed (well, apart from ongoing death threats I suppose), and there may be some value to the idea that this makes a difference.


  10. I understand the rage, the need for empathy with the children or partners of the assassinated cartoonists, can only imagine with a shudder how it would feel to not have your loved ones come home that evening. I also have great respect for graphic novelists, authors and film-makers that have had to deal with the often violent repercussions of censorship from both right and left-wing fanatics (Kundera’s account of his blacklisting from the Communist Party because of banter in a postcard to a friend is a great example of how rigid the latter can also be in its thinking about humour.) But I see a difference between being appalled by the event itself and expressing solidarity with the images that Charlie Hebdo produced, images that appear to me to be repeatedly targeting a minority community. Demanding the reprinting of the cartoons as a way of supporting free speech is exactly what Teju Cole points out as the ‘us against them’ mob mentality: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/unmournable-bodies
    And as the article above points out, the absence of discussions concerning people who are actively fighting against fundamentalism and the brutal regimes of their countries is telling. Like the rhetoric of the war on terror or drugs, it attacks those who would most benefit from protection.
    Also, Navneet, sorry but just to dig deeper into your claim, ‘the very role of a cartoonist is to provoke the society as provocation leads to debates and helps in correcting the society’ – when exactly was this corrective role allocated to cartoonists? The graphics in Disney’s Aladdin showing Arab men as hook-nosed, lumbering, knife-wielding goons, for instance. How much debate did that foster? Or the endless array of Muslim villains in Amar Chitra Kathas? I know this is a while ago but I think in many ways its comments are still relevant’: http://www.adc.org/index.php?id=283


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