On constructive satire and the Prophet


The Prophet is crying, and it isn’t hard to see why. Seventeen people killed in his name—the Kouachi brothers yelled, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!” as they opened fire in the Charlie Hebdo headquarters—and countless others murdered across the Middle East by Islamic radicals.

The events of January 7 centre on the old debate of freedom of expression vs. blasphemy, or religious courtesy, if you like. More than a week later, people are still faced with a Hamlet-like dilemma: to draw facetious cartoons or not to draw; to reprint or not to reprint.

This week’s tragedy in Paris is the result of a deadlock created by the clash of ideologies. Stéphane Charbonnier, editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, told Der Spiegel back in 2012, “I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It may be a little pompous what I’m going to say, but I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.” The staff knew the risks of their profession. Likewise, the Kouachi brothers, when they were holed up at the printing factory, surrounded by police, let it be known that they wanted to “die as martyrs”. So a martyr for a martyr… making the whole world blind.

Neither party will back off. Western Europe’s tradition of free speech (and satire) is historically entrenched and will never make Islam an exception. Islam’s more radical branches will likely continue the death threats, firebombing, and cold-blooded execution against what they consider blasphemy. So what are we to do?

I don’t know if I have the answer to this question. For starters, one has to pick a side: you either support free speech, no holds barred, or you don’t. Supporting it only when it’s inoffensive is a cop-out. Mind you, free speech does not mean hate speech, and in more murky cases it is up to the courts to differentiate. This was the case in 2007, when the magazine was taken to court by the Grand Mosque of Paris when it reprinted the infamous Danish cartoons. Hebdo was acquitted when the judge ruled that the magazine was ridiculing fundamentalists, rather than all Muslims. Charlie Hebdo’s brand of ridicule was never about hate; they did not hate the Prophet as much as find him—and all other religious figures—ridiculous.

Perchance a more intelligent (virtuous? self-effacing?) person than myself would have given the answer given by almost all Canadian newspapers, which chose not to reprint any cartoons, despite their currently having, in the words of one journalist, “profound news value”. Support free speech, but within bounds, and let the bounds be set by what people find offensive, they seem to imply. Ridicule anything and anyone, but don’t touch radical Islam, because we all know what happens when you do.

The preservation of human life is a noble goal, but this is not the side my conscience advocates. To be inoffensive is to be bland, to cower… and to stand for nothing. The New Yorker’s cartoon editor Robert Mankoff was right when he wrote that the only “culturally, ethically, religiously, and politically correct cartoon” is an empty panel. The citizens of France, too, have chosen their side, swelling the streets of Paris with thousands of “Je suis Charlie” placards. I only hope that every one of those Charlies wields the sign with full awareness of its meaning, which is the support for self-expression despite the threats, even if they involve terrorism on home soil.

In light of the self-conscious attitude of many of Canada’s news outlets, and in response to the recent op-ed by my dear friend, The Medium’s editor-in-chief, I feel I must take a closer look at satire. By definition its aim is the reformation of folly and vice. Instructional humour, if you will. Many polite folk are quick to point out, after profusely defending Charlie’s right to exist, that mockery advances no cause, that offense serves no constructive end. But it does.

Let’s deconstruct the easily found Hebdo cover of Nov. 3, 2011. Released to “celebrate” the victory of an Islamist party in the Tunisian elections, its subheading read “Charia Hebdo”. In one corner was a note saying this edition was guest-edited by “Mahomet”. On a green background, a caricatured Prophet grins, holds up a finger, and declares, “100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter.” On the one hand this is slanderously tongue-in-cheek, but on the other it is a strident attack on corporal punishment as practised under Sharia law. At face value, corporal punishment is, of course, no laughing matter. Take the very recent case of the Saudi writer and activist Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to a prison term and 1,000 lashes by the Saudi government. His crimes were apostasy and insulting Islam online. The flogging has begun to be administered in sets of 50 over a period of 20 weeks, and “puts him at risk of death”, his wife told reporters.

Those who laugh at this Hebdo cartoon laugh to undermine the authority of extremists, because that is what they hate most. Western governments can send warplanes to bomb ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, but the average citizen can only laugh. Laugh in response to the fear sown by public acts like stoning, flogging, amputation, and decapitation. Those who laugh take back their sanity from the grip of the fanatics by finding them foolish. We live in anxious, angst-riddled times, and laughter is one of the few effective over-the-counter medications. So we laugh at things that make us angry, fearful, embarrassed, and offended, that make us feel vulnerable and see things as they really are.

Many people, not just this paper’s editor-in-chief, find that Hebdo “vilifies many legitimate ways of life”, but the Hebdoian response is that fundamentalism is not a legitimate way of life, especially not in a pluralistic society. The 12 murdered employees were not sixth-graders doodling on their desks. Much thought went into each publication; every cover was directly in conversation with its day. Though some may have indeed been in “bad taste”, there is a grain of truth in every mockery. That is what makes it funny.

This isn’t a clash between the West and Islam, but between democracy and theocracy. This isn’t an attack on Muslims, but on the radicals who kill because they’re offended, because they disagree. It is an attack on ISIS, on the Taliban, on Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram and every leader who is at this moment gathering supporters for the next attack. The Hebdo cartoons were—and still are—laughing at them.

Having said this, I must add that the roots of the attacks can be traced back to France’s treatment of its immigrants. The question that isn’t being asked enough is why four young people born and raised in France would turn to terrorism. The answer partly hearkens back to the country’s 2010 ban on face-covering in public and 2004 ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools. It’s old news that there exist two Frances: one for the white native French, and the other for immigrants; Paris’s notorious banlieues (think Jane/Finch or Scarborough) are populated predominantly by immigrants and their descendants, many of them Muslim. Complaints by second- and third-generation immigrants that they are stereotyped by landlords, by potential employers, by the police, have fallen on deaf ears. The backgrounds of the Kouachi brothers fit this profile. They struggled with rootlessness, poverty, and integration all their lives, and their criminal records attest to this. The majority of French immigrants hail from Algeria and Morocco, and yet it has been said that France has still not fully come to terms with its colonial past. Although hopelessness and social isolation are obviously not excuses for violence, they too often go together.

This leads me to ask: apart from holding “Je suis Charlie” placards, what will French citizens and the French government do to make their immigrants feel accepted?

The latest Hebdo cover features the Prophet once more. On a green background the Prophet is holding up a “Je suis Charlie” sign and crying. The caption says, “Tout est pardonné.”

Deconstruct this one yourselves.


Valeria Ryrak

Alumna, English