The prophet Mohamed cradles his head in his hands in despair at being worshipped by violent fundamentalists; Marine le Pen opens her mouth, revealing her father Jean-Marie in her throat; the pope slaps his forehead as he realizes God doesn’t exist; Hollande is humiliated, over and over, for his ridiculous romantic entanglements; Obelix calls for the legalization of pot; French taxes are turned into missiles headed for Syria; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost gleefully bum-fuck each other. All very naughty and provocative, these cartoons, all of them drawn to illustrate the absurd underbelly of current events, sacred cows, received wisdom and perfidy committed in the name of ideology and religion.
As everyone now knows, twelve people were killed this week at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper based in Paris. A policewoman was killed on the same day in the outskirts of the city, and two days later, four hostages were slain at a kosher supermarket before the perpetrators of the crimes, self-styled jihadists, were themselves killed by French police. Conversations about these events on the Internet are dominated, as ever, by outrage and pomposity.
Here in Canada, the media debated the merits of reproducing the cartoons that so offended the jihadists, with the CBC and most English-language newspapers, with the exception of the National Post, declining to show them on the grounds that depictions of the Prophet are offensive to Muslims (a debatable notion in itself). It was also suggested that reprinting the cartoons would only serve to further inflame the passions of the aggrieved, thus giving the fundamentalist provocateurs exactly what they wanted.
The CBC makes a claim to principled respectability based on their unwillingness to offend Muslims with depictions of their prophet. While one wouldn’t wish to argue with a broadcaster’s right to make such an editorial decision, one might want to raise one’s voice to contest it. Tax-paying citizens of Canada own the CBC. We are also, in the main, secularists and believers in open debate, unafraid of pictures of Jesus Christ, Siddartha Gauthama, Ganesh the elephant god or the “last prophet”.
On the second point, that reprinting Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons ridiculing Islam would cause further polarization between cultures, hurt feelings on the part of Muslims, or possibly incite hatred: like all Western democracies, Canada has a long history of political cartoons, lampooning the ridiculous and exposing stupidity, and we are quite capable of gazing on depictions of Muslim icons without getting the vapours. If indeed publishing these images – which are obviously readily available to anyone with an Internet connection – were to upset certain members of our society, so be it. In a free country where anything is up for debate, we have no need to censor ourselves like this. Indeed, we should all be expected to look at the facts head-on.
The facts? Charlie Hebdo is an iconoclastic, satirical newspaper whose contributors are, or were, culled from the cleverer, funnier, more politically astute and probably shameless corners of the French Republic and North Africa. Of Jewish, Christian and Muslim descent, these beloved cartoonists and thinkers were united by their contempt for the sacred and by their love of humour. Not everyone shared their delight in exposing the assholes of the world (or speculating on the size, shape or state of turgidity of their penises), but people tended to object only when it offended their own sensibilities, leaving CBC-style principles of defending the honour of others to that other party. Quelle surprise.
Were the people who were gunned down this week just a clutch of racist rabble-rousers who shouldn’t have been publishing inflammatory, anti-Muslim material in a country where tensions between Muslims and the dominant culture are already so high? Some have suggested that, given the style and content of their cartoons, they were knowingly courting danger, perhaps in a lowbrow attempt to sell papers. Well, yes, they certainly were courting danger, which is why they were under police protection. And yes, they were trying to sell papers, because if they didn’t sell papers they would cease to be. Satirizing and lampooning the nation’s sacred cows and the world’s most terrible and sometimes funny current events was their raison d’etre. Their job was not to write academic papers or write balanced reportage giving voice to all parties. Their mission was to expose the wicked and make people laugh.
If only we lived in a world where humanity could laugh at itself, what a good time we’d all have. Meanwhile, we continue to witness the murder of innocents as we debate whether it’s okay to poke fun. Because let’s be clear, Charlie Hebdo was not inciting hatred. Laughing at Islamic militants who are slaughtering Muslims by the thousands is not hate speech. It’s an attempt to see the humour in fanaticism, to expose the absurdity of people who claim to be acting on behalf of God as they kill, maim, rape and loot their way through the lands of their co-religionists. Yes, the issues surrounding Muslim immigrants and their descendants in France is a delicate one, fraught with the long shadow of French colonialism and global politics that reinforce the retrenchment of certain cultural and political points of view. Depicting the prophet’s asshole with the caption “A star is born” is indeed indelicate, but it is well within the French iconoclastic tradition and the culture’s guilty pleasure-taking in naughty, sexually suggestive imagery. Within the anything goes world of French political cartoons, that particular image is hardly unique.
Love it or hate it, Charlie Hebdo is a courageous publication. Would that we were all as resolute in our contempt for cruelty, political mendacity, and principled cowardice.