A week, after the despicable attack on its office that killed 12 people, the Parisian satirical Charlie Hebdo, has declared its defiant new edition will feature a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover. Though the cartoon itself is innocuous, simply featuring the Prophet holding up a sign proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” with the words “All is Forgiven” above it, doubtless the cover will lend more fire to the raging debate over the limits of satire and the freedom of expression.
Many have seen the attack which killed some of France’s most prominent cartoonists, as primarily an attack on the principle of free expression. And it has drawn universal condemnation. However, there has been considerable angst regarding whether this should be translated or understood as an endorsement of the content that the magazine purveyed.
I am not a reader of the magazine, though English comedian, actor, writer, presenter, and activist, Stephen Fry has described their cartoons as bordering on racist and repulsive. However, Frenchman and self-described “radical left militant” Olivier Tonneau avers that Charlie Hebdo’s satire falls “well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic.”
Ours is a profession that thrives on humour at someone else’s expense. Cartoons can be funny but can also hurt. At their best, cartoons can help to confront and expose the hypocrisies within society and to chop down the arrogance of power. At their worst, they can vilify and stereotype entire communities and reduce complex realities into simplistic vistas.
My first, almost reflexive, reaction was to rush to the defence of Charlie Hebdo. To declare to all and sundry the obvious. That there can be no justification for the attack. That cartoonists should be free to satirize and ridicule whomever and whatever they please without having to fear for their lives. That religious hypocrisy should not be immune to caricature, especially when it is loosed from private sphere and presented as a public obligation. That no one wants to read anodyne satire.
No idea, no matter how cherished and sacred, should be deemed as sacrosanct. And, as Salman Rushdie, the British Indian novelist and essayist who was forced into hiding after his book, The Satanic Verses offended religious zealots, said, “Nobody has the right to not be offended.”
However, it is also undeniable that decent, well-meaning people from across the religious spectrum, Catholics as well as Muslims, have been offended by Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And though satirising a religion is not the same thing as belittling its adherents (any more than ridiculing a political party’s policies is saying its members are idiots), it is not always a distinction that everyone accepts.
Ugandan academic, author and political commentator, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, has spoken about “the dark side of free speech, its underbelly: how power can instrumentalize free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice.” In discussing the controversy that erupted after the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, Mamdani distinguished between between religion being critiqued from within and coming under attack from without.
Though Prof Mamdani is wrong when he implies that only believers can legitimately critique religious tradition and that all external lampooning of it is bigotry, some attacks are undeniably motivated by less than honourable intentions. And it when confronting this that we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As he says, compromises circumscribing free speech are sometimes necessary to keep the peace but these work best when internalized as civility, rather than when imposed by public power. It is more a question of how, not if religions can be criticized.
Cartoons do not exist in a vacuum. Our works will be seen and understood within the context of the historical as well as prevailing issues and attitudes and we always run the risk of promoting and reinforcing the very prejudices and oppressions we may be seeking to ridicule. This is because while the pictures and text are designed to elicit humor when placed in specific contexts, the meaning they carry is as much a function of the readers’ circumstance as it is the cartoonist’s intent. And it is in the social space that that meaning is negotiated and determined.
Kenya’s top cartoonist, GADO, fell afoul of this when one of his cartoons from two years ago, which made fun of Kenyan politicians’ propensity to turn funerals into political rallies, was widely circulated in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro Odinga, the son of former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga. Many were outraged by the cartoon which portrayed the elder Odinga giving a speech while poised atop a coffin. In being transferred from one context to another, the cartoon acquired a hugely offensive connotation that had never been intended.
People are thus liable to read their experiences and contexts into our works. Members of the Muslim community may see the cartoons of the Prophet as a continuation of the racism, stigma and discrimination they have suffered. Others who place them within “the French tradition of satire” would cast them in a totally different light. Thus, when Charlie Hebdo fired a satirist for alleged anti-Semitic jokes, it was probably reflecting a general European horror at their historical treatment of Jews. The double standard illustrates how the competition of contexts and the privileging of one over another affects the way a cartoon is understood and whether it ends up offending or amusing.
This, then, places an extra burden on those of us who undertake the risky work of satire. As we skate at the very edge of what society considers tolerable, we must not be oblivious of the choices we are making, the contexts we are privileging and those we are perhaps ignoring. We must realize that we are accountable for those choices and that that, in the end, is the reason we do not really say everything we have the right to say.
One thing we can all agree on is that it is not those who threaten and carry out violence who should be the ones to set limits on what can and cannot be said in polite company. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, that is for its (now global) audience and French society, including its religious communities and perhaps the French courts where the magazine is regularly sued, to deliberate. It is a conversation about the relative place of different communities within the fabric of society and about the relative weight given to their stories.