I do not claim to write here anything that countless bloggers and columnists all over this country have not already expressed. Rather, my hope is to bring to Yale some of the discussion about the implications of saying “Je Suis Charlie” without fully knowing the background or context in which Charlie Hebdo operates.
First of all, it should go without saying that we all stand in solidarity and mourning when those armed with pens are murdered for their free expression. But I think we can maintain that stance while also looking more closely at the publication at the center of this tragedy.
The way I have described my approach to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, both original and reprinted from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, is not novel. While I without question support the right to publish such materials, just as I would support legality of symbolic speech like flag burning although I disagree with it, I do question whether their publication was right, productive, or advisable. If I had the choice, I would not have published the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo printed, because of what they depicted and, even more importantly, the context in which they appeared.
What matters is not just that the cartoons contained the image of the Prophet Muhammad. What matters is how he was portrayed, and what those portrayals reinforce . In one Jyllands-Posten cartoon, he is shown with a wild beard and a giant sword, standing threateningly before women in burkas. In another, he restrains a troop of fuming jihadists brandishing swords and bombs. In another, his turban is a bomb with the fuse lit. In one Hebdo cover, he stands wild-eyed, big-nosed, and stupid-looking, proclaiming, “100 lashes if you don’t die with laughter.”
Again, what matters to me here is less respect for religious sensitivity to images themselves, and more the actual effect of the satire. First, the cartoons aim their satire not at violent fundamentalists, who sadly exist in any religion, but at the core representative of Islam, the essence of the religion — the Prophet. Second, the portrayal of Muhammad is violent, Orientalist, backward, threatening — all the tropes that have been assigned to Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Eastern-looking people for the last 200 years, but particularly since 9/11. These images perpetuate stereotypes about an entire race, ethnic group, religion, and skin color. Using the core figure of Islam, these cartoons suggest that Islam is itself inherently violent.
I should clarify that I am not unequivocally opposed to using stereotypes for comedy. Most of my contributions to this newspaper have been satirical and many (hopefully) provocative. What is troubling about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, however, is that the stereotypes they utilize to provoke laughter and controversy have a real impact on their subjects. They are powerful images, and their message strikes a disturbing chord in the U.S. and in Europe, one that has been and is used by the powerful to make life worse for an entire class of people. From deportations to airport scrutiny to fingerprint registries, anti-Muslim sentiment and actions in the U.S. in the decade following 9/11 is well documented, and a similar sentiment is on the rise in France — witness the rise of France’s far-right, anti-immigrant Front National party.
While many Yalies have the means to take classes on subaltern studies or colonialism and may see through these depictions of Islam, that is not the case for many in the West, whose prior beliefs may only be confirmed by such caricatures. Even worse is that, in publishing these sorts of cartoons and endorsing the stereotypes they depict, we give credence to one of the most effective recruitment tools used by ISIS and extremist networks around the world: the perception that Muslims are increasingly a marginalized out-group in the world.
That perception is not drawn out of thin air, but rather drawn from a long history of lampooning, economic exploitation, coups, occupations, and invasions. Without an Iraq War, without a Guantanamo, without an Abu Ghraib, without drones, without Sykes-Picot, without a French Algeria, the perceived gap that these cartoons exacerbate might not be so wide. But with those events, these cartoons are irresponsible, an abuse of privilege and a tool of marginalization, whether intended that way or not.
None of this is to say that satire or criticism of Islam or of religion itself is always inappropriate. Indeed, I think religion needs corrective satire as much as any institution, if not more. But I would not discredit the whole of Christianity on account of the Ku Klux Klan or those who bomb abortion clinics. I would not discredit the value of police on account of some racist policing. Rather, I would seek to do with all these institutions as the Qur’an instructs — to enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil — with the hopes of fostering in Islam that same good that, in the Christian Bible, fueled civil rights and, in police, keeps me and my loved ones safe.
While I mourn the loss at Charlie Hebdo and while I will always condemn violence that seeks to stifle free speech, for the above reasons, I hope that we witness fewer skewered caricatures and more efforts to understand Islam as most Muslims understand it. I believe we can do this while still mourning the victims of violence in France.