“Compared to Charlie Hebdo, I much prefer Charlie Chaplin, who never mocked the poor, the suffering and the suppressed,” professor of Hebrew language and literature Hannan Hever said Thursday evening.
Hever was part of a discussion with five other experts in political theory, religious studies and international relations on the January massacre of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine.
The discussion in Linsly-Chittenden Hall drew roughly 50 students and professors to address the magazine’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad and the massacre at its office on Jan. 7. While Hever claimed that satire is sometimes used as a form of political oppression from the privileged, panelist and diplomat in residence Charles Hill said that freedom of all speech, with the exception of hate speech, is essential to modern societies.
Professor of religious studies and international and area studies Frank Griffel, another panelist, echoed Hever and said that the visual depiction of Muhammad in satirical publications can be construed as racism. Unlike Pope Francis, who is also often the subject of satire but who can be identified easily with such visual elements like the tiara and crosier, Mohammad is not easily identifiable due to the lack of visual representation in the Islam tradition. As a result, Prophet Mohammad is often drawn as some “stupid-looking Middle Easterner, with one or two or five wives around him,” Griffel said. Such representation is racist, Griffel argued, and shows the oppressed condition of Muslims in European countries.
But Hill disagreed, arguing that the modern world is founded on a series of principles such as human rights, democracy, equality and freedom of speech. Hill said the idea of the freedom of speech is so essential that societies must be careful in banning any expression unless it crosses the red line of hate speech, which in his view constitutes a very tiny portion of all expressions. More simply put, “Speeches and expressions gotta be allowed!”
Hever argued that satire must not be understood as merely a literary genre, but must be considered in broader social and political contexts. The core of satire, he said, is self-ridicule and equality between two sides of the communication. Often, this balance is absent in satirical material about Islam, Hever said. The key difference, he said, is that the authors of these satires are often in a “power position” compared to the marginalized status of the Muslim population in European countries.
Still, it is simplistic to say that these satires on religion are offensive and worthless to the society just because religion is a private practice, panelist and political science professor Andrew March said. Religion, though practiced privately, always has a huge presence in the public sphere and therefore is worthy of constructive conversations and discussions, he said. On the other hand, some of the discussions are just “intellectually and aesthetically tasteless,” to the point that they are not worthy of praise or attention.
Ugonna Eze ’16, the speaker of the Yale Political Union and moderator of the event, said that the panel had achieved its goal of providing a more nuanced perspective on the satirical material of Charlie Hebdo.
“Much of the conversation about Charlie Hebdo has been black and white,” he said. “We hope to avoid that.”
Hugh Sullivan ’18 said that the panel made him think about Muslims as an unprivileged and alienated group — in the context of freedom of speech — for the first time.
Shreyas Ravishankar ’17 said that he really appreciated the cultural and literary perspective the panelists provided.
“I have come to realize that every perspective has its meaning and contribution to the understanding of a complex issue like this,” he said.