The Charlie Hebdo challenge: to seduce not offend

A Charlie Hebdo cover from 2011 equates the Holocaust with Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
A Charlie Hebdo cover from 2011 equates the Holocaust with Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

A French satirical magazine no one heard of three days ago has become the worldwide poster boy for “western values” after the latest atrocity by extremist Muslim fighters. Islam may not be a country, as Foreign Policy magazine stated, but the death of cartoonists and other editorial staff in Paris was the classic case of a front line action in the war of ideas between the West and Islam.

Charlie Hebdo has become a metaphor for the western right to free speech trumpeted by European ideals, but finding itself trumped by the Islamic right to punish blasphemy. The debate has become heated as a civilisation-calling cry of “Je Suis Charlie”. Defending to the death someone’s right to say something you don’t like is a powerful Voltairean notion of tolerance (though the phrase belongs to his biographer Evelyn Hall) but sentencing to death someone who said something you didn’t like, belongs to an older tradition. It is increasingly synonymous with the all-or-nothing approach Islamists are taking, a fact some in the west prefer not to acknowledge.

Whether this points to structural flaws within Islam or is merely the actions of a twisted few whose numbers are growing is a moot point. It is not a simple equation of “us and them” as the death of a Muslim policeman at Hebdo’s office and the hero Muslim shop assistant who saved Jewish hostages in the Paris siege shows. The gulf between civil liberties and freedom to practise religion is problematic for France’s six million Muslims, of which two thirds have abandoned their faith. They are true westerners, who like ex-Christians leave behind certainties of religion for secularism and a slow and rocky retreat to materialism.

Regardless of whether a world without religion is better than one with it, Europe and Islam’s history is long and bloody. Charlie Hebdo follows centuries of Christian-Islamic bloodshed despite being people of the book with similar cultures and Semitic languages. Muslims viewed Christianity the same way Christians viewed Judaism: with a grudging respect for followers of an older but incomplete truth. For Christians, Islam was a subsequent religion which meant it had to be false (a feeling Islam shares for its successor Ba’hai) and had Inquisitions at the ready for apostasies.

Islam had the obligation of jihad, a striving in the path of God, that scholars translate as “holy war”. Jihad is a Muslim duty to fight in a war against the unbelievers. This war does not end until all of humanity embraces Islam or submits to the authority of the Muslim state. While the obligation was in force on all frontiers, jihad had a particular character in Europe where Islam met its fiercest resistance.

Europe may be a place and Islam may be a religion but as Bernard Levin said, the pair are not asymmetrical. The Arabic word for religion is “din” which Levin said was a cognate word for law in other Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic. Islam promoted belief and worship but never became compartmentalised. Islam embraces all of life’s practices and laws. Religion is life for practising Muslims.

Islam did not produce great institutions of religion. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was not martyred and achieved military success in his lifetime. Not content to render power unto Caesar, he founded a world of Islam ruled by one sovereign, the caliph. This belief hampered the growth of nation states in the Islamic realm while Europe gradually went regional, then dynastic and finally nationalistic. That unity of purpose remains a powerful motif in modern Islam and helps understand the attraction of Islamic State’s revival of the caliphate.

The ideal of a single Islamic polity transcending nations remains appealing to many Muslims, who find the western world’s libertarianism an excuse for weakness. Europe invented the notion of “the western world” and Europe invented the cartoon, which was originally a full life drawing, typically pasted together into a larger work. The name has Catholic and Protestant roots, a combination of the Italian “cartone” and Dutch “karton”. Both words meant the strong heavy paper cartoons first were drawn on. The plaster of early cartoons would stay damp for days making it good for pasting together into large frescoes. The transition from art materials to art itself began with the Italian caricatura of the 18th century, a drawing with features exaggerated for comic effect.

The crossover into political satire progressed with the social commentary of Hogarth’s paintings. During the French Revolution, British satirists used the medium for lampooning and caricature of prominent people and events (including the Revolution itself). These prints were one-off creations that did not sit in any other body of work. In 1843 Punch magazine used the concept to describe satirical drawings in its pages and called them cartoons. Punch knew their cartoons were dangerous especially when attacking expensive reputations, but hoped that by making them a part of the glue of a magazine, they would be seen as an essential part of the whole and might escape censure.

Cartoonists have been using this ‘escape valve’ of humour ever since to push the boundaries of criticism. The simple power of cartoons has also been used to push political agendas. Where the boundaries lie between freedom of expression and propaganda is constantly shifting. In 2005 Danish cartoonists risked Muslim wrath when Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, mostly depicting the prophet Muhammad. The newspaper called it an attempt to debate the issue of Islam and self-censorship. It caused protest across the Islamic world and several deaths, mostly in Muslim countries. It did nothing to improve relations between Islam and the West. Charlie Hebdo also republished the cartoons.

Speaking after the Danish controversy, Jerusalem Post cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen was convinced cartooning is on the faultline of civilisations. To be successful, cartooning has to be funny. “My cartoons are designed to make someone laugh and through this laughter, which causes the person to drop his guard,” Kirschen said. “I am able to change the individual’s mind and convince the reader to see things the way I do.” That is the lesson for Hebdo and supporters: to seduce rather than offend.

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