Saturday, January 10, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo

Charb is dead. Twelve people are dead, including two police officers. There are at least six other associated deaths. And yesterday, Said and Cherif Kouachi (prime suspects) died.

That is a lot of blood over a bunch of cartoons. Perhaps a moment of silence to mourn the dead? Maybe we need two minutes to pay our respects... Wait, respect? In 1970, de Gaulle died a few days after a catastrophic fire in a nightclub, the Club Cinq-Sept, in which nearly 150 people died. Enter Charlie Hebdo headline, spoofing newspaper coverage of the event: "Tragic ball at Colombey. One dead."

Charlie Hebdo would not want the world to sit back and mourn. So, let us take this apart with academic precision and, if possible, some satire. But first, let us say this aloud: shooting is wrong.

Equal-Opportunity Offenders?

Being a magazine which describes itself as anti-racist and left-wing, Charlie Hebdo claims to be an equal-opportunity offender. In other words, they claim to be fundamentally irreverent. The only thing holy in their scriptures is the act of irreverence. They lived to mock and, unfortunately, perished in their mocking.

But in order effectively implement equal-opportunity mocking in a real-world scenario, it is paramount to understand the prevailing socio-economic pulse. In France, where the minority Muslims still find themselves a marginalized population, Charlie Hebdo failed to recognize the zeitgeist (or they understood it too well, and decided to ride a hate-wave while it lasted).

France's Muslim population is predominantly Algerian, owing to their 150 year long relationship with the north-African country. Due the enormous flux of people - population moved both ways - across the Mediterranean, and due to the return of several "pied noirs" with their families in the 60's, there is a huge Muslim population in Europe.

Like in most other parts of the world except the Arab peninsula, these Muslim communities are poor and often neglected. In addition to this, France's continued meddling in Algerian affairs, through direct and indirect aid to fight the Islamists, pours more oil into a steadily growing flame. With the backdrop of growing volatility and Isalomophobia, France has previously come up with laws to ban the head-scarf "l'affaire du voileand other such methods which only further the unrest. Today, the minority-Muslims fill French prisons, making it virtually the only place where they have a sizeable majority.

Charlie Hebdo is not wise in expecting this affected population to have the same sense of humour such as, say, Nicolas Sarkozy. And while the latter has a powerful voice which we can hear, downtrodden masses often shout to deaf ears. An early message came as a legal suit (which failed) in 2006 after the  Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. There was another warning in the form of a petrol bomb in 2011. In 2015, they died.

They died in the same way the terrorists died, defending a rather indefensible idea - that of provoking for the sake of provoking. Ironically, both the artists and the terrorists have, in very different ways, martyred themselves. Today, I condemn the killings and mourn the humans who died. But have we lost artists who were of any value to society?

Die and Let Die

Charlie Hebdo had a regular circulation of about 100,000. It showed a sudden increase in circulation by up to 200% during the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. At the time, Jack Chirac condemned the publication for stoking communal disharmony. The Islamic world condemned the magazine, in good spirit, via litigation and through unveiled threats. Nicolas Sarkozy however voiced his support for free speech.

Invasion of faith is often invasion of a person's personal space. While being vociferous in propagating one's religion can be decried, so too must ridicule and derision of that faith. Perhaps, a day will come when religion is utterly unimportant, when we can happily laugh about petrol-bombs and crusades. But that day is not today.

Charlie Hebdo realized that polarization was critical to the magazine's success, and they capitalized on it. After the fire-bombing, Charb said that the attack was carried out by "stupid people who don't know what Islam is" and that they were "idiots who betray their own religion." Big words for someone who claims to hold nothing and no one sacred.

On Self-Censorship

In a historic move, the American Civil Liberties Union took a stand on "free speech". They allowed Nazis to parade through a holocaust-survivor neighbourhood. While this did not actually happen, this is what we could come to expect of free speech: the right to hear a dissenting voice without necessarily approving of it.

However, there are several cases where this is not yet applicable. For example, a Bangalore based techie was arrested in December for running ISIS's Twitter account. Later, police said that he had links the terrorists and could provide valuable information, but the premise for his arrest was the fact that he ran a terrorist-organization's social media operations. Is this not a variation of the same free-speech? Or must we device a clean way to distinguish between association with historical crimes and with crimes which are currently underway?

In the current scenario, freedom of speech is usually a moderated freedom granted with the expectation that self-censorship and "common sense" will prevail. Take, for example, Raj Shetye's recent photo-shoot which made so many of us go up in arms! This is "gang rape artwork" as opposed to "ridiculing religion artwork". Just because the people who were affected in this case did not fall under an organized group, the opposition was not decried. In fact, the very media which today sides with #jesuischarlie ensured that Shetye's website was shut-down.

Burning the Flag

We limit ourselves to religion, and therefore define 'freedom of expression' rather poorly. Why are the same people who are with #jesuischarlie against the idea of burning the national flag? If I burn a flag or the constitution, I am only expressing myself.

Why was the media in a frenzy when this happened?

Infamous Ganesh swimsuit

While the idea of free-speech is important, it usually makes sense to take account of people's sensitivities. Throwing a banana at an African player on the football field still counts as racism. Why can we not sit back and laugh at that?

Equal opportunity bigotry (i.e. hate everything, mock everything) seems a good way to dodge racism charges. But we will most certainly, as I read in Arthur Chu's article on the Daily Beast, end up with chan culture.

In India, we are still debating if PK was targeting religion or not. Perhaps there were moments in the film which can be construed as religion-based humour, but we are perhaps at a stage when these transgressions can be ignored. However, when a magazine makes it a point to poke an oppressed section of society in the eye time after time, with no other purpose than to make some people laugh and others scream, sometimes people throw bombs. Is this right? - Probably not. Will this happen? - yes.

Did Charlie Hebdo achieve its goal, and glory - which their cartoons are not worthy of - through death?

1 comment:

  1. FREEDOM is limited -an irony. Its absolutely essential to follow the 'live and let live' policy to continue living in this world.