150111- The Massacre at Charlie Hebdo—And Defining Artistic Responsibility
The massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris was an unconscionable act of brutal murder, pure and simple, driven by twisted ideological justification where there can be no justification. Yet causes of events always exist that rational beings must grasp—even when they do not provide justification.
So how do we understand such an act? We have all frequently heard recitations of the political factors behind many of the actions by Muslim terrorists—the American invasion of Iraq, its descent into chaos, the humiliations of Abu Ghuraib, Palestine. And the longer history of western political and military interventions in the Middle East. In this case, the Algerian background of the terrorists—although French-born—highlights again the legacy of the savage French repression in Algeria’s struggle for independence; Robert Fisk of The Independent reports one million and a half Algerian Muslims killed by French in that struggle in the mid-1950s. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/charlie-hebdo-paris-attack-brothers-campaign-of-terror-can-be-traced-back-to-algeria-in-1954-9969184.html None of this justifies the cold-blooded killing of civilians either. But it does supply comprehensible background. Indeed, we have seen previous violent actions by radical Muslims on “cultural grounds” such as the shocking street murder of right-wing activist Theo Van Gogh in Holland in 2004.
But behind all the outrage, there is also a play of power at work here that is largely ignored by westerners. It is easy to mock religious figures in our more secular modern age. But in the “satire” published by the Danish cartoonists, or in Charlie Hebdo, actions are taking place that go well beyond simply amusing secular westerners. Such writings or drawings also humiliate minorities, especially in the West, whose cultural identities are already fragile. Minorities, especially from the Third World, have rarely been welcome there. A Muslim in the West faces major cultural hurdles—yes, in part created by the violent actions of a tiny fraction of other Muslims, but cultural prejudice is also present.
The narrative in western news coverage has largely limited itself to self-righteous assertion of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is indeed a vital pillar of western society. And therefore, journalists and cartoonists have every right to mock religion, mock Islam or mock the Prophet Muhammad—or mock anybody or anything else for that matter, especially high figures in power. But that freedom does not absolve these writers from social responsibility for what they do. Let’s put the issue in a more familiar western perspective.
Take African-Americans, who have of course suffered deeply in the course of centuries of slavery and post-slavery social disadvantage, even degradation. Would white writers be likely to satirize or slur black American leaders and icons such as Martin Luther King (his sex life, say, once closely followed by the FBI), during the Ferguson riots? We all know that such mockery would represent a foolish and volatile act, almost certainly generating some kind of rage and blood-shed. Police violence against blacks around the US has already created violent back lash against policemen in New York and elsewhere, justified or not.
How about satirizing the Holocaust? Can’t take a joke? Holocaust denial is a punishable crime in France, Germany, and twelve other European countries. Or what about mocking Jewish belief that they alone represent God’s Chosen People? Maybe doing so during Jewish high holy days? I suspect many quite secular Jews would feel deeply discomfited—even angered—by such attacks on their faith. Among Jewish settlers in the West Bank in Palestine, such gross disrespect might cost you dearly in a confrontation with Palestinians.
In the American Southwest I have noticed husky young Latinos walking along the streets with t-shirts bearing the image and name of “La Virgen de Guadalupe.” The Virgin of Guadalupe is an iconic symbol of Mexican culture and religion, especially for indigenous peoples in Mexico. In areas of tense race relations between minority, often disadvantaged Latino populations, and whites in the US, would an Anglo think about mocking the mythical story of the miracle of the vision of the Virgin by a Mexican Indian? In the wrong setting it could get you beat up, maybe killed. You would have dissed a major focal point of parts of Mexican identity.
Yes, we all have a right to say and write these things—it is part of western freedom of speech. But does there not come some responsibility with such rights as well? Or some moral or ethical responsibility and sensitivity not to mock the icons and symbols of minorities who already feel downtrodden, excluded, the target of western security officials even if they have done nothing wrong? Black racial profiling. Flying while Muslim. Latino-looking people on a US street finding their documents arbitrarily checked by immigration police.
Satire is a legitimate, even vital form of political dialog in the West. Note, however, that we usually satirize individuals of power, as one of the few ways to seek to diminish them, often deservedly as they exercise power over us. But when it comes to satire, mockery, and the demeaning of those who do not represent power, most of us do quite the opposite—we usually avoid violating those sensitivities and sensibilities even where there might be grounds to do so. Some might dismiss it as mere Political Correctness. While political correctness can be carried too far—and sometimes is—most of us avoid mocking the disadvantaged or downtrodden. We should entertain no illusions that Muslims in the Middle East, as well as those in the West, feel themselves oppressed—at the receiving end of western firepower or suspicion in country after country for nearly a decade and a half after 9/11.
We all have our sacred cows. In the West it might be freedom of speech. Nothing trumps freedom of speech in our view. It is the foundation of our political order. (Never mind that the US mainstream press can be pretty selective about what constitutes “All the News that’s Fit to Print.”) In the Muslim world the pinnacle of the moral order to which Muslims aspire is represented in an idealized form of Islam. Attacking Islam is like attacking freedom of speech: it represents an assault against the self-image and values of an entire culture. Dissing Islam is dissing Islam, even if you’re not a practicing Muslim.
And by now, who is avenging what? Perhaps 9/11 was what sparked—justified?—fourteen years of American wars against Muslim populations in the Middle East. But then, what sparked 9/11? The history of western-Muslim frictions did not begin on that day of September either.
This tragic cycle of violence—the violence of hi-tech power against the weak, the weak striking back with its violent low-tech response—cannot come to an end until we recognize the stakes are too high to continue this myopic game. The crisis is not merely on the battlefield. It is inexorably creeping into western societies themselves, racheting up emotions on all sides. Is it fanciful to sense now a possible drift towards fascist challenge and response, at both Muslim and western ends of the political and social spectrum?
An end to western boots on the ground in the Middle East is the first significant step out of this tit-for-tat morass of western power imposition. Other steps too are required, but this is the indispensable first. More about that next time.