Charlie Hebdo. Lettre aux escrocs de l’islamophobie qui font le jeu des racists. Charb. Review Article.
Posthumous Bolt of Light.
“This text was completed on the 5th of January 2015, two days before the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo, during which Charb lost his life.”
The Lettre addresses the reader, “If you think that criticism of religions is the expression of racism” “If you think that ‘Islam’ is the name of a people.” “If you think that punishing blasphemers will open the gates of heaven for you.” “If you think that left-wing atheists play into the hands of fascists and xenophobes” “If you think that it is essential to classify citizens according to their religion” “If you think that one can laugh at everything except whatever is sacred to you.” “If you think that popularising the concept of Islamophobia is the best way of defending Islam” ………..
“So, dear reader, this letter has been written for you”
Charb (Stephane Charbonnier) would not learn of the response of those he spoke to on the first pages of the Lettre. He was absent after those seeking paradise murdered him, eleven of his colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, a police officer and four customers of the Vincennes Hyper-Cacher.
In France, and across the world, millions expressed their solidarity and love for Charlie and all the victims of the atrocities. But there remained those who responded according to the 19 ready-made ideas about Islam Charb listed. Liberals and those claiming to stand on the left, marked by every single one of them, were prominent amongst those who contributed to a torrent of abuse whose echoes still resonate.
Mark Maguire, on the Stop the War Coalition’s site, stated that Charlie was “a rather unpleasant French magazine” that published “anti-Islamic cartoons”. Others pitched in. It was ‘Zionist’ and ‘neo-conservative’, with the imprint of former Editor Phillipe Val who is said to have promoted these views. It was – it would be an easy task to cite thousands of articles – ‘Islamophobic’. It was vulgar and racist. It specialised in the pornographic mocking of sacred beliefs, above all of Muslims.
The Weekly, as the Socialist Workers Party template set out, was known for its “provocative and racist attacks on Islam”. Norman Finkelstein tried to create an industry out of this holocaust. He declared that the paper was not satire but “sadism” and compared it to the anti-Semitic Nazi Der Stürmer. An apparently anti-racist alliance, Unite Against Fascism (UAF), held a special session at their AGM on why “je ne suis pas Charlie.”
This hostility has not died down. ‘Rules’ for satirists appeared – which Charlie had apparently broken. It should have targeted the “powerful.” Will Self judged that satire ought to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Literary critics, enforcing these new Aristotlean unities of satirical style – breached no doubt by Rabelais, Hogath’s drawings, and the plebeian Viz comic, not to mention early Soviet anti-religious propaganda – have tried to establish their decree. (1) We could call it ‘satirical realism’. Even cartoonists joined the would-be Zhdanovs of correct caricature. As have authors.
A few weeks ago a group of writers criticised PEN for honouring Charlie, “To the section of the French population that is already marginalised, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”
Charb, supporter of the Front de Gauche and the Parti Communiste Français, was editor of Charlie Hebdo since 2009, after the rightward moving Phillipe Val had departed for France-Inter (with President Sarkozy’s blessing). His Lettre – a 92-page pamphlet – looks at political and social context to the word, Islamophobia (Islamophobie – identical to the English one, in meaning, if not in use): the most important of the, many, charges against Charlie. He explores its ambiguities, and the false politics that it is embedded in. If he is polemical, then the booklet is a polemic. If it is heartfelt, we can appreciate the emotion all too well today.
Racist and xenophobic sentiment is common in France today, as it is in every European country. Charb describes how racist reactions had been unleashed in France by President Sarkozy’s ‘debate’ on national identity launched in the first decade of the 21st century. There had been an “explosion” of prejudice in the country. His had taken not just the form of hostility and discrimination but also violence.
But how should we protest against those who insult and assault Muslims? If a veiled woman is attacked should she not be defended as a citizen, as a person who is a Moslem, not as an “instrument of God” – that is of the Religion?
The Charlie Hebdo editor observes that being afraid of Islam may be “cretinous” but it is not a crime. In the same way you can be afraid of Christianity of Judaism. One can equally dislike religions – this is the foundation of all religions: ecumenical minorities apart. Many people who are not fond of, or indeed loathe, other faiths, stick to their own like limpets. Since a religion only exists for believers they are free to make it of what they will. The danger, Charb claims, can arise that people will take the Qur’an or the Bible as an instruction manual, resembling an IKEA kit to assemble bookshelves. If we take this approach a “bain de sang” (blood bath) against the unbelievers can all to easily come about.
As these arguments are expanded one suspects that one of the reasons for the difference between the Anglophone concept of tolerance that derives from John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) and Voltaire’s Le Traité sur la tolérance 1763. The former was concerned with spiritual salvation and the toleration of all personal (spiritual) beliefs, to the exclusion of the Catholic Church which was seen as an external repressive power. The latter also promoted freedom of individual belief, and opposed fanaticism. But Voltaire was not content to simply promote negative freedom. He actively campaigned the abuse of religious power. His famous motto, “écrasez l’infâme” incarnates this goal.
In modern terms, and all the social and ideological complexities borne in mind, there is an opposition between the liberalism of ‘anything goes’, incarnated in one – largely English speaking – form of multiculturalism, and the Voltarian approach. The heirs of Voltaire also promote tolerance towards different beliefs and cultures, but refuse to accept abuses – religious or political. Charlie’s approach to Islamism – a world-wide problem – is that it is a misuse of power. It should therefore be open to criticism, not repression, and actively, democratically, fought. Charlie is a committed voice. It is not simply satire. Apart from the famous cartoons (which Charb defends tooth and nail), there are columnists who write a range of subjects, of which Islam, and religious intolerance, oppression and exploitation jostle amongst many. It is no coincidence that France’s far-right, and Christian – Catholic – fundamentalists, are ferocious opponents of the free-thinking contributors of Charlie. Not to mention a raft of authority figures., from government downwards.
Blasphemy and the Manufacture of Outrage.
The wider problem with Islamophobia is that it makes all those who fail to respect “sacred” texts into potential blasphemers. That it has the constant potential to confuse criticism with pathological hatred. Yet a non-believer cannot blaspheme – the premise that something is holy is not accepted.
The Lettre charges the media with fuelling religious outage. Charlie, by publishing its own Mohammed caricatures in 2006 – following the Jllyands-Posten cartoons – was denounced as provocative. Charb – rather airily – dismisses this by saying that people should not expect all Muslims to be stupid enough to be provoked. Yet, “la télé decide que c’est une provocation, il y a toujours une bande d’abrutis pour s’estimer provoqués.” If the telly decides it’s a provocation, there’s always a bunch of idiots who’ll decide that they’ve been provoked. (Page 32) One could remark that this, part of the function of modern media in many areas, is not going to go away. Another factor is that religious figures will play this game to their advantage, by stirring up fears that their deepest beliefs are under attack.
Perhaps more culpable are politicians. They may nourish religious identification by fishing for votes in these religious “communities”. In Britain we see this appearing even more starkly in elections. The ‘left’ Respect Party won and lost in Bradford with its focus Muslims. The Conservatives, applied with more with success a strategy in the General Election designed to woo the votes of the Hindi and Sikh ‘communities’.
The pretensions of those who demand “respect” for Islam arouse Charb’s deepest ire. Whatever the status of some French Muslims, not at all, “marginalised, embattled, and victimised, it is the second largest faith in the world. Countries, some very wealthy, many of them dictatorships based on Sharia law, propagate Islam. Sharia law’, based on inequality between men and women, between believer and nonbeliever, and its cruel punishments, is itself a form of totalitarian oppression of daily life. The tyrants of the Islamist fringe now have a ‘country’, ISIL. Ridicule is one, only one, weapon against them.
Charb uses many arguments familiar to British readers of Kenan Malik and left-wing secularist groups in the UK. Accusations of Islamophobia are used to shore up the authority of religious figures – with the effect of bolstering the perception of society divided into two groups. The result of dividing the world into these camps is to strengthen the hand of the prejudiced. Spilling over into politics it promotes ‘communalism’ (putting people into religious and ethnic boxes) and prevents anti-racist policies, based on equality, from emerging.
Charb charges Islamists and self-styled anti-racists of wilfully distorting the sense of Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The accusation that they are racist is rebutted. He cites the famous case of the caricature of Justice Minister Taubira as a monkey (female of le singe, la guenon), wheeled out by the enemies of Charlie to this day. This picture was clearly labelled, “Rassemblement Blue Raciste” – the Front National’s Rassemblement. In other words, it was a caricature of a FN poster!
In the wake of the January slaughter it has been necessary to repeat this exercise for over a dozen of Charlie’s ‘Unes’ – to no visible effect on the more obtuse.
There are those, the murdered Editor remarks, who scream racism as soon as Charlie prints a picture of an Islamist terrorist. “Ils laissent entendre qu’en caricturant un terrorist islamiste le dessinateur a voulu symboliser tous les musulmans.” – they let it be known that by drawing an Islamist terrorist the artist wanted to symbolise all Muslims. (Page 58) By this logic, we could add, that it would be perhaps better not to be rude about the Islamic State. It is, after all, called Islamic.
To those who continue to make the claim that Charlie is racist Charb is brief and to the point. They defend the immigrants’ right to vote, making ‘legal’ illegal migrants, anti-racist laws….. The claim that Charlie is a kind of Der Stürmer, paying special attention to Muslims in a climate of hatred not unlike the anti-Jewish atmosphere in Germany at the start of the1930s, is equally absurd. Were there Jewish Jihadists in 1931? Did they demand the equivalent of the Sharia? Did they carry out anything resembling 9/11? There are no valid parallels between anti-Semitism – which remains an ‘old’ reality. There is equally an ‘old’ racism, of which the Muslim populations in Europe, amongst others, but above all, Roms, are the victims.
The Lettre ends by warning about the tendency to introduce a new form of blasphemy, anti-republican blasphemy. All crimes of blasphemy, against flag or country, holy book, Prophets and gods, should be thrown out.
Charb was not an enthusiast for what is misleadingly called France’s ‘new secularism’, “arrogant” and Orientalist. He declares, “Il n’y a pas de blasphème anti-républican” there is no such thing as anti-republican blasphemy. (Page 77).
The Lettre touches on efforts to prosecute people for acts such as burning the Tricolor. One imagines that the last thing Charlie’s editor would have wanted was the wave of hysteria that tried to force support for the irreverent Weekly down people’s throats, right down to the youngest primary school pupil. It is even harder to see that he would have supported laws permitting intense surveillance of France’s population.
There have been protests against plans to catalogue even potential support for violent Islamism and imprison on suspicion. The political forces Charb backed, in the Front de Gauche have backed opposition to these assaults on freedom (Un projet de loi ouvrirait la voie vers une société de la surveillance).
In its first issue after the January horrors Charlie’s editorial observed that Muslims are the first victims of violent Islamist fascism. Charb would have felt joy that that the brave Kurdish fighters and the voters of Turkey’s HDP – the majority of them Muslims – are building secular and democratic ramparts against Islamist intolerance and battling the genociders of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It is, as Charlie said
The Lettre ends with an urgent reminder: atheists are persecuted across the world. Since January our beloved Bangladeshi comrades – free-thinking atheist bloggers – have been cut down in the street. As I write, secularist blogger Raif Badwai languishes in the gaols of Saudi Arabia awaiting another lashing.
Partisans de la ligne de Charlie, mobilisez-vous!
(1) Hogarth’s Gin Lane.