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Charlie Hebdo: They're Not Racist Just Because You're Offended

01/13/2015 05:02 pm 17:02:59 | Updated 15 March 2015

Over the past few days I, along with the rest of the world, have been horrified by the terrible atrocities committed in France last week, beginning with the massacre at the Charlie Hedbo offices, and continuing through the streets of Paris and into the supermarket of a jewish community. 

I was equally moved by the outpouring of love and solidarity which followed.  No, it doesn't help bring back the deceased, but it demonstrated the unbreakability of the human spirit, and it highlighted the similarities of our humanity amongst men and women in a society so often fractured by our differences. 

But one thing I've found difficult to ignore is the growing voices of those who knew little of the cartoonists and journalists saying terrible things about them, which are quite frankly unsettling. 

"Racist", "Islamophobic" and "hypocritical" have been the most common accusations. Many seemingly educated friends and social media buddies seemed to be merely glancing at a few cherry-picked Charlie Hebdo covers without making any effort in understanding their true meaning or impetus (or often even of the French translation of the accompanying captions).

So to those smearing the names and reputations of men and women who are no longer here to defend themselves a few things that I thought it might be good to know....

Charlie Hedbo were leftists, some may even anarchists and punks. They printed numerous cartoons which were anti racism/xenophobia; that mocked and satirised the far right as bigots and racists. As long time reader and Frenchman, Olivier Tonneau pointed out in his excellent article, The National Front and the Le Pen family were in fact their primary targets above all others. Next came bosses, politicians and the corrupt. Finally they opposed organised religion. ALL organised religion. They didn't hate or abuse or target any one group or religion. They did however mock ALL systems and organisations and individuals of power - from political to religious to everything in between. They were satirists, and all people, systems and organisations should be open to criticism and mockery (so long as it sticks within the laws of the land). They were democratic in their ridicule and satirisation. No one was exempt. To do otherwise would have been the hypocritical. Equal rights also means equal treatment. 

Accusations of Islamophobia alone seem to ignore the fact that the Pope, Jesus, Orthodox Jews (amongst many others) were targeted in equal measure. As the publication's lawyer Richard Malka said this week "In each edition for the past 22 years there has not been one where there have not been caricatures of the pope, jesus, priests, rabbis, immans or Mohammed." Although of course... perhaps you still believe they were Islamophobic, Christian-phobic, and anti-Semitic... but it seems it was not the every day believer they were intentionally targeting.

"We want to laugh at extremists - every extremist," surviving staff member Laurent Leger stated. "They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept".

Much has been made of the fact (and accusations of hypocrisy bandied around) over the fact that a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist was sacked in 2009 over an alleged anti-Semitic cartoon (although its rarely noted this decision was taken by a long-since departed editor; that the sacked journalist ultimately won his unfair dismissal suit; and that this cartoon targeted a specific individual as opposed to an entire religion or idea), and many have asked why Muslims should expect to put up with things that Jews don't. Which would be a fair point, if it was true.

Judaism was frequently lampooned (a simple Google search will verify that). The Charlie Hebdo team were also very much pro-Gaza, and often fiercely critical of Israel's actions in the Israel-Palestine conflict. One series entitled 'One Commandment A Day: The Torah Illustrated by Charb' coarsely depicts Jews as contradicting their religious values in their interactions with Palestinians."Ne pas opprimer les faibles" ("Don't oppress the weak") is the title of a cartoon of a Jewish man firing an assault weapon into the back of a Palestinian woman. "Here, take that Goliath!," he shouts.

More in-depth research and conversations with those who were regular readers of the magazine reveal that Charlie Hebdo also strongly and regularly denounced the plight of minorities, they wrote in support of the Kurds, and they campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay.  One of Cabu's most famous creations was Mon Beauf, which caricaturised an ignorant, racist and bigoted Frenchman, and Bernard Velhac, also known as Tignous (and a member of Cartoonists for Peace) once said, "I would love to think that every time I make a drawing it prevents a kidnapping, a murder, or removes a land mine. What joy it would be! If I had that power I would stop sleeping and would make drawings non-stop."

As Oliver Tonneau so beautifully writes: "Two young French Muslims of Arab descent have not assaulted the numerous extreme-right wing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly amalgamate Arabs, Muslims and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism... I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, then you lost precious friends and allies last week."

The comments section underneath this article will no doubt be full of remarks and examples of cartoons which appear to defy this and which seem to to scream "racism!" and honestly, it would take a far longer article than I could write here (or you would care to read of mine) to go through every single cartoon, analyse it, explain the context, the news item behind it, the cultural context, the nuances and history of French humour, satire and cartoons (which were used up to 400 years ago to mock religion, royalty and other powerful and oppressive institutions in a time when many people couldn't read and cartoons were essential in the fight against monarchy and the church).

Only then after all that might we appreciate that the cartoon depicting France's black Justice minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey was actually lampooning the blatant racism of a far right wing paper's front cover and thus exposing the thinly veiled racism of that publication (note that Taubira sued the paper Charlie Hebdo were parodying, and not Charlie Hebdo). By depicting the world through the lens of the extreme right's gaze they were attacking the racists, not the race.

We might also understand that the now widely shared front cover titled "Boko Haram Sex Slaves are angry" with the women shouting "don't touch our welfare" says the exact opposite of what it first appears at first glance. As Max Fisher explains in Vox this week far better than I could, "Charie Hebdo is a leftist magazine that supports welfare programs, but the French political right tends to oppose welfare programs... what this cover actually says is that the French political right is so monstrous when it comes to welfare for immigrants that they would have you believe that even Nigerian migrants escaping from Boko Haram sexual slavery are just here to steal welfare."

And we may appreciate that the very controversial cartoon of Mohammed being filmed naked titled "The film that embraces the Muslim world:" wasn't merely for the sake of putting him in a lewd position - it is a parody of a Brigitte Bardot scene in Jean-Luc Goddard's film Contempt thus satirising the outrage following the release of a controversial film about Islam.

Perhaps knowing all this and more you (or even I) may still find these and other cartoons extremely offensive (or worse) .

It's your right to feel that way, and to say as much as loudly as you like (and in doing so even to offend others). Freedom of speech means that some things people say and do are bound to offend you and vice versa. That's ok. As (a personal hero of mine) Majid Nawaz says you have every right to be offended, you do not have the right to not be offended. 

Of course, freedom of speech is not absolute, no one sane would suggest it is. The laws of the land lay out what is and is not permissible. Defamation, incitement of violence and hate speech are just a few examples of where what you say crosses a line. But in France, religion is fair game.

Incitement of violence against Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists etc is not ok (or legal). But criticism and mockery of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or atheism and the ideas they represent is. People have rights. Ideas do not. And the law is there to punish those who cross that line.

If anyone genuinely felt that the Charlie Hebdo crossed that very line then they had the option to start legal proceedings (as the Catholic church did many times). Fear of being prosecuted is a valid one that journalists, comedians and even cartoonists consider. Fear of losing one's life shouldn't be. The law is there to guide us in what we say, and punish us when we go too far. If you don't feel that the law adequately represents the rights of muslims or anyone else for that matter, or that certain depictions of religious figures in cartoons shouldn't be permissable, you're free to say so, write about it, protest and campaign to change the law. You aren't however free to take the law into your own hands.

The thought that a religion, a set of beliefs, or an idea, could be above criticism or ridicule is, to me, a scary one which could lead us into very dangerous ground. 

Ultimately the line between humour and offence is a thin one, and the posts will move from person to person. It's something satirists and stand up comedians are well aware of. And the boundaries are often pushed. I don't doubt many people would have found the Charlie Hebdo cartoons extremely offensive, and I'm not here to tell you that's wrong, but the insinuation that insulting/offending people may have invited this horrific tragedy on any level is tantamount in my eyes to the old age adage that a rape victim "asked for it" by wearing a short skirt. It's victim blaming at its very worst, and especially against people who fought in many ways for the rights of those who attacked them.

So long as offence remains within the bounds of what is legally acceptable, then it is just that - acceptable - whether you personally like it or not. And until the respective laws change, people are just going to have to like it or lump it (or live in a country where the laws are different).

As we all argue about what's right to say and what's wrong, what's offensive, and what's hypocritical, it might do us good to remember that 17 people died last week in the cruelest of ways. Each was their own person, no doubt differing in their morals, ethics, ideas and thoughts. Let's not call many of them names before they are even cold in the ground, although... of course, it's your right to do so if you like because most of you, like them, have similar freedom of expression. I may not like you insulting them, and you may not like anything that i've said in this article, but as you write your comment in section underneath (perhaps about what a stupid idiot you think I am) just remember that Charlie Hebdo's staff died standing up for your right to do so.