Secularism is Not a Western Ideal
As my friends on the Left settle into what I consider a reductive understanding of Charlie Hebdo’s work as racist, Islamaphobic, problematic, whatever – here’s a collection of cartoons by Cabu (one of the assassinated cartoonists) which evidence a more nuanced progressive point of view at that magazine.
The cartoonist Cabu (who drew all of the cartoons shown here) was consistently anti-colonial and anti-imperial in his work, just like the rest of Charlie Hebdo. This character, a French soldier on the cover of a fictional magazine called ‘the pacifist union’ says “France doesn’t have oil, but we do have an army!” The magazine used crude stereotypes and often provoked the sensibilities of readers, often to a problematic extent, but almost always in an attempt to lampoon commonly held beliefs which led to bad policy and intercultural conflict in French society.
Cabu was not shot because of France’s occupation of Algeria, Mali and Syria. He was not shot because of the American-led War on Terror (which France largely bowed out of in 2003, if you’ll remember), Guantanamo, or Abu Graib. He was not shot because French immigration policy, or scarf laws, or the 2nd Crusade.
Cabu was shot in cold blood for committing blasphemy by cartoon, just as his killers said.
The characterization of Hebdo’s work as mostly directed (‘downward’ as they say) toward Islam and as pointlessly insulting avoids the more complicated reality that not every joke is for every person, especially when concerning religion, ethnicity and politics. It’s not the funniest magazine and certainly it used some grotesque stereotypes, but it hardly had a single point of view and was a part of a French tradition of mockery which has a long and problematic history. These distinctions are constant when reviewing satire and speech of any kind and engaging with these differences when the threat at hand is so explicit and so gruesomely vile to me misses the point monumentally.
I will continue to resist arguments that say #JeSuisCharlie is a divisive litmus test meant to alienate Muslims in France and abroad with a false ‘with us or against us’ narrative. It just isn’t true. It isn’t how it’s intended, and it’s infuriating to be told ‘well it doesn’t matter what you mean, it’s how I think you mean it that counts.’ Especially when we’re discussing the bedrock values of a free and liberal, multicultural society. I’m aware of the global power dynamics of terror, and France’s part in the colonization of the Middle East and North Africa, but parsing those dynamics in the face of this attack seems little more than arbitrary to me. They say ‘the stakes aren’t as high for you’ and I disagree. I am a proud blasphemer. If there is not a place for me in progressive politics, then what am I to do? If the future of democratic societies will see a union of conservatives and progressives against popular blasphemy, then I – in all my white cisgendered straight male privilege – will be alone in my revulsion in a world of cowtowing religious apologists, too afraid of violence and criticism to say that God and the charlatans who claim to know his mind have no place in public life. That seems like a pretty high stakes game to me.God is not real. More than that, I contend that your belief in God, and more specifically in CLERGY, is a major problem in the world, even if you are poor or oppressed. I think it’s for your own good that you stop going to church and take the day for yourself, that you keep your tithe, and stop worrying about your daughter’s virginity. This, to me, is the feminist, progressive point of view. But for me to express that, even at the moment when this point of view is being attacked by terrorists and by conservatives everywhere, is apparently to side with imperialists and to lionize ‘Western’ ideals over a more sober, globally inclusive worldview. Well, call me crazy, but I don’t think that secularism and freedom of expression is a ‘Western’ ideal. I believe it is a human right, popularized by the French but hardly invented in Paris.
For once – unlike in the cases of white terrorists like Loughner, Brevik and McVeigh, which were criminally under examined by the Western media for their racist and theological underpinnings – can we address the stated reasons for this attack as narrated by the killers – that Cabu and Charb and the rest were murdered for their blasphemy – and not the supposed global reasons behind every bullet fired and every head removed? These killers made a clear statement, we must make a statement back. The world leaders gathered in Paris this weekend did a pretty good job. I believe progressives need to stand with those around the world when they condemn violent attacks on blasphemy – without also condemning the horrible and ‘racist’ blasphemers as morally equivalent or partially responsible themselves.
We must always examine who is the powerful and who is the powerless in every altercation, to understand the context and background leading up to an event. The cartoonists at Hebdo, despite their race and nationality, were not in my opinion the aggressors or the powerful – the men with guns following a divine authority were the ones with centuries of hegemony on their side. The imams and Islamist politicians who project religious and political authority over the people of Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are not the weak. They employ a patriarchal, unjustified authority over the lives of their followers, one that must be mocked, ridiculed, and eventually dismantled. Not by us. It is the skeptics and the working people of the world who must do this on their own behalf – we cannot enforce secularism any more than the faithful can enforce piety – but we cannot back down from religious authority when it comes bearing arms. That was the stated purpose of these attacks, and I’ll continue to address that message as delivered. My reply is “NON. Dieu n’existe pas. L’Humanité doit faire mieux.”
#JeSuisAhmed and #JeSuisCharlie.
EDIT: Charlie Hebdo has released a preview of it’s first cover following the assassination of most of its staff. It speaks for itself: