This Barney & Clyde cartoon was published in Washington Post in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings. At the heart of the cartoon, suggested Gene Weingarten, one of the creators of the strip, was ‘the epistemological question asked by Magritte in his famous Ceci n’est pas une pipe painting: Is a representation of a pipe actually a pipe? Who is to define truth? The artists? The viewer? Who is in charge of reality?’
Weingarten saw the questions as directed towards Muslims who find depictions of Muhammad offensive. That may be to misunderstand the character of Muslim anger. But these are questions that could equally be asked of non-Muslim liberals and their response to Charlie Hebdo; liberals such as cartoonist Garry Trudeau, of Doonesbury fame. Last month Trudeau was awarded the prestigious George Polk Career Award. He used his acceptance speech to muse upon Charlie Hebdo and on the ‘red lines’ of satire.
The talk suggests that Trudeau has surprisingly little knowledge of his subject. He appears to think, for instance, that Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who commissioned the ‘Danish cartoons’, is a woman, and that in France, a country that has some of the toughest hate speech laws in Europe, ‘hate speech…is only illegal if it directly incites violence.’
More problematic, though, is his argument that Charlie Hedbo had ‘wandered into the realm of hate speech’, that it was ‘punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority’, that it was responsible for ‘triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died’ and that it would be better had its anti-Islam cartoons not been published. All this raises questions that echo those in the Barney & Clyde cartoon, questions about how a liberal like Trudeau imagines Muslim communities, whom he imagines represents those communities, and what he imagines constitutes free speech and hate speech.
There is a certainly debate to be had about Charlie Hebdo, and about the character of its cartoons. Part of the problem is that many people fail to understand the context of the cartoons; they ignore the fact, for instance, that many of the cartoons they find offensive are actually parodying the claims of the far right, and instead take them at face value as straightforwardly racist caricatures. Whether they are successful as parodies is a legitimate question. There is, however, a certain irony in so many liberals reading the cartoons so literally.
The charge of ‘hate speech’ has constantly been used as a way of silencing artists whose work challenges what some regard as unviolable ideas or beliefs. Critics of Salman Rushdie branded The Satanic Verses as ‘hate speech’. So did Sikh critics of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti. As did many Jewish critics of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children. Trudeau himself was accused of anti-Semitism and of ‘maligning Judaism’ by the Anti-Defamation League for one of his Doonesbury cartoons. It is troubling, then, that he should join this queue of easy condemnation.
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, Trudeau published a Doonesbury strip in which, perhaps tellingly, Muhammad appears only off-page:
But while Muhammad does not actually appear in the cartoon, the implication in it that Muhammad is (both literally and figuratively) a prophet with no clothes might appear to some Muslims as offensive as any pictorial depiction. Is that not, in Trudeau’s mind, ‘attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority’ and crossing a ‘red line’?
I have no problem with the claim that satire is best directed at the powerful, not the powerless (though that should be a moral goal, not a reason for censorship). I do have a problem, however, with the way many people, including Trudeau, understand ‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’. Trudeau, like many liberals, imagines that attacking Islam is the same as attacking Muslims. In fact as I pointed out in my original response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:
What is really racist is the idea that only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or demolish its pretensions or can handle satire and ridicule. Those who claim that it is ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ to mock the Prophet Mohammad, appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. It is here that leftwing ‘anti-racism’ joins hands with rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.
There are, I pointed out,
hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms… What happened in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was viscerally shocking; but in the non-Western world, those who stand up for their rights face such threats every day…
In the same week as Trudeau made his Charlie Hebdo comments, the magazine Artsforum published an article by Beirut-based critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on the response of writers, artists and cartoonists in Muslim-majority countries to the killings. Many were critical of Charlie Hebdo cartoons. But few imagined that they should not have been published. ‘Among artists in Cairo, Beirut, and Istanbul’, Wilson-Goldie wrote, ‘the condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo killings was universal and unequivocal, as was the defense of free speech’:
In a region where intellectuals, journalists, and cartoonists have long been targeted for their work, people slotted the attacks into well-known narratives. The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, known for his withering critique of Arab leaders and the creation of his much-loved character Handala, was assassinated in London in the summer of 1987, shot in the face outside the office of the Kuwaiti newspaper where he worked. In 2011, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, a harsh critic of the Assad regime, was kidnapped and severely beaten; both of his hands were broken. During the Charlie Hebdo vigil in Beirut, people added on to the ‘Je suis Charlie’ hashtag: ‘Je suis Samir Kassir, Je suis Gebran Tueni, Je suis Riad Taha, Je suis Kamel Mroue’.
In confusing criticism of Islam with hatred of Muslims, in assuming that those angered by Charlie Hebdo are in some way representative of Muslim communities, in claiming that Charlie Hebdo had ‘incited’ violence, in suggesting that as ‘hate speech’ the cartoons should not have been published, Trudeau is betraying such artists and cartoonists. Again, as I wrote in my original Charlie Hebdo article:
What nurtures the reactionaries, both within Muslim communities and outside it, is the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within minority communities. On the one hand, this allows Muslim extremists the room to operate. The more that society gives licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. And the more deadly they will become in expressing their outrage. There will always be extremists who respond as the Charlie Hebdo killers did. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious moral legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it unacceptable to give offence.
Liberal pusillanimity also helps nurture anti-Muslim sentiment. It feeds the racist idea that all Muslims are reactionary, that Muslims themselves are the problem, that Muslim immigration should be stemmed, and the Muslim communities should be more harshly policed. It creates the room for organizations such as the Front National to spread its poison.
Let me give the last word, or the last thought, to the Lebanese artist Mazen Kerbaj who, in a response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, brilliantly summed up what is at stake: