Je Suis Charlie?
Jewlarious cartoonist Keren Keet shares her thoughts on Charlie Hebdo and how her profession that has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight.
You wouldn’t immediately think that cartooning is a particularly dramatic career. As a cartoonist myself, I can confirm, it’s not. In fact, the most excitement I experience in my cartooning is when I find myself hollering at my family to back off so I can meet a deadline.
Are we, as Jews, Charlie Hebdo?
But once again cartoons are at the eye of a worldwide storm. The Paris terror attacks on the acerbically satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were apparently provoked by its irreverent cartoons depicting Muhammed. The subsequent murder of four Jews in a kosher supermarket was allegedly a tragic and extremely distressing offshoot of the Charlie attack.
The phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’, I am Charlie, became the slogan of support for the magazine, and trended on Twitter. (Tellingly, the phrase ‘Je suis Juif’, I am Jewish, tweeted shortly after the attack on the kosher store, did not trend.)
Whilst expressing our deep sympathy and sadness over the killings at Charlie Hebdo, we should consider, ‘qui est Charlie Hebdo’ – who is Charlie Hebdo? and ask ‘nous sommes Charlie Hebdo?’ – are we, as Jews, Charlie Hebdo?
It goes without saying that no sane person would condone the attacks on the magazine. When people feel that published material is unacceptable, they must use legitimate means of protest. Jews have been depicted in grossly offensive cartoons many times – even in the pages of Charlie Hebdo – and how did we respond? We write articles (see my article the Cartoon Scandal here. But how real is the Muslim grievance against the publication? Has Charlie Hebdo overstepped the mark? Where should we stand in this debate about free speech and freedom of the press?
The magazine boldly asserted this enshrined Western right by publishing a cartoon of a tearful Muhammad carrying the ‘Je suis Charlie’ banner on the cover of its first edition following the attacks. The publication’s lawyer, Richard Malka, declared, “We will not give in. The spirit of 'I am Charlie' means the right to blaspheme," and they are certainly true to their word.
Many have questioned the judgment of the decision to once again blatantly caricature Muhammad, and even seem surprised. A brief examination of Charlie’s past quickly proves that it is simply doing what it has always done.
The magazine began as ‘Hara Kiri’ in 1960, the title changing later to ‘Charlie Hebdo’. It was almost immediately dubbed ‘dumb and nasty’ by the French public. It was banned in 1961, 1966 and 1970, each time for the extreme offence it caused. It closed in 1981 but reopened in 1992 and has been at the centre of several scandals since that time. 2006 saw the first controversy over cartoons of Muhammed. In 2008 Charlie cartoonist Siné was dismissed over allegations of anti-Semitism. A fire-bomb attack on the magazine’s offices in 2011 was provoked by another Muhammad cartoon. Similar cartoons predated this barbaric attack.
From this history of bans and controversy, it is clear the magazine is, by definition, provocative, caustic and extremely offensive. It seeks to ridicule in the most outrageous fashion, mercilessly lampooning anyone and everyone. And since it is the voice of the fervently secular sector of France, religion and religious leaders of all faiths are frequent and even favoured victims of its acerbity. In fact, the current issue includes a cartoon of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders greedily carving up the world. In true egalitarian style, everyone is insulted equally.
Given this background, why is anyone surprised at the magazine’s choice of cover for the current edition? In response to the 2011 controversy, then French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asked of the Charlie team ‘Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?’ a question that is even more relevant now. But didn’t he know, and don’t we know now that Charlie Hebdo is not sensible? It is, as always, ‘dumb and nasty’, and revels in it.
Nevertheless, in a free society such as France, is Charlie Hebdo within its rights to be as caustically offensive as it is? A distinction needs to be made between offensive, critical cartoons and those which incite violence. Casting our minds back to Nazi Germany, we can see the paradigm of dangerous cartooning. Hideous depictions of blood thirsty, goblin-like Jews devouring noble Germany, or angelic Christian children, were specifically designed to incite Jew-hatred. Cartoons in the modern Arab press are visually reminiscent and seek similar ends.
Do the Charlie Hebdo Muhammad cartoons fit in to this category? Doubtful. They are satirical comments on current events; Charlie targets anything in the news, why would they treat the subject of Islamists, Islamic State and Jihadist terrorist attacks, so prevalent in current events, differently from anything else? Their cartoons criticise the terrorists and their apparent religious motivations, but they do not suggest that Muslims should be attacked or murdered.
France, as in all Western countries, has laws to prevent the publication of material that incites violence or hatred, regardless of the target group. Freedom of speech does have its limits. But the distinctions are often unclear. Charlie Hebdo has published many disgusting cartoons of Jews and Israelis. But the public is also fully within its rights to protest against that which may be crossing the line from offensive to incitement, and steps are taken to censor that which is deemed unacceptable.
Many Western Muslims feel aggrieved at the portrayal of Muhammad by Charlie Hebdo. Many even feel that it deserved what it got. In a BBC radio interview an anonymous British Muslim said, ‘No one is mourning for [the Charlie victims]’. After the publication of the current edition, the Muslim Council of Britain urged ‘restraint’ in the community, fearing more attacks. Here lies the crucial difference; the violence of the Muslim response, albeit the minority, is not something that other groups offended by cartoons resort to.
Charlie Hebdo confirms its defiance in the face of terrorists by publishing the new Muhammad cartoon on its cover. In contrast, many Western publications refused to reprint the cartoon. Are they being sensitive? Are they executing the judgment Charlie Hebdo has always lacked? Or are they simply frightened? Have the terrorists succeeded in beating the West into submission?
We cannot know for sure, but on a personal level, I can confirm whilst deeply shocked and saddened by the murders of the Charlie staff, I think Charlie Hebdo is not a force for good and ‘Je ne sui pas Charlie’, I am not Charlie. I nonetheless defend its right to comment within the bounds of Western freedom of speech.
I won’t be drawing any cartoons on this topic. Fortunately I can claim that this is not because I am frightened (I am) but simply because it is not my usual subject matter – I prefer depicting busybody Bubbies to bombers. But my mother did command me, in true anxious Jewish mother style, ‘Don’t you dare draw anything about this. That’s the last thing I need!” And to be honest, who can blame her?