It is 1931 and Le Rire has published a satirical image of a furious-looking ‘savage’ from the L’Exposition Coloniale. The man, scowling at the viewer, is a Black man; a colonial possession from Guinée française. This publication takes place in Paris and the cartoonist is Albert Dubout. Born in Marseille, Dubout is a reputed illustrator and sculptor. His journey into fine art commences with humor, and his artistic endeavors are published in L’écho des étudiants. Like Charlie Hebdo’s publication, he catapults his sense of biting humor at everyone but most particularly, the wrath of his wit – in the era of freak shows and human zoos (and the accompanying horrors of colonial expeditions) held in Chicago, London, Paris, Hamburg, Barcelona, Brussels, Johannesburg and St. Louis – is centered viciously on those who stand helplessly inside the cages instead of the awestruck white viewers outside the bars.
The savage, for Dubout, is the prime target for satire. His mannerisms, complexion, anatomy, displacement but most significantly, his rage is laughable. He is the Other that inspires, partially in fascination and partially in pure contempt for cultural difference and subsequently perceived inferiority, the inspiration for a sense of humor that registers itself as amusing among only those who are not the butt of this joke. His culture, socialization, what he holds precious to his heart – everything – is merely fodder for the next day’s cartoons. If we were to meet him down the road today, Dubout – like his contemporary peers – would insist that the satire had a context, a thoughtful message for civil society to ruminate over, and that his art was not racially-motivated malice at all but “fearless criticism and observation” of an equal “everyone.” Dubout and his modern-day companions forget that “everyone” does not include the Other. A reversal of dynamics: Place the white French body inside the cage and the exotic savage outside; it is no longer satire. Illustrate the white French body as lesser and it is no longer comical. It becomes something else: It is rebellion, and rebellion from the beur, the nègre, the captive is unacceptable. It showcases two inherent contradictions of the claim “everyone can do satire” and “everyone has a right to free speech.” Firstly, it exposes France’s racial hierarchy right away, a deeply embedded component of France’s yesterday and today. Secondly, it unmasks the inconsistency in the liberal claim that free speech is universal and equal. If satire means criticizing menacing institutions and social attitudes, Dubout would create caricatures of white audiences buying tickets for human exhibits or French colonizers in the colonies. If free speech is a human right, L’Exposition Coloniale would never showcase enslaved and silenced human beings to impress around 33 million French citizens in Bois de Vincennes, over six months.
L’Exposition Coloniale would never exist.
The Other is incorporated narratively and discursively. It is through speech, art, music, literature, poetry, social gestures, caricatures, and satire – constant discourse – that the Other is simultaneously arranged (against his will) and quartered (again, against his will) by the dominant society’s understanding for its own convenience that is passionately guided by an ill-conceived logic wishing to neutralize the uncivilized threat it assumes the Other poses to them and their civilized values. But the power of such ‘satire’ is unique: As opposed to ‘scientific’ knowledge that Western Europe produced to justify the superiority of its race and the necessity of its imperial expansion, such ‘satire’ added callous amusement to the rationalizing of colonial violence. Through the dominant culture’s created satire, everything that is valuable – culturally and religiously – to the incapacitated Other, is defiled – be it his one God or many Gods or no Gods at all, hymns and canticles, symbols that offer him respite and hope.
Nothing, he is informed, is sacred. But if he dares to apply the same belief of no-sacred-belief to the Master, he is asking for punishment. He forgets that the Master, while claiming nothing is sacred, hypocritically holds many myths sacred to his heart: The myth of European superiority, the myth of White innocence, the myth of irredeemable Blackness and Brownness, the myth of Western provenance of freedom and egalitarianism, and the myth that the Savage represents the sheer “incompatibility” between the West and the rest. The Master, the Other realizes just like himself, is as invested as he is in multiple revered convictions. It just so happens that the Master can guard his and the Other cannot due to a simple equation involving the relentless subtraction of the colonized’s biopolitical power.
That was 1931. Since then, little has changed.
Conventional French intellectual thought still characterizes its immigrants, especially its Muslim immigrants, in colonial patterns; as too ‘different’ and thus backward and inferior to be part of French social fabric. Although human zoos no longer exist in 2014, the cages, cells and dehumanization remain. Muslims in France, predominantly hailing from previously the colonized West and North Africa, make up 12% of the population but constitute 60% to 70% of inmates in the French prison system. Instead of analyzing their financial difficulties as products of France’s failure to integrate its minorities and shield them from racism and exclusion, the delinquency is interpreted as innate to the cultures and religions of immigrants. The onus of integrating into society falls squarely on the excluded, instead of being shared by governing and the governed.
For a country that prides itself on its equality, France has yet to devise a solution for the endemic imbalance in its legal system, particularly its prisons where there are only 100 Muslim clerics for France’s 200 prisons, as opposed to 480 Catholic, 250 Protestant and 50 Jewish chaplains. In addition to this, antithetical to the liberal philosophy of treating social ills with social solutions, France analyzes its Muslim prison problem in sheer political terms. i.e. Islam being the origin of all societal decay. Endemic poverty, racism and perennial stigma are far less important than radical Islam – the purported root of all evil. The extremist is indoctrinated by radical Islam on a Monday and decides to go on a shooting spree on Thursday. French political pathologizing of the issue is merely reductionist, to say the least: It is as if Islam produces itself out of thin air, attacks harmless human beings (harmless and only mourned if they are white and Western) and then neatly folds itself up and vanishes for the time being.
Believe me: I hate comparisons, too. But comparisons allow us to highlight the underlying disjunctions and hypocrisies of dominant societies; that which occurs within and around them; and the (mis)comprehension they are given by the ideologies they put their faith in. Comparisons allow us to move away from black and white analysis of grey and muddied issues. Above all, comparisons provide us much-needed context. Comparisons do not, in this case, mean to excuse heinous loss of life whether that of those killed in the Hebdo shootings or, for that matter lest we forget as most sadly do, the French Muslim woman who miscarried her baby after being repeatedly kicked in the stomach by two French men or those attacked by White skinheads in Lyon, who are out to ‘punish’ those who ‘appear Muslim’ or those fifteen Muslim places of worship attacked after the shootings or the young French Muslim teen who attempted suicide by jumping from the fourth floor of her apartment complex after being assaulted by skinheads for her hijab. Or more.
In addition to carrying the crushing weight of their own dead unacknowledged or (worse) justified by the West, Muslims are demanded to carry the psychological mass and guilt of others’ dead as well by mere association with Islam. And while mourning in solidarity is an endlessly powerful political action that provides immense room for compassion and commitment to better and more stable life and less destruction, this mourning in solidarity never occurs for Muslims. In fact, there is no mourning. The specter of Islam erected in the Western imagination is such that it forces the Muslim Other into a political position of simultaneously being part of a gigantic monolithic community and suddenly no-community at all. It is emotionally taxing but more significantly, it confuses and as we have seen before, confusion – once appropriated – often radicalizes. Context does not excuse what The Kouachi Brothers did. But context provides us the information we need to understand the downward spiral of two siblings. In what appears to be a regular Western thinking pattern – an amnesia of a political kind – the radicalization that the two brothers underwent had little to do with divine Islamic revelation overnight and more to do with the material conditions they found themselves locked within. This includes the Iraq war and torture at Abu Ghraib.
As we bury our dead and instantaneously forgotten in the ground along with those who, too, wanted free speech (take, for example, the 2,332 killed in 2012 alone), we worry if we should apologize for incoming allegation A, B or C. We worry if we should apologize for our dead or not dying fast enough, as the #KillAllMuslims tag suggests. When a shooting occurs or a blast goes off, we nervously scan for skin that resembles ours, accents that inflect as ours do, mannerisms that look un-Western, names that could belong to our sons and fathers, brothers and husbands, friends and colleagues, and we preemptively raise our hands above our heads to provide our status of no complicity. We count our apologies before we can count our own dead. There is no Je Suis Yemen or in more domestic terms, no Je Suis NAACP. There is no Je Suis Muslim for every 30 Muslims killed for one American. We condemn, although it isn’t heard. At least not by the likes of Maher or Murdoch or others. It’s tricky and a little funny in a sad way: Organizing political action against extremism is viewed as suspicious under a State that executes surveillance on Muslim organizations, companies and communities. The paradox isn’t fun to live in. It also isn’t fun to know that when Anders Behring Breivik executed 77 innocent people in the summer of 2011, no anchor on CNN or Fox News, no politician of any party, no hashtag on any social media network demanded that Christians provide collective condemnation and apology to prove they are not fundamentalists. Above all, there was no invocation of Us versus Them. No civilizational discourse that posited Christians as diseased monsters that needed immediate intervention.
The perils of such a totalitarian narrative come the right and the left, the secular and the religious and others: “Today, the dangers of this totalitarian vision can come from many and unexpected sides. It comes from the far-right, which warns us that all Muslims are dangerous and cannot be trusted. It comes from the jihadists, who tell us that Muslims are Muslims and Muslims only, necessarily engaged in a struggle against the rest of the world. The trap here is the binary, the inescapable colonizer/colonized, white/black, collaboration/resistance. In this narrowing of politics, we would either have to be “for” or “against” Charlie Hebdo. In other words, we must vehemently resist seeing this as an antagonism between France and “its Arabs,” or between colonizer and colonized. In the current era of geopolitical tension, from Ottawa to Damascus to Sydney to Algeria, there is no West or East, nowhere to run to, no borders, or barricades that offer protection from terrorism or surveillance.”
But let us return to satire.
All art has context.
There is no such thing as apolitical art. All artistic production – directly and indirectly – is activated by the social and political mobilities and immobilities, deadlocks and solutions, joys and fears of its epoch. And the underbelly roars louder than that above the ground. As we draw what we view evil or plain absurd and mockable in our comprehension, art has the genuis and nimble quality of exposing the cruelties and absurdities wallowing within us as well. The pen speaks for but also of us at both times. Art also demonstrates the hierarchies in our societies based on race, gender, class, geopolitical placement and belonging. Satire – ‘left-leaning’ satire – is supposed to be designed and articulated in such a way that it takes ownership of a taboo idea against bourgeois sensibility and morality. In France’s case, viewing immigrants – particularly Black and Brown immigrants of faiths that the State perpetually distrusts – as human beings who are entitled to the same respect and confidence locals have, is taboo.
Satire would have been mocking the French society and government’s irrational fear of these men and women and children. It would have been taking jabs at the State’s implemented laws to curtail freedom of expression, which – we forget – includes the freedom to wear one’s faith on their body just as it includes organizing public assemblages rallying in favor of a cause for the obliterated, the oppressed. It would have been ridiculing the ages-old xenophobia in French demeanor. It would have been insulting the commonplace and systemic prejudice non-white French citizens and immigrants face on a quotidian basis. It would have been lambasting the colonial attitude that plagues France’s political psyche even today. Satire would have been a demand to unlearn these lethal concepts of Us versus Them. Instead Hebdo in 2014, like Dubout in 1931, lost its opportunity to subvert hegemony – the radical ambition of satire – by aiming the acrimony of its art at the scorned underclasses. It did the opposite of undoing the nonsensical judgments of the powerful: It reinforced the established revulsion for the Other and polarized a society in uglier and more rancorous binaries and dichotomies that do no one well, least of all journalists who become morsels in tragic massacres.
Satire ceases to be satire when it begins to disparage the dispossessed’s sacred. Sacred, in this context, is not because the Gods of these Muslims and Jews amplified their divine potency overnight but because, to the marginalized, faith is all they have in such extreme alienation. Satire is satire when it speaks truth to power and offends those in positions of privilege. But who does satire offend when we ourselves are powerful? Satire becomes something else, something far more sinister when it fails to criticize the disciplinary apparatuses of society and embarks on a witch-hunt for society’s members that already are punished and constantly watched.
The malaise of Charlie Hebdo is not in the extremely racist depictions of Muslims as large-nosed pedophilic Arabs surrounded by flies, perforated by bullets passing through the Quran or Black women as welfare queens or a Black politician as a primate or Jewish people in the most vilifying anti-Semitic tropes or other highly homophobic and sexist depictions of other figures but in Hebdo itself. It is indeed true that Hebdo lampooned everyone and everything (including the Holocaust) in the attitude that nothing is sacred but its focus fell squarely on those living on the bare margins of society. For those situated on the razor sharp ends of a nation that refuses to accept them for their Otherness (a construct enforced upon them against their will) and in a global spectrum and discourse that posits them as criminals par nature, religion becomes exponentially sensitive – and prone to injury, as Saba Mahmood said – because of the incommensurable schism erected between them and secular affect. The malaise is in creating art that waltzes dangerously close to political militaristic notions of Muslims in France.
Don’t get me wrong: Satire should be at the expense of others, always. But it is extremely vital for any aspiring artist to remember the nature of the ‘others’ targeted. If the others include the demonized Other, it is not satire. It is the popular imagination of a paranoid public illustrated on paper. In Hebdo’s instance, the ‘satire’ affirmed the violence the French State deployed on Muslim bodies. Unlike the audience of competent satire that becomes a progressive ally for the underclass, satire of reactionary and fascist nature creates a cannibalistic audience that feeds on the misery of the poor and the pulverized. I draw, too. It would become extremely callous of me, as a Pakistani, to draw caricatures of what is dearest to, say, persecuted and powerless Ahmadis and Christians in Pakistan as an attempt to practice free speech.
With every passing day, it is evident that there is an ill-conceived interpretation – particularly in the West – that understands free speech as the right to hurt everyone. Often, free speech is more about the power-play of identities, privileges and social portability than it is about the religious and the secular. Time and again, we learn that free speech isn’t so free as we would like to think it is. Arthur Asseraf sheds light on the historical context of free speech in France: “France’s iconic law on the freedom of the press passed on 29 July 1881, still enforced today, was designed in part to exclude the Republic’s Muslim subjects.” Just like human rights and the commemoration of the dead become sites of contest and competition for what is mournable and what isn’t, free speech is also a biopolitical luxury allotted to the upper class. To give an example: Take the case of the Black American rapper Brandon Duncan faces life in prison for album lyrics. That’s right. Or in France’s case, less spoken of for reasons we are familiar with, a rapper was jailed for insulting France. Props to no one for guessing the race here.
Does this context justify the killings? No.
Is context necessary? Always.
Does this understanding of France’s history trivialize the massacre? No.
Is it possible to condemn killings while critiquing dominant and racist ideologies? Absolutely. I can denounce the shootings without supporting a racist publication’s content. It is, in the very same vein of freedom of expression, my right to do so.
Am I, as a Muslim woman, saddened by these deaths? Yes. Even more so as now I, in my individual capacity, must carry out damage control by telling people – high on media-propelled fear and hatred – that the theological debate on whether we can or cannot draw the Prophet is not as straightforward as you think it is. That, yes, we too have a beautiful tradition of drawing the Prophet in sometimes gentle and sometimes striking colors and situations in miniatures, and that our relationship with such an art goes as far into history as the 1700s. That, yes, we too have contemporary political cartoonists who produce brilliantly shrewd satire in Muslim-majority countries – please explore the works of those in South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, North and East Africa. Take a look at Sabir Nazar’s work. But all of this is lost on a Western public that continues to seek individual apologies from a 1.6 billion population. Someone has grown so fatigued with this expectation that they have used humor to allay the burden. They came up with an app.
Does this provide a background for white France’s convoluted relationship with free speech and satire? Yes.
Does it tell us that, in an audience, there will be those who will not laugh? Yes.
In the face of good and righteous satire, the powerful does not laugh. The powerful feels threatened by the deployment of wit for the cause of equality and social advancement; the powerful feels cornered. In the face of bigotry masquerading as free speech and satire, the underclass does not laugh. There is no laughter for a simple reason: The relentless subtraction of biopolitical power from the minority allows for little appetite for such reckless humor. One does not laugh simply because such production of images and text reminds him and her of their Otherness, their not-belonging-here-ness, their despised status in a society that refuses – from colonial past to imperial present – to accept them in their beings with their many sacreds. There is no laughter. The Other, like the dominant class, has no wall to feel cornered into. There is no wall because there is no home. In that perilous state-authorized displacement, the Other lives on the edge of society.
And when you inhabit the bare periphery of any nation, it is a little difficult to laugh with the crowd.