Is Charlie Hebdo racist? Or have critics been too quick to condemn it?

France's tragedy demonstrates the deadly danger of false certainty, so let's not be so quick to assume we know best

Published January 11, 2015 9:30PM (EST)

Charb, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Sept. 19, 2012.                 (AP/Michel Euler)
Charb, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Sept. 19, 2012. (AP/Michel Euler)

Cultural dissonance can be a bitch, whether you're trying to sell a Japanese movie called "Laputa" (named for an island in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels") in Latin America (where "la puta" means "the whore") or you're an immigrant figuring out how to live in a different sort of society or even when you're a member of that society, witnessing it go through an epochal change from something familiar into something new.

It's also easy to miss the queasy sensation of cultural dissonance from a distance and to think we can eavesdrop on another society's conversations without missing important cues. Since two gunmen, presumably Islamist extremists, killed 10 staff members of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and two members of the Paris police on Wednesday, foreigners all over the world have expressed their solidarity with the martyred cartoonists and writers by proclaiming "Je suis Charlie." Still others have insisted that while they deplore the killing, they also deplore the newspaper. Writers like Jordan Weissman at Slate and Jacob Canfield at the Hooded Utilitarian have asserted that Charlie Hebdo is racist. Canfield's piece struck enough of a nerve to be shared by such wide-reaching media figures as Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Look at the cartoon cover images used to illustrate Canfield's piece, and he certainly seems to have a point. Charlie Hebdo's humor is coarse, rude and deliberately offensive. (Also, in my opinion, not that clever or funny.) The newspaper made a habit of depicting the prophet Mohammed with a long nose, scraggly beard and turban, along with the bug-eyed distortions typical of all their caricatures. These images sound a deep, disturbing chord in Western hearts and minds, recalling the racist cartoons used by Nazi propagandists and American white supremacists to demonize minority groups and justify violence against them.

Defenders of the publication point out that Charlie Hebdo has satirized pretty much every religion and social group, along with both ends of the political spectrum. This nondenominational rudeness has been their trademark. Others, like the Frenchwoman who blogs at the Tumblr 67 Tardis Street, have retorted "you don't know us," complaining that American commentators have taken Charlie Hebdo cartoons out of context, representing the newspaper's parodies of right-wing racism as depictions of Charlie Hebdo's own ideas and beliefs. "NO ONE," she writes, "I repeat literally NO ONE in France ever considered Charlie Hebdo as racist. We might have considered the drawings tasteless, but NOT racist. For the very simple reason that WE FUCKING KNOW OUR POLITICS."

While that's perhaps a bit too sweeping to be scrupulously true, point taken. A lot gets lost when an image or statement is extracted from its original context and interpreted by an outsider, especially when the image is meant to be humorous; nothing is more dependent on cultural context than a joke. France has a long and ignominious history of racial intolerance, and Charlie Hebdo's cartoons do summon memories of our own culture's similar history. But that doesn't mean that those of us with only a passing knowledge of French culture understand what they mean in France.

Part of the argument against the cartoons is that they caricature Muslims and therefore contribute to discrimination against Muslims in France, people whose rights have been impinged by, among other things, cruel and arbitrary laws against the wearing of headscarves in public schools. However, most of the images that I've seen reproduced so far (and I confess to having never heard of Charlie Hebdo before this tragedy), depict not average French Muslims, but either Mohammed or Islamist extremists. This in itself might be troubling to those Muslims who believe any representation of Mohammed is sacrilegious, but it doesn't necessarily meet the typical Western definition of racism, that is, by implying that all members of the group look and behave alike.

Let's presume for a moment that, while derogatory racial depictions are beyond the pale, it's permissible to mock and criticize a religion. Most Western leftists, recognizing the long history of organized religion as a force for authoritarianism and injustice, would probably agree with that. The notion that a religion should be exempt from ridicule and censure simply because it is a religion, regarded by some with reverence, runs counter to the underlying principles of a liberal democracy. In fact, the right to parody and otherwise question religions and religious institutions is a keystone of such democracies. Islam, therefore, and the Arab prophet who is its embodiment, ought to be fair game for the satirist.

But how then does a cartoonist like the late Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier represent Islam and Mohammed? Is there even a way of caricaturing a Middle-Eastern man of the 6th century that wouldn't strike the eye of, say Jacob Canfield, as racist? Is it just about the nose? Would it be okay if Mohammed were depicted as possessing an idealized, small-nosed visage, unlike anyone else in Charb's wide repertoire of freaks and grotesques, who range from the various popes to Jesus himself, depicted nude and sodomizing his heavenly father? (Personally, I think a pretty Mohammed would have been funnier than Charb's exaggerated semitic caricature, but obviously my tastes are more ironic than Charlie Hebdo's.)

Furthermore, is there any depiction at all of a Middle-eastern man with a beard and turban that would not give offense to such critics? Apparently not, since Canfield also singles out as racist a cartoon by Nate Beeler in which a bearded, turbaned giant labeled "Islamic Extremism" looms over a diminutive, seated artist. So how, then, should Islamic extremism be portrayed in a political cartoon? As some non-human symbol? That's certainly possible, yet it also imposes an extreme constraint on artists attempting to represent acts that are in fact perpetrated by human beings.

Would it be permissible instead to draw the extremist as the perpetrators of such attacks in the West often look -- clean-shaven, with short hair and Western clothing, striving to blend in with ordinary citizens? In that case, the caricatured extremist might look a lot like Ahmed Merabet, the French Muslim policeman who responded to the call for help from Charlie Hebdo's offices and was murdered in cold blood, as he lay wounded and pleading for his life on a Paris sidewalk, by a man claiming to champion his religion. If you wish to underline the point that Merabet's killer is not representative of the vast majority of French Muslims -- law-abiding people who are appalled by Wednesday's violence -- then that would be a big mistake.

It is surely true that the publication of a disrespectful caricature of Mohammed makes some if not most French Muslims feel terrible, but it's not clear how many of those who feel targeted experience this as a matter of race or immigration status rather than religion. For whatever it's worth, a statement sent to the Intercept by a source within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula expressed the motivation for the crime as a defense of Islam's honor, not a blow struck against racism. They speak a different language from both their French critics and the Westerners who object to how they're portrayed, a language invested in knee-jerk deference to religious authority.

For their part, some French Muslim immigrants undergo their own form of culture shock adjusting to a society where faith is not automatically treated with reverence. Yet, as the writer Kenan Malik recently pointed out, most of the victims of Muslim extremism and most of the victims of Muslim regimes who prosecute blasphemy and other speech crimes are themselves Muslims. "What is really racist is the idea only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or demolish its pretensions or can handle satire and ridicule," he writes.

Malik (who is always worth reading), also observes that change is disturbing: "To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged." While French Muslims may not be in a position of power relative to the white French establishment, Islam has, like all organized religions, an authoritarian element. Muslims have power over other Muslims: not just in nations where the faith is the state religion, but within religious communities in the West.

The leaders of religious communities don't necessarily speak for all their members, either. William Donohue, of the Catholic League, claims that Charlie Hebdo's satires have wronged Catholics, but as someone raised in that particular authoritarian faith, I can attest that when I was young, rude parodies of the religious figures I had been taught to respect (specifically in Mad magazine) gave me the nerve to challenge their right to tell me how to live my life. It might suit Western leftists' sensibilities if the only people allowed to mock or criticize Islam in our countries were other Muslims, but it simply isn't true that rebels and innovators only learn to challenge orthodoxies from people just like themselves. Or from people just like us.

It's hard for me to see how Charlie Hebdo's cartoons might inspire meaningful questioning of religious authority, but then again I also can't for the life of me understand what people see in the Beat poets. That doesn't mean that crass satire and bad poetry can't have profound and positive effects on human lives -- in addition to being forms of expression that absolutely must be protected in a free society whether or not they do. Part of that freedom is, in turn, the right to criticize those expressions if they seem to perpetrate stereotypes and other forms of injustice. Racial stereotypes can be savagely pernicious. But a censure of racial stereotypes that tacitly insists that certain figures ought to remain exempt from parody is in its own way just as perilous.

I don't know if it's possible to make a caricature of Mohammed or of Islamist extremism that would be acceptable to those who condemn Charlie Hebdo as racist, although I'm fairly sure that both should be open to such ridicule. I don't really know how the racial politics of Charlie Hebdo have been understood in France, but I suspect that Weissman and Canfield don't either.

I do know that France's citizens have to sort out a way to live together in which everyone enjoys civil and human rights and no one has to fear being slaughtered for their beliefs or their art. They're going to have to find a common ground between the longstanding secular ideal of free speech and the newcomers' desire to see their religion treated with respect. It's the sort of problem all multicultural societies need to solve. It's not going to be simple or easy, and it certainly isn't going to be made any easier by the imposition of false certainties based on insufficient knowledge or appreciation of life's complexity -- because when, really, has that ever worked? But maybe, if we're all lucky, they'll end up teaching us a thing or two.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Charlie Hebdo France Islam Media Criticism Racism Terrorism