The January 2015 terror attack on the Paris satirical weekly and its gross misinterpretation by people of Left liberal sensibilities in India and much of the world.
We recently witnessed a devastating terror assault by fanatics who gunned down close to 200 children in a school in Peshawar. Was this a desperate cry of the dispossessed in Pakistan? I am glad that the various tiny fractions of the left in Pakistan stood up and condemned it openly, some in India also stood up for the first time. It provoked widespread shock and disdain.
But the terrorist assassination of 12 cartoonists, journalists and workers at Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January 2015 has provoked very different reactions. Geographical location of the murder seems to drive this.
I am utterly astounded and shocked at the manner in which many in the left leaning and liberal circles in India have reacted to the devastating terror attack in Paris. Has a section of left gone mad? Why do they have to deflect a straight forward issue and start providing rationalisation for terror attacks from the Muslim fundamentalists. We are being given an endless spiel on French colonisation, the war for decolonization in Algeria, the exclusion of the so-called Muslim ‘community’ in France, the blowback for France’s foolish involvement in the recent wars in Libya and Syria and so on. The role of poor and dispossessed is being invoked.
Commentators from the anglo saxon world and even our desi left intelligenstsia who are waxing eloquent on the Charlie Hebdo massacre are making the most absurd amalgam between the French establishment and a truly radical far left wing magazine which shared absolutely nothing in common.
Charlie Hebdo is presented as the center of all evil that existed ever and that it had it coming, that their cartoons were racist and hurt sentiments. All this reminds me of 1989 and the Rushdie affair when this hurt sentiment industry made it big and has since become globalised. India’s Picasso, M.F. Hussain, was forced to leave his country by the wrath of the Hindu Far Right, all in the name of hurt sentiments. Many of the same radicals who stood by M.F. Hussain are now shamelessly standing up with free rationalisation for the Charlie Hebdo killers. Why such different treatment for different religio-fundamentalist strands? Were the poor and dispossessed involved in going after M.F. Hussain or in the assassination of M.K. Gandhi? What about the assassination of Salman Tasseer? Poor and oppressed, any takers?
Charlie Hebdo was born in rebellious times of May1968 in France. It had been preceded by other radical magazines like Hara Kiri and Enragé and many others. But they are in many ways part of a lineage of a very long historical tradition dating back to the French revolution and Jacobins of radical caricature making and mocking the powers that be — religious or other — in every sphere of life. The French revolution was the time of incredibly powerful irreverence and it gave birth to a very incisive form of satire and lampooning. Many magazines with satirical drawing accompanying text emerged during this time and have continued since. Later a much softer version of this developed in Britain and elsewhere.
The 1968 generation Charlie Hebdo has had an even more militant libertarian non conformist view of the world, groomed by a radical antipathy to the political power of religious authority, and a deep identification with ideas of the broad left. Pungent depictions the magazine runs are devastatingly funny that poke fun at everything, just every thing that makes for daily life. This vitriolic humour has come to be vital part of French intellectual and popular culture and there is a social acceptance for it. Millions read satirical comics, satirical newspapers, and magazines. Its anti religious politics takes apart the clergy, most of all the nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis, all who represent the high and mighty and, more recently the Dalai Lama, the new cults, and also in the recent times imams, mullahs as gate keepers of religion.
Charile Hebdo has a bawdy, burlesque style of black humour. Not for the weak hearted. In 1970 Charlie Hebdo made fun of Charles de Gaulle, president and leader of the Resistance, on the day of his death, provoking demands from the Right for its ban. The publication ceased in 1981 and was revived in 1991. Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists have faced hundreds of court cases since its creation. But it has continued to strike against powerful capitalists, bureaucratic and religious elites. The many targets of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and journalism have been the far right extremists, police repression, war mongering, the big corporate media, anti immigrant policies, capitalist and employer wrongdoing, the big banks and the stock markets, cuts in public spending and the military industrial complex, the nuclear industry, homophobia, conservative social values, denial of climate change, the food industry, the big pharma etc etc
In the English speaking world, there is practically no tradition of satirical magazines like Charlie Hebdo or say a newspaper like Le Canard Enchainé (A Duck in chains — Canard/Duck is French slang for newspaper) that deploy sardonic cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion pieces as standard fare. The kind of fiercely brutal cartoons that appear in Charlie Hebdo and the like in France have no chance of appearing in Britain, in the United States, Canada, Australia and most of the world. This would pass as obscene bad taste, it is matter of culture as to what is obscene or distasteful. In a country like India, the Charlie style cartoons would be unacceptable to both the left and right and the non ideological and unthinking.
Thanks to the French revolution, there are no blasphemy laws in France (except for Alsace and Moselle regions which joined France after the revolution). But however, France has strict laws on hate speech, on anti Semitism and on holocaust denial, so hateful activity is under the scanner.
Blasphemy or “religious insult” and racism are two different things. But with the rise of identity politics all over the world, there has been a successful push by many to collapse these into a single block that turn’s religious identity into ethnic or racial faultlines. In keeping with this, all of French of North African descent get sweepingly described in the media as Muslims (less than 5% go to mosques, 20% are atheists) or Arabs (vast majority are from Berber origins) and all of the ‘white’ French get labeled as Christian, a huge mistake this — a misnomer for the French. But in this age of easy clichéd (black and white) representation who cares for complexity — just an SMS does the fixing.
The politics of Charlie Hebdo has been progressive as it gets and informed by the new left around the world. They have been anti fascist, pro-abortion, pro-contraception in solidarity with the feminists, they stood up with the anti nuclear movement unlike their own friends on the left. The main anti-racist platform in France, SOS Racisme, teamed up with Charlie for campaigns against anti immigrant policies. They denounced the Right Wing opposition to legalise gay live-in relations. During the 1990’s war in Algeria when there were violent attacks from the fundamentalists on the local media and the artists, writers and cartoonists, many were forced into exile. Charlie Hebdo opened its doors to numerous Algerian journalists and cartoonists in exile. All this goes back in fact because people like Bob Siné (the anarchist celebrity cartoonist from the 1950s and 1960s, Siné one of the oldest cartoonists who worked for Charlie Hebdo magazine till 2008.) faced umpteen law suits for supporting Algeria’s independence movement in the 1950’s.