For Charlie Hebdo, It Really Was About Freedom of Speech

Cabu: forever young // Image source: France Inter []
Cabu: forever young // Image source: France Inter []

It’s been surreal. The embodiment of French laïcité and free speech, decimated, in one brief moment. The unjust deaths of cartoonists Wolinski (80), Cabu (76), Charb (47), Honoré (73), Tignous (58) and the ‘atypical’ economist Bernard Maris (68) have hit the French public very hard; Wolinski and Cabu having been at the helm of all that is transgressive since the May ’68 Revolution, and whose legacy therefore spans over three generations. Cabu, the perpetually smiling, fleur-aux-dents joker who incarnates that red-nosed, red-cheeked, anarchical joie de vivre so typical of the ageing French left-wing. I have had the privilege to spend a soirée or two with similar post-68 remnants; with their dishevelled grey hair, their Gauloises without filters, rosé and jokes overflowing. Spontaneous singing. Laughter, laughter, all around.

Wolinski and Cabu. // Image source: Paris Match
Wolinski and Cabu. //
Image source: Paris Match

And, only now that Wolinski has died in the most horrendous way possible for being who he was – unapologetically subversive – I came to know his work better and I suddenly understood why most of my friends here in France have such an appetite for erotic humour. It is quite simply part of their cultural make-up, instilled in them by historical figures such as Wolinski. A veritable grandfather of off-beat French humour. When Wolinski was asked what he would like one to do with his ashes when he dies, he answered that he would want his wife to pour them out into the toilet, so that he could admire her behind from down below, every day. Some may call out ‘sexist’; yet his daughter believes that, on the contrary, her father was a feminist.

AutWolinski11_07082008_135500Bref. The people I have come to know and love here in the eastern French town of Besançon where I’ve lived since 2010, are all twenty- to thirty-somethings, and inherently scholars of Cabu and Wolinski. And now I understand even better than before, that, having done away with religion altogether, French society liberated itself in a way that is hard for people having grown up in religious societies to fathom. I can see how my Calvinist heritage and Christian upbringing in post-apartheid South Africa have had me snicker many times before, involuntarily, at what I thought was sometimes a perverted sense of humour chez les Français. The kind of South African schizophrenia about what may or may not be said is too great a topic to get into today, and something which I preoccupy myself with often enough to put aside for one day. Let’s just say that I have been overwhelmed, and at times, concerned, with the ease with which my friends in France utter things that are either politically incorrect taboos or just completely perverse.

Over the past few years, though, a part of me has come to adore this seemingly innate rebellious spirit about the French – if only, perhaps, because their attitude seemed like the acceptable attitude to have: I had rejected religion around the age of 17 or 18, and had developed a thirst for subversion and manifestations of anti-Establishment sentiment through art, music and literature throughout my high school years, when the absurdity of authority and its accompanying character trait of hypocrisy became too much to bear within an Afrikaans high school (one that actively tried to condemn “non-believers” and rock and rollers to hell. Nevermind that there was a revered rugby-playing murderer in our midst, but I’m digressing…).

Despite my appetite for subversion, I would often find myself at odds with the ‘caricatural’ way in which French people I encounter would mock or satirise people of African, Arab or Asian descent. It’s become a daily battle, not knowing when to be openly vexed or to pipe down, aware that any attempt made to underline their (what I identified as) ignorant Euro-centrist whiteness would be scoffed off with a shrugging of the shoulders and a ‘you don’t have a sense of humour’ retort.  ‘Come on, laugh a little.’

Granted, I am not what one would call in French “grande gueule” (big-mouthed) and I probably have piped down far too often for issues that are incredibly close to my heart, all in the name of their worldview and their idea of humour.

I still do not sit comfortably with this. But the attack on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists made me acutely aware of my personal love-hate relationship with France and the French. The news of the event left me speechless and incredibly sad, similar to when someone hurts your family. Young and old have been in tears over the loss of emblematic counter-culture figures like Charb and Cabu. I find it sad that crying over Cabu, Charb et al has been transformed into online media tirades about how the discourse of freedom of speech is the West’s way of asserting their power over things they reject, like Islam. This is sad, too. This is the point. It is all so terribly sad. The whole event is tragic on such a monstrous scale. And there are firm sets of beliefs on either sides; and there are people who are likely going to be unwilling to acknowledge the complexities and ambiguities contained within it all.

Despite the fact that I agree with the assertions made over European values being used to maintain power structures that serve a small elite, I still think my friends have the right to mourn the death of Charlie Hebdo (in light of the anti-#JeSuisCharlie campaigns on social media), and that this should be the focus right now. And I want to be able to say that we are all Charlie, because the magazine, along with its predecessor, the “inane and nasty” Hara Kiri, are to France what Bitterkomix and Voëlvry movement were to some South Africans, perhaps to a lesser degree, but nonetheless…  The few who do revere Anton Kannemeyer’s irreverence can only imagine what it must feel like to actually have a thriving subversive comics scene. In any case, let us not forget that Charlie Hebdo was severely judged, criticised and dragged to court on several occasions. Hara Kiri was banned after mocking the death of former French president and war general, Charles de Gaulle, in 1970.  Not even the ‘father of the nation’ managed to escape unscathed from these bunch. Cabu was a self-declared anti-militarist after forced military service led him to spend a few months stationed in Algeria, during the war. He came back and did Hara Kiri. It just shows how Cabu functioned; serving la patrie was not really his thing, you see…

There is little doubt that the satire to have come from the pages of Charlie Hebdo did not come from a mean-spirited, or ‘evil’ place and that they only sought to poke fun at (whilst criticising) what the editorial team considered to be society’s evils. Religious fundamentalism happened to be one of their main concerns, as much as the rise of the far right in France and their homophobic, islamophobic and xenophobic agenda.

As such, another point I would like to raise is that the perils of religious fundamentalism are one of the reasons France is a secular state in the first place. It is a society that is supposed to be based on universalism. A beautiful idea, in theory, which has more or less worked out well, until now. This is a simplistic way of putting it, since the attack came at a time of political turmoil and confusion alongside a rise of xenophobia and islamophobia, especially in the extreme right’s quarters. One may even evoke a maxim from Animal Farm, with regards to this universalism: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others…’ While we may talk about social inequalities in France and its correlation with islamophobia until we are blue in the face, it is important to assert that the Charlie attackers by no means represent, or contribute to, or aid the French Muslims’ cause by avenging Mohammed in the bloody and fascist manner in which they did. The repercussions of this will be deeply felt by different Muslim citizens and communities all over France. At the moment of writing this, more and more reports are coming in already of Muslim sites like mosques being targeted by islamophobic groups. I hope that France will do its best to protect all its citizens.

If anything, this cultural attack on France will force the country to reflect on the ambivalent nature of its society and would spark new debates about the functioning of multiculturalism within a secular society.

Of course, it has to be said that there is a certain untruth in the claim that Charlie Hebdo dealt with all religions ‘equally’, based upon the mere fact that Muslims are discriminated against in Europe, and that they therefore are not equal to others – not equal to the ‘natifs’, as Michel Houellebecq refers to ‘indigenous’ French people in his latest novel, Submission – because society wants it that way.  But these are ambiguities that Charlie Hebdo also dealt with; the latest publication of Charlie Hebdo criticised Houellebecq’s novel, which many consider to be islamophobic in its fundamentalist depiction of “moderate Muslims.” The novel was released on the same day as the last Charlie publication, and the same day of the attack.

While most of us are aware that we should be careful not to conflate Islam with islamist fundamentalism, so too it is important not to conflate the “Republican value” of free speech with the right to racism. Free speech is a noble value; racism is not. But in France, like in South Africa, there are courts to settle scores. An example would be a former member of the extreme right wing party, the Front National, who compared the French Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, to a monkey (for the sake of context: Taubira is a black woman from French Guyane, and led the campaign for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in France, for which she received a terrible backlash from the extreme right). The party member in question was ordered a prison sentence of nine months. No holds barred in France, yes, but it might get you behind bars if it comes down to character defamation and hate speech…

While negative representations of Africans and Arabs in Europe are disgusting reminders of the continent’s colonial past, it is fairly safe to argue that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did not have any colonialist tendencies of any sort, even if an increase in negative imagery of islamist fundamentalism had been perceived as a ‘caricaturisation’ of Islam (which, fair enough, is a valid argument). I still think it is important to emphasise the Charlie Hebdo team’s disdain for all religions, and therefore their irreverence towards religious taboos, as they were born into a secular state and schooled themselves in satire — the likes of Cabu and Wolinski having helped to forge French subversive humour; and Charb, about thirty years their junior, exercised his right to subvert and satirise religious bigotry until his death, as the editor of Charlie Hebdo.

Some feel that the discourse is being centred on ‘freedom of speech at all costs’ – especially at the cost of Muslims in general. In the online newspaper, the Daily Vox, journalist Asad Ezza wrote:

“If anything, the global media and analysts are only personifying their own internal bias towards Muslims, in what is otherwise known as Islamophobia. Unfortunately, and this is the crux, nothing less than fear, hate and distrust of Muslims lies at the very heart of this knee-jerk discourse, which does nothing to enhance or forward a meaningful discussion.”

I want to agree with the above statement, but I think it goes too far. I do not, for example, think for one second that shock and sadness over the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo editorial team inherently reflects some kind of innate islamophobia. While it is important to point out the ‘knee-jerk discourse’ — especially in order to curb islamophobic attacks — it is equally important to show that this is not the rule, because it might just repress the conversation. I find it absurd that mourning violent acts against free speech is equal to islamophobia. And is it too much to think that most people, surely, would know that terrorism and Islam are two separate things? (Or am I giving mankind too much credit here?)  Similarly, Charlie Hebdo argued that Muslims are free to agree or disagree with the magazine’s publications, and considered it condescending to assume that all French Muslims were not free to laugh at themselves; it is this very paternalistic—and patronising—system of thinking that the satirical weekly sought to bring under scrutiny.

It has been made clear on several occasions, in several interviews with the Charlie Hebdo team, that they were not hateful, racist or islamophobic: their only aim was to rattle the cages of society. One may feel that the only end to this, ultimately, is that the outcry on the part of conservative Muslims over blasphemy and so forth would cast Islam as ‘incompatible’ with a ‘free’, Western society – a discourse, some might argue, Western power structures would want to maintain.

And yet. It cannot be asserted enough that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the victims of this attack, were against all forms of power structures and sought to undermine them all, and did so, in their weekly paper. Unapologetically. This is a very staunch point of view, but one that cannot be refuted: Charb often advocated his right to blasphemy, arguing that he could say or draw what he pleased, since he was an atheist (like a vast majority of modern France) living in a secular society, and was therefore unbridled by blasphemy. It is an attitude to life that few would be brave enough to adopt. It should be noted that Charlie Hebdo had a dwindling readership, precisely because it had always been so left of centre, continuously questioning the status quo.

Charb. Against the grain. // Image source: Paris Match
Charb. Against the grain. // Image source: Paris Match

Honestly, I am having a hard time understanding why people are being berated for their solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims for focusing ‘too much’ on freedom of expression, when the attack was so brutally symbolic.

The editorial team of Charlie Hebdo that were assassinated on Wednesday, 7 January 2015 spent their lives drawing silly pictures showing just how silly power struggles are. So silly, they got shot for it.

Let us hope that Cabu, Wolinski, Charb, Tignous and Honoré did not die in vain.  Let us hope that satire and the world’s ability to criticise itself whilst laughing did not die with them.

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