It’s hard to find much room for cynicism in the outpourings of solidarity, sympathy and defense of free expression that have emerged following the slaughter of 12 innocent people at the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The crime committed there in the name of religious extremism is one of the most heinous and intolerable anyone can imagine. Nonetheless, there’s an important element to the story that’s missing from most of the discussion, and it has to do with the power dynamic of cultures and the messaging of satire.
At its most effective, satire informs us about the society we live in and ridicules the political powers driving it. It’s unconstrained by, but intimately tied to, a society’s sense of decency and political correctness, if only because it so frequently is designed to lampoon them. For instance, in America, where greed and business are king, one of the most effective tropes in political cartoons for over a century has been the fat cat, highlighting as it does the absurd gluttony of America’s super-rich. That is good satire that leaves a lasting impression on the public consciousness.
Charlie Hebdo has made waves in the international press before for its frequent, borderline racist depictions of Muslims, even in the face of threats from radical jihadists. By many accounts, the magazine is a funny, fearless publication. Their willingness to publish more Mohammad cartoons the week after the atrocity speaks to that. But the question no one has asked – even those who have pointed out the intricacies involved in the case – is maybe the simplest one of all: why?
Muslims account for, at most, 10 percent of the French population. That’s roughly similar to the 12 percent of the U.S. population that claims African lineage. It’s an imperfect analogy, but to so relentlessly select Muslims as the subject of satire would be a bit like MAD Magazine publishing cartoon after cartoon of mammies and sambos. The vast majority of decent people would strongly object to such a practice, and for their troubles MAD may well receive threats from more militant types. Is it their job, then – for the sake of standing up for free speech and refusing to back down to terrorist threats – to continue publishing the offending material?
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, the popular consensus seems to be “yes.” Article after article said the attacks demonstrate just how necessary the satire is. But what happened at Charlie Hebdo isn’t really an oppressive institution stomping on the free speech rights of a courageous publisher. The exact organizational ties, if any, of the jihadists who carried out the attacks are at best unclear. Yemen’s Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility, but it’s hard to know if their boasts are accurate. As horrible as the rampage was, it doesn’t really fit the narrative of oppression it’s been given; it looks more like a beef that one side took way too far.
Consider an alternative example – the mass shootings that have become practically a banality in American society. Not too many cartoonists satirize mass shooters in the way Charlie Hebdo satirizes radical Islam, needling them and intentionally pressing their most sensitive buttons. After Adam Lanza went on his rampage in Newtown, political cartoonists lambasted the NRA and Republican politicians who make guns so easily accessible. But for the most part, they didn’t draw caricatures of mentally unstable, white, young, suburbanite men. Why not?
Many of the critics of Charlie Hebdo have been quick to point out the discrimination and general anti-Islamic sentiment that leaves many French Muslims feeling marginalized. Also, there is the matter of countless millions of Muslims in the Middle East and Africa suffering on the receiving end of Western civilization’s colonial boot, including French campaigns in places like Algeria and, more recently, Mali. None of these crimes justify or rationalize the murder of French satirists, but it does call into question the tastefulness and wisdom of the satire in the first place.
This isn’t to say there’s nothing to satirize about Islam – there’s plenty. For starters, all religions are worthy of the satirists’ ire, and Muslim institutions of power are guilty of all manner of human rights atrocities. The Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Saudi Arabia are only a few of the most serious offenders. Many nations practice explicit xenophobia against non-Muslims, such as Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Sharia Law, actually a code of individual and familial conduct rather than a system of governing a society, allows, if not proscribes, such vile acts as the stoning of a woman who has been raped because in being raped, she committed adultery.
But there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and dozens of nations with majority-Muslim populations. There is a wide variance among nations and individuals in how harshly Sharia Law is interpreted, how empowered women are, how much extremism there is, and so on. Satire, therefore, would be far more effective coming from within Islamic societies. From an outside source, unless done delicately it reads more as propaganda, particularly if the object of the satire is a marginalized minority in the population where the satire is produced. That’s why anti-Nazi Looney Tunes shorts, despite all we know about the extensive evil of the Third Reich, look racist and dated to us now. The very real problem of militant Islam requires a different treatment than Western satirists can provide – they are neither the right source, nor do they speak to the right audience.
Of all the reactions to the Charlie Hebdo killings, few generated more heat than FOX News owner Rupert Murdoch’s tweet, “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” While holding 1.6 billion people responsible for an attack perpetrated by two madmen is ridiculous, Murdoch may accidentally be closer to wisdom than people think. Given the imperial context, Western satire of militant Islam will likely always be regarded with at least some hostility, if not hypocrisy, even by the majority of Muslims who disapprove of extremism in their ranks. The real task is for satire, condemnation and disapproval to swell up from within Muslim societies, as it has in many parts of the world, perhaps most famously symbolized by the young Pakistani feminist and education reformer Malala Yousafzai.
Every living thing on earth is more sacred than Mohammad. This is a humanist, naturalist belief that is essential to continued civilization and is vehemently opposed by Islamic fanatics. That they can make good on their insane threats is a frightening prospect, and we must remain vigilant about combating and taking seriously those who make such threats, but they still don’t really represent a power structure over Western institutions. Crimes of the truly powerful, from bombing campaigns to Wall Street rip-offs, are so massive in scope we wouldn’t know where to begin prosecuting them. That’s what makes satire such a powerful tool – a little humor can rattle a population to oppose its oppressors. Satire should always “punch up,” as they say, rather than down. Charlie Hebdo, in its attack on Muslims, seemingly did not accomplish this. But they damn sure didn’t deserve to die for it.