Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The importance of being (with) Charlie

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

I believe, truly, that nothing is sacred. Nothing should be so sacred as not be mocked. I believe, wholeheartedly that our willingness to worship what we enshrine is a great source of pain and death. Ideologies are not very far from religions. National foundational fictions are as much a birthplace of carnage as religious myths of origins.
Only one thing is sacred to me: human beings…as the measure of everything.
I respect people. I do not much care for their faiths, but I would probably not mock them directly because I do not want to hurt them. However, I cannot refrain from a continuous attack on the pillars of any and all religious beliefs, since they are a true repository of obscurantism, repression and discrimination. I fiercely oppose the political ideologies, parties, and groups that would have the same effect.
I was somewhat surprised at the qualified denunciation of the attacks in Paris against the Charlie Hebdo magazine from some on the right and some religious groups. Yes, there was an outpouring of support for the dead satirists and of condemnation of the murderers, but more than one found a way to say that the satirists’ attacks on the Islamic faith caused their own demise.
Then, it dawned on me. The right found this ultra-liberal, quasi anarchist magazine worthy of censorship. Those cartoonists, with their take no prisoners attitude towards society’s mores, were evil in their intentions. And the people who cannot find enough Arab countries to bomb under the guise of anti-terrorisms were all of the sudden qualifying their condemnation of a senseless terrorist attack conducted by criminals supporting their version of Islam…and of life.
And so it was that I, who am always accused of “supporting terrorism” because I do not approve of bombing innocent people around the world to deliver them and us from the fundamentalist evil, ended up in the camp that condemns Islamic terrorists.
But that’s not so. I have always condemned Islamic terrorists and our support of them when it suits us. I also condemn the Crusades; they are just not as in vogue these days. We also have to be honest: yes, Islam and most religions are peaceful in their soul – because their texts are not exactly a source of calm and understanding, to be sure – but their believers have created plenty of mayhem at their behest. This time, in this historical juncture, it is Islam what they are using.
I have absolutely no problem condemning Israel’s occupation of Gaza. More to the point, I have no qualms about condemning the notion that Israel has some god given right to that land or to Jerusalem on the say so of some religious text. But I digress.
I wasn’t familiar with Charlie Hebdo. I am more of a Le Monde gal, and for up to date French news I still rather go Du côté de chez Swann, À la recherche du temps perdu.
I have now seen many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. They are extreme. They are also of a very clear and ancient French tradition that kept the ensign of liberty of thought alive in the darkest of times, against the Church and the monarchy alike. And then, as now, cartoonists were risking life and limb. We owe, in part, to that tradition of frontal, vulgar, uncompromising, sacrilegious humor the idea that our thoughts and our words cannot be policed. The idea that we are free to be sacrilegious; and free to be offended by other people’s sacrilegious views. We also are free to be offended by others’ pious views, and free to mock them.
We are not free to kill others for their views; or to impose our views on others.
Some kept asking “why were they so nasty towards Islam?” The answer is simple: because some Islamist extremists decided that the rest of us should live by their beliefs. They believe that the Prophet cannot be represented. Notice that it is not merely “cannot be ridiculed,” nor that it would be an excuse, but we could even try to get somewhere. No, he cannot be represented. So, people who do not believe in that and are not even of the Muslim faith cannot represent the Prophet…on pain of death.
Obviously, it is almost a cartoonist’s patriotic duty – if patriotism was worth believing in and not yet another chauvinist concept that divides us – to mock this idea to the end and to defy those extremist with all her might. This desire to duel escalates when the extremists make good on their threats and kill defiant cartoonists, editors, filmmakers, writers, schoolgirls.
What I find offensive in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons is their use of racial tropes against all groups: Arabs, Jews, Blacks. I think those tropes keep stereotypes alive. They also mock feminism. And that’s fine by me, because, unlike being black and a woman, being a feminist is my choice. I also understand that humor is contextual, and that one could miss a cue or two that may salvage the cartoonists from the “racist pig” label. But we live in a global world – one in which France has left sufficient racist wounds to overlook without responsibility – and have little excuse to claim ignorance of the effect of certain tropes.
I find The New Yorker’s article “Unmournable Bodies” an absolute, sane in the midst of pain, and critical must read, that accounts for the whole and its parts. It's not Charlie Hebdo's opinions we cherish, it is its right to express them. We certainly, nonetheless, should show more outrage for the continuous killings of our freedoms, and our applause to our quasi-religious belief in the however murderous goodness of the State.
Western societies are not, even now, the paradise of skepticism and rationalism that they believe themselves to be. The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies. Witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition shaped Europe, and these ideas extended into American history as well and took on American modes, from the breaking of slaves to the censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
We have the right to criticize any and all faiths to no end. We may choose not do it out of nicety and respect, but we have to be able to demonstrate the absurdity of certain beliefs without fearing for our lives. Faith is something one chooses; the same way one chooses a political party. Sadly, fanatics also limit people’s ability to choose their faith.
Yes, I do know that many people are born into a faith they didn’t choose and cannot escape on pain of death. If that’s not religion at its worse, I don’t know what is.  
The fact that these fanatics don’t see that they cannot hold us accountable and faithful their beliefs requires that we throw it at their faces. It is not cowards and ill-intentioned people who do this, but people who actually dare not to be cowered by the threat of intolerants’ violence.
It is not just cartoons. Fanatics have threatened people for writing about their experiences. They have shot girls on their faces for wanting to learn to read. So, if there is any interpretation of a faith supports that, it certainly should be endlessly criticized and mocked.
We have to provoke and showcase without fear the barbarity of those who purport to be defending a religion while crushing the hopes and lives principally of their faith brothers and sisters. Cartoonists make things just plainer, just more in your face. That’s their role. That’s also their right.
Despite what we may think, in the words of Chief Justice Rehnquist, who once got it right:
At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition…of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. Freedom to speak one's mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty...but is also essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.In the world of debate about public affairs many things done with motives that are less than admirable are nonetheless protected by the First Amendment.
Religions, by their nature, are an excellent target for humor and satire because of what they present as a plan for society…and because of the hypocrisy that so often befalls their most fervent leaders. If a few extremists go so far as to issue death warrants to those who disagree with their views, well, of course, they are even more deserving of ridicule.
Last Friday, the young Saudi blogger Raif Badawi received 50 lashes, a down payment on the 1,000 he is bound to receive over the next 20 weeks, for the unspeakable crime of supposedly mocking Islam – convenient, indeed for the Saudi monarchy whose oil we keep buying and whose partnership we seek in the fight against…wait for it…Islamic terrorists.


It is in times like these I wish I could draw. But I can’t. Je ne suis pas Charlie. Je? #JeSuisRaifBadawi or wish I had the courage to be him. 
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