Since the attack on Charlie Hebdo a few writers have offered to explain the uniquely French context of the magazine. Voltaire and Diderot are invoked, as is the spirit of May ’68. Those who think the cartoons are racist simply do not understand the French political context, the argument goes. Charlie Hebdo follows a distinctly French tradition of anti-clericalism and laïcité, as is evident by its far-left and anti-authoritarian history. While they may appear racist to those outside of France the cartoons in fact lampoon racism. I have explained my own misgivings with Charlie Hebdo in a previous post (also worth reading is this 2013 letter from a former Charlie Hebdo staffer). Here I merely want to see if the enviable history volunteered by those explicating Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons has any bearing on its obvious racism.
Let’s see if the following cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo are racist or, as our interlocutors tell us, uniquely French.
The above cover depicts a scimitar-wielding Arab, presumably Mohammad. While the racist trope of violent Muslims has gained additional currency in Europe and North America during the War on Terror, France has remained a remarkable outlier where these images mean no such thing.
The above is a hilarious depiction of the Rabaa massacre in Egypt. Over 800 supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi were killed by security forces. In exemplary, anti-racist spirit the cartoon reduces the dead to a caricature of their religion and, ignoring centuries old stereotypes of the religion, ingeniously associates it with irrationality and fanaticism. In this it merely follows the example of that paragon of anti-racism and indefatigable opponent of the War on Terror, Christopher Hitchens. The late Hitchens had his own say on the topic, speaking about the American use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan: “If you’re actually certain that you’re hitting only a concentration of enemy troops…then it’s pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.”
The “nine-year-old prostitute” alludes to Muhammad’s wife, Ayesha, and the recurring charge of Muhammad being a paedophile. In 2012 Myriam Francois-Cerrah wrote, “The Islamophobic depiction of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha as motivated by misplaced desire fits within a broader Orientalist depiction of Muhammad as a philanderer.”
The statement is null and void if the artist is French.
Those of us who are not French must be cautious not to view the above cartoons within our political context and our distinct history. Charlie Hebdo cannot be read without the Enlightenment foremost in our minds, a portrait of Voltaire hanging from the wall, while sitting inside a replica of d’Holbach’s salon. Anything less is a victory for the terrorists.