ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Misreading Charlie Hebdo

Where Critics Went Wrong with the ‘Muslim’ Question

Charlie Hebdo’s critics have got one thing wrong – the real target of such terrorist attacks  is not the “Islamophobic” Western establishment, it is the Muslim heretic who wants to defy the cleric and redefine her/his identity. 

The carnage in France on 7 January in which 17 people including cartoonists of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were gunned down by alleged Islamic fundamentalists has drawn widespread outrage. A cartoon of Prophet Mohammed published by the magazine reportedly earned them the wrath of the Islamists.  Condemnation of the violence has been unequivocal. The massacre has also led to a large number of people from diverse sections of society and from different parts of the world participating in an internet campaign. The “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) hashtag has become one of the most popular in the history of Twitter as people around the world showed solidarity for victims of the massacre.  

The carnage has drawn Albert Uderzo, the octogenarian creator of the comic series Asterix, out of retirement. The 87-year-old artist announced his solidarity with fellow cartoonists by drawing a cartoon featuring his hero punching an assailant in the air and shouting, “Moi aussi je suis un Charlie” (I am Charlie too).

Not all who condemned the attack, however, have stood in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Those refusing to stand with Charlie Hebdo have criticised the magazine for being xenophobic and racist even if they have categorically said that they believe in freedom of speech. The critics include the acclaimed cartoonist Joe Sacco.

Is Slandering Religion Racism?

But why should slandering religion, however tastelessly, attract the charge of racism? Classically racism means demeaning a group or an entire community. Racism targets human beings not their ideas or belief systems. It might be apt to call someone a running dog of capitalism for criticising Marxism, but the criticism would never invite the charge of racism. Why then have Charlie Hebdo’s critics attacked the magazine for racism?

Hebdo’s supporters have sprung to its defence by arguing that the magazine has been irreverent across the board and has lampooned the French authorities, the French ultranationalists and the Pope as well.  The critics have responded by arguing that indiscriminate irreverence does not absolve Charlie Hebdo. In a powerful and significant piece, one commentator argued, “To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless”. Carefree lampooning can hurt and the marginalised should not be painted with the same brush as presidents and popes.  In a healthy corrective to the “If you are not with me, you are with the enemy” stance of some of Charlie Hebdo’s supporters, this critic argued, “I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate.” Another critic pointed out the illustration aims to provoke “France’s incredibly marginalised often attacked Muslim community”.     

These are significant responses: though they do not directly offer reasons for charging Hebdo with racism, they offer insights into an intellectually and politically persuasive group. There is something seductively humane about speaking for a marginalised community. But even seemingly humane voices should not be above interrogation, especially when they levy charge of racism. We must find the manner in which the critics of Hebdo speak for the marginalised. There is something disquieting here. The magazine’s critics rightly take on Western commentators for homogenising Muslims, but their perception of a community prone to get hurt by any criticism isn’t far removed from the stereotypes they rail against. They discount that the ordinary Muslim in France — and elsewhere — could be indifferent to Hebdo’s drawings. Such criticism does not consider that there could be heretics within the community who might want to critically engage with the Hebdo’s cartoons or even appreciate them. It discounts the fact that there could be other people who want to draw cartoons about Islam (not necessarily Charlie Hebdo style) or mock facets of it but are constrained to do so.

Islam As a Monolith

By depicting a community as a monolith, Charlie Hebdo’s critics serve up a patronising view that fits in the agenda of imperialism. It is pernicious in another, and arguably more dangerous, respect. To understand that we have to go back to an often reiterated chapter of contemporary history. It is now well known that with the demise of the Soviet Union relegated to a thing of the past, US imperialism, and its Western allies,  found a new enemy to keep its war machinery in service. Radical Islamists, its allies in the past, were now up for vilification. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in the US provided popular support for such demonisation. But it wasn’t enough to stop at this. All Muslims had to be somehow shown bursting with religious zeal. The Muslim had to be described as part of an Islamic brotherhood in contrast to a Westerner who professed multiple identities: a man, a woman, a citizen, a professional and so on.

What in the past were regionally and culturally-specific issues has now acquired an umbrella Islamic affiliation. The Palestinian question, the Kashmir issue, the Bosnian crisis, the question of immigrants in many parts of the West came to be seen in light of an overarching Islamist dimension.

While Western imperialism has been at the forefront of projecting an Islamic monolith shorn of geographical, national, cultural, economic and political differences, its critics — including those in the Left — have been no less culpable. The latter does at times question the notion of a monolith  only to reinforce it with a stress on a multiculturalism that privileges the religious identity of Muslims over others. A section of Charlie Hebdo’s critics belong to a tribe that accepts the idea of an Islamic brotherhood, at least implicitly so, if only to show that the brotherhood is under threat. For them, questioning power equations within Muslims must remain suspended till the so-called Islamic brotherhood remains threatened by the West ceases. Sections of the Left, largely in the West, but unfortunately increasingly with support in the Third World as well, today find it politically correct to ignore class, gender, cultural and ideological differences amongst Muslims. The Muslim French girls’ desire to shun the veil must be sacrificed at the altar of a multiculturalism which privileges a clerical interpretation of Islam. This multiculturalism also forecloses the possibility of Muslim immigrant communities seeking common cause with other immigrant communities.

Charlie Hedbo’s critics are right in drawing attention to the exploitation of the immigrant Muslims. Their criticisms are salutary in reminding us that French prisons brim with Muslim men and women. But they offer no evidence to suggest that this embattled community draws on Islam for sustenance.

The lack of evidence, however, does not foreclose the possibility. Studies on other immigrant communities have shown that they find diverse ways to fight their battle. Religion could indeed be one of them. Having said that there are several examples of disastrous consequences of  communities using religious networks to fight their political and social battles.

The more than thousand-year-old aspiration for an Islamic brotherhood which had in the past been defeated by geographical, cultural, linguistic, national and ideological barriers might well have found a new lease amongst embattled Muslim communities in the West and elsewhere. Sections of the Left see this as a battle against imperialism. While they might criticise episodes such as the one involving Charlie Hebdo, some of their alliances with fundamentalist regimes such as those in Iran makes them turn a blind eye to progressive and heretic groups who suffer under such regimes.


The Left has got it wrong here. Radical Islam will hurt societies in the West only episodically, such as the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But the real targets of such attacks are heretic groups within Muslim societies: the girl who does not want the veil, the immigrant who might want to lampoon, the teacher who might want to question the cleric, the musician who might cock-a-snook at puritan strictures, young people who might want to marry outside religion. There was a time when such heretics found an ally in the Left. They drew on it for moral and political support. But a section today has deserted them. The critics of Charlie Hebdo seem to be one of them. 

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