The Problem With #JeSuisCharlie

By universalising this movement, we miss the specificity of Charlie Hebdo’s satire and its relationship to French politics and culture, and risk making the magazine stand for something it never has.

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In the wake of the armed attack by self-proclaimed Islamic fundamentalists on the headquarters of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which left ten of its staff and two policemen dead, a global solidarity movement has spontaneously emerged across social media, grouped under the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie.

The hashtag translates from the French as “I am Charlie”, and its thrust is pretty straight-forward: after a cowardly act of political violence, our freedom of speech needs to be vigorously defended, and the best way to do this is to propagate the irreverent, satirical message of Charlie Hebdo – to the extent that Index on Censorship have even called for publishers who support freedom of speech to republish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. (Some publishers have refused, for myriad reasons.)

Some specific examples of #JeSuisCharlie in action include Twitter users changing their avatars to images of the prophet Mohammed from the pages of Charlie Hebdo (a move calculated to provoke Muslims, as some adherents argue that Islam forbids pictorial representations of the prophet); the dissemination of cartoonists’ responses to the attack (even mistakenly attributing one response to Banksy, and claiming some that appeared years prior to the attack); and the production of endless think pieces that rehash the clash-of-civilisations, Islam-vs.-the-West’s-freedoms rhetoric with which we have all become depressingly familiar in the years following 9/11.

The core manouevre of #JeSuisCharlie is that of universalisation: today, this spontaneous movement says, we are all Charlie Hebdo. As a corollary, this one, specific event is not to be understood in its specificity, but as a synecdoche for broader issues: the confrontation between the liberal West and Islamic fundamentalism, the tension between freedom of the press and freedom of religion, or the necessity of restating classically liberal values in the face of terrorism.

The #JeSuisCharlie movement is correct to an extent: the very fact that this attack has garnered so much media attention outside of France indicates that it taps into a tangle of hot-button issues that currently cause concern across the Western world. But in its move towards universalisation, the #JeSuisCharlie movement elides much of the specificity of Charlie Hebdo’s satire and its relationship to French politics and French multiculturalism – all of which are without parallel in the political and cultural Anglosphere of the UK, the US, and Australia.

The differences between France and the English-speaking West are much deeper than the language (or the stereotypical skinny loaves of bread and pungent cheeses), and in the light of those differences we should pause before affirming that nous sommes tous Charlie Hebdo.

The untranslatability of Charlie Hebdo’s humour: Is it racist, or what?

This may sound so obvious as to be almost redundant, but it bears repeating: Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine, therefore its satire doesn’t make much sense outside of the French context.

Take, for example, the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s issue of December 17 of last year (above), which depicts the parents of Front National politician Florian Philippot reading the French tabloid Closer. The headline translates as “Philippot’s parents shocked”, and the speech bubble as “We didn’t know he was extreme right”. The gag only makes sense if you know that Philippot was recently involved in a scandal on the pages of Closer when he was photographed with a secret gay partner (who has since confirmed that he and Philippot are dating).

But more than requiring a knowledge of the latest French political scandals, the Charlie Hebdo cover requires you to share their worldview: one where homosexuality is normalised, and membership in a far-right party such as Front National is scandalous. In fact, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial position is (or was) consistently left-wing – left-wing, that is, within the world of French politics.

This statement might be hard to square with what some have characterised as the overt racism of Charlie Hebdo’s imagery. For example, Charlie Hebdo published a caricature of the French Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira – who happens to be black – as a monkey.

The kind of imagery above would be completely beyond the pale of political discourse in the Anglophone world, and for good reason. So why was it used by Charlie Hebdo? The accompanying caption offers a clue: Rassemblement bleue raciste, a pun on the name of Rassemblement bleu Marine, a political coalition set up by far-right politician Marine Le Pen – who recently called the left-wing Taubira a “monkey”. The caricature therefore does something that few Anglophone cartoonists would dare attempt: it uses overtly racist imagery as a means of satirising racism.

Even the most patently offensive of the Charlie Hebdo covers that have been circulating on the internet in the wake of the attack – one depicting the Nigerian girls and women kidnapped by Boko Haram as pregnant welfare queens – has been read by observers in France as a satire of the paranoid fantasies of the far-right. (That the same cover was met with criticism for its Islamophobia within France demonstrates that French left-wing politics are not monolithic, just as left-wing politics around the world are not monolithic.)

The fact that Charlie Hebdo’s editorial position is left-wing within the world of French politics necessarily complicates any analysis of their imagery as purely and simply racist. Of course, left-wing people and self-described progressives are not immune from racism; Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail talks eloquently about the soft racism of the ‘white moderate’ being as much of an impediment to black freedom as the Ku Klux Klan. And I would personally argue that racist imagery is so loaded with an unsavoury history of racist use that it is nearly impossible to ‘reclaim’ in the service of anti-racist action – certainly not if deployed with the crudeness of Charlie Hebdo’s more offensive pieces. This is before we even consider the very important question of whether representing the prophet Mohammed in any form is needlessly antagonistic towards Sunni Muslims, whose interpretations of the hadith prohibit the pictorial representation of the prophet – or, as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius put it, “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”.

Progressive voices in the Anglosphere have interpreted the magazine as a bastion of racism, classism, and homophobia, without seeking to understand its context.

Yet in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, left-wing and progressive voices in the Anglosphere have interpreted the magazine as a bastion of racism, classism, and homophobia, without seeking to understand the magazine’s context. (Similarly, voices of the American right such as Larry O’Connor – who the profoundly left and secular Charlie Hebdo staff would have abhorred – have seen fit to declare solidarity with the magazine.) As Jeff Sparrow argues, “you don’t have to like the project of Charlie Hebdo to defend its artists from murder, just as you can uphold media workers’ right to safety without endorsing the imagery they produce.”

This seems especially salient when, owing to our immersion within the Anglophone political landscape, most of us are not even in a position to accurately decode Charlie Hebdo’s message, or understand its humour.

Islamophobia in France: a different beast

Unless you are an avid Francophile with a particular interest in its domestic politics, you might be forgiven for thinking that France is some kind of hotbed of Islamophobic sentiment. When stories about the relationship between French Muslims and the rest of the country’s citizens make the international news – such as the trial of Michel Houellebecq, riots in the banlieues of Paris, or the controversial burqa ban – the average French citizen is presented as someone who absolutely detests Islam and its adherents.

The truth is, as always, a little bit more complicated.

France, like any other pluralist country, contains a multitude of political platforms and positions, from the ultra-right reactionary Front National to a full-blown Socialist party powerful enough to currently hold the presidency. Among its citizens you will therefore find a diverse range of opinions about Islam, some as rabid as our own Pauline Hanson and some as tolerant as the most ardent Australian left-winger.

The last time I visited Paris was during last year’s Ramadan, the Islamic month of daylight fasting and evening feasting. And if I didn’t know it was Ramadan before I arrived, I couldn’t avoid discovering it while I was there: an advertising campaign by an importer of Middle Eastern foods (couscous, dates, etc.) wishing all and sundry a ‘bon Ramadan’ was plastered over seemingly every stop of Paris’s Métro. (Just imagine the collective pants-shitting from the Halal-funds-terrorism crowd that would accompany such a campaign here in Australia.)

Muslims make up a huge minority group in France, one much larger both proportionally and numerically than Australia’s Muslim community, at around five to six million adherents out of a population of 66 million, or just under 10% of the population (although French census law makes it impossible for anyone to know accurately). We do know for sure that France has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe. This alone changes the dynamic between the average non-Muslim French person and their Muslim French counterpart: where the average white Australian can live their lives without any significant contact with Australia’s relatively small Muslim community (2.2% of the population, according to the 2011 census), the average non-Muslim French person is more likely to live next door to or work with a Muslim.

This doesn’t mean France is some kind of harmonious wonderland: the recent electoral successes of the Front National ought to demonstrate that familiarity sometimes breeds contempt. But it does mean that a Muslim presence in France is accepted as a fact of life for most French people – in marked contrast to the ‘fuck off, we’re full’ crowd here in Australia, who seem to believe that an Islam-free Australia is both possible and desirable.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité: why French politics aren’t like ours

While Islamophobia in Australia is strongly associated with the political right – see: Hanson, Bernardi, Pell & co. – and tolerance of Islam with the political left, in France the issue is not so clear-cut. The French concept of laïcité – the absolute separation of church and state – is enshrined in French law and the constitution, to the extent that “bringing religion into public affairs [is] a major taboo.” (This strong prohibition is the reason why it is illegal for the French census to even measure the demographics of French religion.) Thus, even though by some accounts Catholics make up a majority of French citizens, the ground for political debate in the country is thoroughly secular. This means that debates that have gained traction around the world recently – to do with immigration, same-sex marriage, and other hot-button topics – often play out very differently in France than they do elsewhere. For instance, as Camille Robcis notes in a recent interview with Jacobin, even though the opposition to same-sex marriage in France is being led from the Catholic right, the arguments they deploy against same-sex marriage come from the radical left.

Similarly, the debate over the burqa in France had less to do with complete intolerance for Islam, and more to do with the question of integration: or, as Robcis puts it in her interview, whether the burqa “represented a fundamental attachment to a particular interest (Islam), a form of communitarianism fundamentally incompatible with France”. In this context it’s not impossible for a left-wing magazine such as Charlie Hebdo to be Islamophobic, nor for reactionary authors such as Houellebecq – who, let us not forget, was once sued for his previous statements about Islam – to imagine an alliance between Catholics and Muslims against the secular enlightenment philosophy that currently structures French political life.

None of this excuses Islamophobia in France – and it’s worth remembering that in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack vigilantes across France have attacked a mosque, an Islamic prayer hall, and a kebab shop – but it does mean that French Islamophobia is not the same thing at all as the Islamophobia with which we are familiar here in Australia. (For example: while publications around the world were keen to peg the 2005 banlieue riots to terrorism and jihad, in France the discussion was dominated by socio-economic issues.) The issue in France is not Islam itself, but its role in public life and whether certain cultural and religious practices are compatible with the universal principles of French republicanism.

How should we respond to the Charlie Hebdo attacks?

One of the amazing things about the response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks is how swift people have been – both in social media and elsewhere – to declare allegiances and draw battle lines. On the one hand we are being exhorted to show our support for freedom of speech by redistributing Charlie Hebdo’s content, even when we don’t have the contextual knowledge to properly understand that content. On the other, critics of Charlie Hebdo’s work have ignored the very specific French political context, and assumed that the magazine must have been a hotbed of right-libertarian racism, sexism, and homophobia.

How do we begin to understand something as complex as what appears to be an Islamic terrorist attack on a left-wing satirical journal, in a country whose politics fundamentally don’t resemble ours? We could start by resisting the temptation to make declarations of allegiance – to avoid the easy solution of shouting #JeSuisCharlie unless we’re absolutely certain that we are, in fact, of the same mindset as Charlie Hebdo. We could restate, as often as possible, the necessary message that there’s nothing contradictory about supporting freedom of the press, finding political violence abhorrent, and also finding Charlie Hebdo’s use of racist imagery (for whatever political end) repellent.

We could, most importantly, respect the dead by trying to understand where they were coming from, and resisting the urge to make Charlie Hebdo stand for something it never has.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor, who has written for  The AustralianThe Lifted BrowMeanjin and The Quietus amongst others.

Feature photo by Odd Anderson, via Getty.