Charlie Hebdo: an Iconoclastic Perspective

Honoring the irreverent dead

The satirists who were murdered at the comic-journal Charlie Hebdo prided themselves in being iconoclastic. The purpose of this essay is to critique the Western group-think of both political leaders and journalists, in their unified reaction against the terrorist acts in Paris last week. Critique does not mean total disagreement. I agree that the murder of people for their beliefs is a profound crime. It is an act against God in all the Abrahamic religions, and a political crime in the Western modern worldview. So if I offend readers with the rest of the content of this essay, then at least consider that I honor the spirit of the irreverent dead at Charlie Hebdo in the best way I know how: by taking an unpopular political position in the hope that it will encourage critical thinking.

Murderers in search of a cause: How to react?

Killing political journalists is murder, and it is a terrorist act intended to have a specific set of impacts upon a society. That society gives a victory to the murderers right away by acting traumatized. One of the great strategic errors of the Bush Administration in mid-September 2001 was to promote Osama bin Laden to a highly prestigious position by declaring him the leader of a war against the United States. As many (unpopular) critics of the time pointed out, the 9/11 attacks could have been characterized and treated as a criminal act. Rhetorically, the treatment of attacks as criminal is a deliberate disregard of their political intent. Right away, political and cultural leaders can deny a victory to murderers through a strategic rejection of the reaction that the murderers hope for. The Bush Administration and popular American media did not have to hand al Qaeda that early victory. Nor do the French have to hand a victory to political extremists now.

There is another advantage of treating these acts as criminal, rather than as acts of war. The instrument we use to pursue crimes is law-enforcement. The instrument of war is the military. We design the institutions of law-enforcement to be perpetual. The sustained pursuit of the Italian-American Mafia by the F.B.I. is a classic example of a relentless pursuit, over many decades, that has crippled and largely dismantled a highly-organized, extremely violent organization embedded within a civilian population. Early in his tenure as Attorney General, Eric Holder tried to close Guantanamo prison by bringing al Qaeda suspects to the United States for trial. Holder was blocked by Republican politicians from bringing these prisoners into the scope of Constitutional rights and law-enforcement. One political consequence of this Republican move is to declare, very openly to the world, that the United States remains ‘terrorized.’ We are willing to openly violate our own Constitution by holding prisoners for more than a decade without due process, without accusation, without trial, and subject them to torture. In other words, more than a decade after 9/11, Americans continue to hand political victory to terrorists. I hope the French do not fall into the same trap that American political leaders fell into.

Political leaders in Boston did far better after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The act was treated as criminal, first and foremost. Civil rights were not suspended. Political leaders in Boston portrayed the Tsarnaev brothers as humans who committed murder and mayhem, and undermined the sincerity of their supposed religious motivations. In a similar way, the Guardian undermined the ‘Islamist’ justifications for violence of two Britons who went to fight for the Islamic State. Rather than violence as a result of religious devotion, the Guardian points out that these men knew so little about Islam that they had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon. In other words, they are men prone to violence who adopted “jihad” after the fact in an attempt to justify their lust for violence. Undermining post-facto justifications for violence is another effective countermeasure that denies legitimacy to any political justification for violent acts.

But an insistence on never suspending civil rights is perhaps the most effective denial of terrorist demands. In fact, the Republican refusal to allow our judicial system to handle the Guantanamo prisoners expresses a lack of confidence in our police, our courts, and Constitutional due process. I accept that we have seen some dramatic failures of the American judicial system in recent years (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner), but a healthier reaction would be to reform the judicial system to bring it closer to our American ideals of justice, rather than disparage it by keeping ‘enemy combatants’ outside of that system for more than a decade.

It may seem incongruous to bring controversies of American racism into this discussion. But the question, in France as in the United States, is whether the Western system is just. The many loud assertions that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were an attack on free expression suggest that Westerners feel a need to assert a right to mock the Prophet Muhammad as part of a ‘universal’ right of free press. Western leaders—marching today with François Hollande, the president of France—insist that this right is part of a ‘universal’ set of rights and freedoms that are the basis for the credibility of Western political systems. Credibility is the central issue here for Western political leaders, just as fair treatment of black people in the U.S. and in France is a question of credibility for Western regimes. The messages sent by Western regimes is crucial in both of these issues, and it is a geopolitical message in both cases. Furthermore, it is a message that overlaps. Many of the Muslims in France and the United States are of African descent. Outside of the West, Muslims and black Africans have endured a pretty ugly history of colonization, enslavement, and occupation by Westerners that cannot be ignored in the geopolitical effort of Westerners to assert their credibility. I do not mean to imply that a Western track-record of enslavement and imperialism invalidates Western beliefs in equal treatment and freedom of expression. But we need some historical perspective to understand this present moment through the eyes and hearts of the people who are the ostensible targets of this aggressive assertion of Liberal freedoms.

Iconoclasm: a hint from the deeper past

It was horrific, sickening, and yes, an unambiguous attack on the core democratic principle: free speech. —Bob Garfield, On the Media

Normally I am extremely supportive of the critical approach of the WNYC program On the Media. But I think they missed a crucial distinction by lumping all forms of speech together. They do go back several decades to understand Charlie Hebdo in historical context. But I need to go further back, and beyond France, to explain why some distinction between different forms of Western political speech are important. During the program, Laurence Grove of the University of Glasgow called Charlie Hebdo “iconoclastic.” This term has been used by many Western media organizations (Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, National Review) to characterize Charlie Hebdo. I will use this ancient term—iconoclasm—as our guide for a more historically-informed perspective.

Iconoclasm—the opposition to icons, the movement to destroy sacred images—was a Christian movement that arose in the late Roman Empire. First it was directed against the various non-Christian images and statues of the older Roman pantheism. In the eighth and ninth century in the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire it re-emerged as Christians destroying Christian icons and statuary. Islam was founded during this era of Christian iconoclasm. Like their Jewish and Christian neighbors, Muslims condemned the visual portrayal of prophets, especially the Prophet Muhammad. That is not an absolute rule; some Shi’ites in Iran do accept respectful representations of Muhammad. There is also a Sunni tradition of veiled or allegorical representations of Muhammad.

But for the majority of Muslims today, any visual representation of Muhammad is problematic, and mocking images of the Prophet are not considered an incitement to critical thought. Instead, they are considered an attack that is part of a Western project of colonization, occupation, and a violent expression of imperial privilege. Note that a billion Muslims have not reacted violently against these images, but many are dismayed by a well-armed Western civilization that does not tolerate polite requests to distinguish irreverent political satire and deliberate acts of hate-speech. We ban the “n-word” in most of American political discourse because, when used by whites today, it still does harm; it still reaffirms white privilege in a society that remains violently racist. For most Muslims, insulting portrayals of Muhammad are an act of hate-speech. Furthermore, for whom are the cartoons actually productive, in the sense intended by sharp political satire? For Westerners who already have a negative prejudice against all Muslims, do these cartoons provoke self-questioning? Does a vigorous defense of the cartoons support political critique? Or does it conflate the hard work of self-questioning with the self-congratulation of a Liberal West that regards its policies as the exact pattern that all other societies must adopt?

Christians resumed visual representations of Jesus in the late Middle Ages. But opposition to graven images is not culturally alien to Christian societies. The disappearance of many pre-Christian European images and statues—from Greece to Rome to Scandinavia—is a testament to the image-erasing tradition of Christendom. Rather than call Muslim iconoclasm something ‘oriental’ or ‘exotic’, a quick historical look reveals how much it is the shared tradition of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the modern world, “iconoclasm” means something new. It means irreverence, and a critical view of sacred beliefs. This need for irreverence—this need for freedom from religion—arose during the Wars of Religion that defined Western civilization.

The past is never dead

“William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” –Barack Obama, “A more perfect union”, 2008.

Faulkner was arguing against political-historical amnesia. Barack Obama cited Faulkner to argue that any understanding of political injustices in the present requires an historically-informed perspective. This also pertains to Christian-Muslim relations over the last two centuries of European colonialism. And furthermore, it also pertains to the very nature of Western identity itself.

Before Wars of Religion, Europe wasn’t even called the West; it was called Christendom. But the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of 1535-1648 were so intractable, and so violent, that they threatened to destroy Christendom as a whole. Between 1600 and 1630, about one third of the population in what is now Germany was killed in religious violence between Catholics and Protestants. The Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1644 was a stark reminder that while Christians were busy butchering each other, the Muslim Turks were well-organized and ready to subject a self-destroyed Europe to Muslim rule.

In a very peculiar move, Europeans decided to save Christendom by denying its existence. In the various political and social negotiations that came to be known as the “Westphalian Settlement,” Europeans decided to ‘expel’ religion from public political life, at least in rhetorical terms. Christendom was re-branded “the West.” This did not mean that it was non-Christian or post-Christian, but rather it was the imposition of a taboo against calling it Christian. Elizabeth I of England insisted that English subjects had the private right to believe whatever they wanted, but the public obligation to worship and coexist together as Anglicans. Although one of the titles for British monarchs remains defensor fidelis—Defender of the Christian Faith—in practice the British political leadership has tolerated tremendous religious plurality, and the right of the British press to be irreverent. Americans carried forward this tradition not just through the First Amendment, but also through the awkward practice of attempting to avoid discussing religion and politics during Thanksgiving dinner.

Likewise, France is ostensibly secular, meaning that the Roman Catholic Church is not allowed any formal political role in the Republic. Most French Jews were exterminated or exiled in the Middle Ages, and French Protestants were likewise slaughtered or exiled in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French Revolution marginalized the role of the Roman Catholic Church in French politics. The right of the French press to be free from Christian censorship is vigorously defended. But there remains an assumption that being French means being Roman Catholic, or descended from Roman Catholics.

Westerners insist that this explicitly-secular-but-implicitly-Christian identity should be accepted by all other peoples of the world as not just Western, but in many ways as the universal norm for being modern. I think Talal Asad laid out the best criticism of this position. If Europeans want to be secular, that’s fine. Europeans have very good reasons to fear the entanglement of their own religion with their own political identity, because of the outrageous levels of violence between Christians during the European Wars of Religion. But that was not a universal experience, and Muslims were not participants in the Westphalian settlement. Muslims were not consulted about whether the best solution was to privatize religion and formally exile the role of religion in public politics. If Muslims had been consulted, they might have come up with very different solutions. Instead, Europeans declared their particular history and consequent political assumptions as universal history and a universal set of political values. Using modern industrial weapons, Europeans then proceeded to impose their ‘universal’ attitudes about the relationship between religion, politics, and the press on non-European peoples through colonization of Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

Political-historical amnesia

I have always been very sensitive to the long shadow that the Wars of Religion cast on Western societies because my father is Roman Catholic and my mother is Lutheran. Despite how tolerant and supposedly integrative the United States may claim to be, Protestant-Catholic marriages remain relatively rare and socially awkward. Part of my parents’ solution was to move into a predominantly Jewish suburb, where I grew up with kids whose parents were trying very hard to live quiet, suburban lives after the horrors of World War II. History was very alive to me as a child whose playmates had no uncles, aunts, or grandparents because most of their families were killed in the Holocaust.

The tension between my own parents and grandparents about a Lutheran-Catholic marriage also made the Wars of Religion hard to ignore. Even though they occurred 400 years ago, I have always been surprised by the political-historical amnesia towards the Wars of Religion and their present role in our understanding of the meaning of political liberty. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were both religious-political refugees from the conflicts in England. That brutal “state of nature” that Hobbes described in 1651 wasn’t some neolithic “cave-man” scenario. It was the brutality of a failed-state condition in England at the time—a brutality that is only possible when a civilized society tears itself to pieces. Westerners have good reasons—deep-seated, unacknowledged historical reasons—to strongly fear the intersection of religion, politics, and violence. But so long as we don’t look at the specific, European, Christian context of that brutality, we mistake that as a universal concern that ‘all civilized people’ should share. From the outside, I think that presumption of universality looks and feels imperialist, even if that was not at all the intention.

Is it the same thing for Charlie Hebdo to mock Muhammad and mock the Pope, or Jesus? Since French citizens are mostly Roman Catholic or descendants of Roman Catholics, mockery of the Pope and Christianity are forms of self-mockery and self-criticism. However, most of the colonies of the French Republic were in West Africa and the Middle East. In other words, the historical relationship of France to the Muslim world is Western-Christian-Imperialist to Muslim-colonized. Furthermore, because of that colonial history, most of the poorer, disenfranchised immigrant populations in France are Muslim or Muslim-descended. So: is there a political difference when a Parisian satirical magazine engages in self-satire of Christian symbols and icons, in contrast to mocking a Prophet revered by peoples whom the French have subjugated and colonized? Based on this very brief glimpse of history, I think there is a substantial difference.

But should immigrant populations, subjected to systematic and well-documented discrimination in France, accept French standards of freedom from religion? Should they graciously accept even mocking portrayals of Muhammad? That depends upon whose measure of ‘equal treatment’ is used as the standard. Most Muslims have opposed any visual portrayal of Muhammad for 1300 years. They do not practice a double-standard when they condemn non-Muslims for representing Muhammad. It is a policy which they equally and consistently impose upon themselves—as do Jews, regarding representation of their own prophets. It is a strict policy, but an equitable one.

Compared to that standard, the French official policy of allowing mockery of Muhammad bears an unfortunate parallel to the French colonial project: a very asymmetrical French imposition of political will on Muslims in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Syria. Furthermore, an historically-informed French policy of press freedoms would be much more particular, and not at all ‘universal’: French journalists and politicians have specific, legitimate reasons for insisting on freedom from Christian institutional domination. Beyond that, other press freedoms—which are not absolute even in France—need to be considered through the eyes of all the people who are intended as the audience. Is a cartoon critical self-satire? Or is it a ‘hellish repetition’ of French colonial domination and condescension towards peoples whom they call ‘barbarian’?

Stereoscopic critique

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” –W.E.B. duBois

It may seem that I have contradicted myself in both praising the courage of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, and then criticizing the very cartoons that were used as a pretext by their murderers. My main critique is not of the journalists themselves, though: it is towards Western policies, and the current international reaction which asserts a very specific type of press freedom as a ‘universal’ right. But I also want to acknowledge the apparent contradiction here through a lesson I learned on Friday as I moderated a public panel discussion on justice.

One of the panelists was Jonathan Jansen, who is the Rector of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. On his Facebook page, Jansen had already expressed similar views to those I have just argued; and he provoked a storm of criticism. But Jansen accepts that he will be considered controversial. When he became Rector, he refused to prosecute several white students in his university when they produced a video mocking some of the black staff-members of the university. Jansen sensed that the public might use its sense of righteous indignation towards these students as a way to avoid facing the larger racist context in which they had been raised. As a black South African himself, he is more committed to the long-term transformation of the cultural assumptions and structural relations of his country. So, instead of prosecuting and expelling the students, he opposed prosecution and asked them to stay at the university and engage in reconciliation with the staff. One of the students now does outreach across the region, challenging the way that white South Africans are raised as racists.

Jansen argues that, to understand why and how he made these choices, you have to ‘hold two truths in your mind at the same time.’ On the one hand, he called the boys’ actions cruel and stupid—on the other, he saw that they were behaving in a way that was consistent their upbringing. Shining a bright but narrow light of condemnation on them would have left the larger context of bigotry unchallenged. During the panel discussion, Jansen expressed concern that Americans tend to insist on ‘only one truth at a time’ in relation to both the Charlie Hebdo crisis and in terms of American policing policies over the last year. In this essay, I am echoing Jansen by analyzing these two issues together. In the case of American policing, he pointed out that Americans seem to portray police through one lens at a time: either as racist brutalizers in Ferguson, Cincinnati, and Staten Island or as victims, such as the two officers murdered in Brooklyn in an apparent revenge attack. Jansen insists that we need to understand both realities, both narratives as simultaneously true. Likewise, he argues that we need to see the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly simultaneously as disaffected youth in a society that systematically discriminates against them, and as murderers whose actions cannot and should not be justified. Jansen argued that we can only make ethical sense out of current events by holding multiple truths in our minds at the same time. His argument reminded me strongly of W.E.B. duBois’ concept of ‘double consciousness.’ But it is not just the double-consciousness of a people subject to discrimination. As a cultural leader, Jansen has to employ insight and vision in a way that sees beyond immediate acts to their longer-term structural relations. I call this ‘stereoscopic critique.’

Given what Jansen has achieved at the University of the Free State, I would go further to argue that this double-consciousness, this ‘stereoscopic critique’ of unfolding events has enabled him to enact policies that are not only ethical, but revolutionary in how he has transformed a specific incident of cruel racism into an instrument in the long fight to dismantle racism in South African society.

Likewise, an effort to see the tragedy in Paris with stereoscopic critique is a radical challenge, because it requires some degree of compassion with two profoundly different worldviews. Compassion does not mean agreement with, nor exoneration from acts of murder. But it does mean seeing beyond the glare produced by the spotlight of righteous indignation, to discern the shadowy outlines of a massive structure of violent inequality and cultural condescension that ties directly to those gruesome acts of violence.

If I have pissed off the irreverent dead—and those who only see the dead through a single lens as victims—then I have done so in an effort to honor their own example.


Charlie Hebdo: an Iconoclastic Perspective — 2 Comments

  1. Well thought out. MUCH too long for what is essentially a polemic. Telegraphic style won’t carry the argument either so a brief compromise needs to be reached. Stereoscopy doesn’t carry the idea of multiple truths well and that idea needs to be much more widely recognized.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful look at the broader historical,cultural, and political contexts of our Western/post-Christian views of “free speech” and exploring the origins of “iconoclasm.” We so rarely take the long or broad view of current events and circumstances…

    It IS a long piece, but well worth refining and condensing–or perhaps subdividing. Keep writing like this!

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