Fractured French

Je Suis Charlie? Sorry. No

Biswajit Roy

Being a journalist and leftie, this Correspondent would have loved to join the Paris march of more than a million self-declared Charlies to condemn and defy the Jihadi killers of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. If only the battle was really between the Freedom of expression and Islamic revivalist barbarism.

No sane person can support the mindless massacre, however justified is the Jihadi angst. But after a cursory surfing of Hebdo cartoons and their likes in Western media including the infamous Danish media cartoons on Islam's prophet, Muhammad, it's clear to this writer that in no way they represent the much-hyped might of pen/pencil, the power of artistic satire or political humour. Neither they correspond to the best traditions of French artists/cartoonists' defiance of demigods of all kinds—religious, political and social since the French Revolution. The Hebdo and its Danish ilk, also their reproducers across Europe have been preaching pure and simple religious and racist hatred against Islam in the name of freedom of speech.

Have a look at the Charlie cartoons and it will be clear what they stand for. Muhammad has been caricatured as a demon, in fact, a dark-skinned bearded Satan with his horns jutting out of his hooded or turbaned head. With the mountains of skulls behind him, he threatens to kill anybody who differs with him. He has been made epitome of intolerance, aggression, violence, falsehood, duplicity, cunning, depravity, sex-mania and all other mortal vices that makes the prophet of Islam a loathsome, abominable charlatan and humbug. A number of cartoons have declared him a 'false prophet' or imposter.

Lewd drawings and comments on his marriage to much younger Aisa and his multiple wives have been another recurring topic, which made him a sex-obsessed pedophile and a licentious polygamist. In one cartoon, he has been made a wicked-looking middle-aged man assuring his child-bride Aisa's worried father about arranging 'therapies' for her after the consummation of the marriage. More obscene cartoons show a star was born out of Mohammad's ‘a**’ while the turbaned man is naked in a doggie position. Another shows him or an identical Muslim in a similar situation asking a film crew-'do you love my butt?' According to some netizens, it was an allusion to a purported dialogue of actress Brigitte Bardot, the French sex-bomb of the fifties.

A pig-nosed Muhammad or a naked one looking at mirror in self-horror, a naked white woman erotically posed with a leashed dog with a head of a turbaned and bearded man are also among the obscene stuffs. They have nothing to do with journalistic or artistic freedom but testify for crudest forms of religious and racist bigotry.

For the record, some other cartoons illustrated Moses and Jesus along a demon-like Muhammad with the Hindu god Ganesha in an act that appeared to be a group sex. But in most cartoons, Jesus is not far from his usual image—kind, compassionate and smiling. Even in a joint caricature of Jesus and Muhammad along with a Hindu deity, presumably Rama or Shiva, the fountainhead of Christian faith looked friendly and jovial to an aggressive-looking prophet of Islam while the Hindu God, a reluctant partner of the trio in a table-talk, was busy with himself. Unlike Muhammad whose followers are minority and mostly immigrants from former French colonies, Jesus has been treated politely, presumably, in consideration of the sensibilities of his faithful who are the white majority of the land. It is the Pope, the head of the Catholic church who has been chosen to be lampooned together with fanatic-looking Muslim clergies or Jewish rabbis et al.

Though the thinly circulated Charlie Hebdo magazine is now being introduced as the champion of left-libertarian values and equally unsparing in making fun of all religious authorities, its cartoons unmistakably depicted the age-old Christian stereotypes of Islam and its prophet in the crudest and most vulgar manner. The whole spectrum represents the xenophobic prejudice of medieval Christianity that is deeply rooted in the history of Crusades against Muslim armies. On the other hand Islam, being junior to Christianity, has incorporated Old Testament genealogy and put both Moses and Jesus among its pantheon of messiahs down the ages. Though it did not accept Christ as the Son of God, as Christians believe. This was apparently done in order to impress Jews and Christians, the other 'people of the Book', in order to encourage them either to embrace Islam or to accept its sovereignty.

In contrast, Christian dogma has never accepted Muhammad as a holy man, let alone a prophet or messenger of God. Instead, it has always depicted him as a vile imposter, because of both temporal and theological factors. They include bloody history of Crusades vs Jihads over the control of Jerusalem, the centre of thee major religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as Islam's recurrent challenges to the Christian powers that finally led to the fall of Byzantine empire and conquest of vast parts of Europe and adjoining parts of Asia for centuries till the first world war.

No doubt, the dreaded Islamic State-inspired Algerian-origin Jihadi brothers and their Moroccan-origin collaborator who together killed 17 people were the monstrous fanatics. But the slain cartoonists who are now being hailed as the champions of liberty, freedom of speech and democratic values were no less fanatics in their hostility towards Islam. It would have been another matter if they had only targeted Jiiadi terror icons like Osama Bin Laden and his Al Queda deputy Aiman Jawahiri, Mollah Omar and his Taliban horde, self proclaimed Caliph of Islamic state Abu Bakar Al Bagdadi and their brothers in Boko Haram and Al Shabab.

But by demonizing and scandalizing Islam's prophet, they have only added fuel to old Christian hatred and post-    9/11 Islamophobia now prevalent in Europe and America. In turn, it gave a cause celebre to the self-appointed guardians and holy warriors of Islam. In that sense, the chronicle of the massacre was foretold.

Some commentators cited European secular forces' hard-won right to blasphemy and demanded its extension to all other religions. They cite examples of the novel and film The Last Temptation of Christ and other blasphemous artistic or not-so-artistic presentation of Jesus, available on Internet etc. The film and other irreverent depictions have always been strongly resented by the Church and millions of Christians. Protests in all forms, including vandalizing of the exhibitions and theatres are numerous, latest being the renewed Catholic anger against Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, described as an 'infamous artwork from the 1980s' by the US paper, Huffington Post after its destruction following an "anti-blasphemy" campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon,' in 2011 as reported by the British liberal paper, The Guardian. Even if the artist claimed that his work had targeted 'misuse of religion', rather than Christ himself, angry believers were not convinced.

The controversy over the right to blasphemy is very much part of the democratic discourses for long and it deserves more. But the current occasion is not the pertinent one since the Charlie kind of profanity to Islam and its prophet is nothing funny or humorous. It does not reflect any effort to satirize the human frailties or expose the mortal nature of the divinities. Instead of humanizing Islam's holiest man, it has dehumanized him just to provoke hatred.

Interestingly, Quran and rest of Islamic theology have always insisted on Muhammad's mortal origin and nature in contrast to Christ's divinity as part of the Holy Trinity. This mortal nature of Islam's prophet, despite he being revered as the messenger of God, has allowed both the Wahabi conservatives as well as Islamic feminists to preach their ideas of Islam. The first camp demolished shrines around the prophet's grave, forbidden any prayer there on the ground that only Allah can be worshipped. Feminists within Islam who fight against the male chauvinist mullahs dared to question the Imams' dictates in post-revolution Iran on the very ground of natural human limitations of the highest authority in Islam, thus making room for new interpretation of the scriptural directives.

A rational, historical, unbiased approach will draw a line between informed criticism of all religions and their apostles and the deliberate hatemongering. Iconoclasts are most welcome only if their exercise of freedom of expression is aimed against tyranny and bigotry of all kinds and nourishes questioning minds, not hate-mongers. They should know that down the history, followers of Islam have the share of violence and peace, malevolence and benevolence, tolerance and intolerance, salvation of souls and salivation for power, sheer stupidity and wise insights, as do the faithful of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other major religions.

History as well as contemporary world is replete with examples of persecuted religious communities being morphed into persecutors when its leaders have state power and military strength. Whenever a faith became a state religion with the fanatic rulers and their theological cohorts institutionalized their beliefs in order to impose it on the people of the same or diverse faiths, repression of thousand kinds and sectarian bloodbath followed. The zealots of monolithic and dogmatic religion; be it in Islam, Chiristianity or Hinduism, have always been the angels of death and destruction down the ages. Europe has witnessed numerous religious cum temporal wars, more among Christians over dogmas and power than with Islam and its holy warriors.

According to the dominant Western discourse, Europe has moved far beyond its own history of inquisition and other forms of religious persecution of minorities and heretics as it has nurtured its humane, rational, tolerant and liberal ethos since the Enlightenment and secularization of statecraft. In contrast, the Western liberals complain that Islam is inherently aggressive, violent and autocratic with its followers being hell-bent on accomplishing their goal of world domination. The latter still harbor the medieval and archaic worldview; grudge the global victory of Western civilization and demise of Islamic power across half of the world since the dismemberment of Ottoman empire. Their refusal to change in tune with the times, they are utterly unfit for plural, multi-religious, multicul-tural democracies.

No doubt, Western civilization and its modern liberal ethos have many laudable aspects that other societies should try to emulate. But the narcissists there often suffer from selective amnesia when it conies to the history of formerly colonized continents. This includes Americas, Canada and Australia where white European settlers had systematically exterminated indigenous populations, their religions and cultures, in short, their way of life almost totally over centuries. The barbarity of Christian conquistadors since Columbus—imposition of colonizers' faith, wanton destruction of native civilizations and plunder of their wealth did not stop in post-Enlightenment period. In fact, the long history of unspeakable European violence to the people of new world and the Orient ran almost parallel to the blossoming of its science and industry as well as great humane ideas including the clarion call of liberty, equality and fraternity.

But the fruits of universal brotherhood, republicanism and democracy including the freedom of conscience and expression had been denied to most of the colonized world till the second half of the last century. Islamic empires till the Ottomans too had many eras of religious persecutions, diabolical pogroms of the minorities. But their crimes stand pale in comparison to the crimes against humanity that the European colonizers had perpetuated in the name of Christ and white man's burden. The contemporary media reports would vouch for the fact that the promises of tolerance, freedom of speech and other democratic rights in the modern West is not exactly the same for the blacks, colored and non-Cliristians, particularly Muslims and their look-alikes including Sikhs.

Neither West nor the East have ever been homogeneous, monolithic identity and their historical convergence and divergence have made the two entwined for good.

Nevertheless, one cannot help feels enraged by watching the Western media pundits, their terrorism experts and military hawks who have been frothy over the dangers to the French identity in particular and Western values in general in the wake of Islamic radicalism. They hardly listened to the non-white Muslim French marchers, mostly immigrants from former colonies of the Tricolor, who joined the protest against the mindless massacre. But at the same time, they revealed the deep fissures in French society, the sense of alienation and fear. Old and new immigrants, mostly Arabs and African Muslims who are ghettoized in poor suburbs and lack jobs and income enough to sustain, hesitantly revealed their pain and angst against 'treatment as second class citizen'.

Social and cultural insecurities have compounded the alienation. The secular French state bans hizab at public offices even for those want to wear it on religious ground, its socialist government curbs many other minority rights and takes anti-immigration measures, apparently to placate the rising far right forces. Enforced secularization, as Orhan Pamuk had explained in his famous novel Snow in the context of Turkey, is as bad as religious fundamentalism. BBC recorded many Muslim French voices at the march that were compatible with the mainstream. Only one discordant note was aired. A Muslim woman condemned the Jihadi killers but refused to join the Je Suis Charlie campaign. "No, I am not Charlie because these cartoons are not acceptable to me". Clearly, she resonated many unheard voices.

Most of these self-proclaimed guardians of 'international community' lacked the honesty to admit the US-led Western role in the advent of Ladens and Al Bagdadis since anti-Soviet Jihadi war in Afghanistan, subsequent destruction of Iraq and fanning of Shia-Sunni sectarian fanaticism, which is now tearing apart the fragile social fabric across West Asia. They have conveniently forgotten the Western surrogacy in rearing the Sunni Wahabi extremism in collusion with the reactionary Saudi royal families and Gulf shiekhdoms in their fight against Ottomans to Russians as well as Arab nationalists like Naser or Bathists like Saddam Hussein. Many conscientious western journalists and historians have already exposed the West's marriage of convenience with medieval Mullahs in spreading inferno of civil war in Syria that has begun with Nato's old game of regime change in Libya after turning Iraq a hell and supporting the virtual army takeover of Egypt.

The US-Israel axis has allowed to fester the wound of Palestine for too long. White house, its first black president notwithstanding makes hollowed promise of 'two-state solution' while standing by Israeli state that is systematically gobbling up residual Palestine land in Gaza and West Bank. The children of Abraham have been made to spill each other's blood for eternity while the Christian West, the original theatre of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, plays honest broker at the cost of displaced and dispossessed millions of Arabs. With rising anti-Semitism in France, apparently not because of Muslims but due to Christian rightwing, Jews are feeling insecure and want to flee the land. Surely, France is not that united, as its president wanted the world to believe at the rally. The killing only revealed its deep fissures.

Vol. 47, No. 30, Feb 1 - 7, 2015