Charlie Hebdo’s Ghost
Contemporary democratic ideals about Freedom of Expression are distilled into that metonymic and tired but valid catchall, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” It is usually buried amongst other common aphorisms – buried, that is, but not forgotten. This is because flowers have grown over that ‘grave’ expression and yielded overgrown fruits. Some of the most round and constipative of them (for human rights violators) are the numerous PEN centres around the world or Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. All are part of about eighty sundry rights NGOs, which make up the umbrella group, International Freedom of Expression Exchange or IFEX.
The Cartoonists Rights Network International is of urgent concern here, even if only indirectly – by way of the Parisian cartoon publication, Charlie Hebdo. It is in support of that lively organ belonging to the body of the aforementioned sister NGO that the American PEN centre suddenly finds itself in ‘cartoonish’ skirmishes in which individual writer-members disagree fiercely in the public and throw large darts – oversized poisoned pens – at each other across different ideological streets. This is the ghost of the matter – because this situation resurrects the dozen dead French cartoonists cut down in a bitter hailstone of bullets by two ‘Islamic’ terrorist siblings on 7 January 2015.
It is in the mourning of human rights – twelve times felled – and in showing moral support for, and solidarity with, Charlie Hebdo that American PEN honours that publication during its annual Gala this year. That organization performs its obligation and executes its mandate to protect Freedom of Speech and recognize bravery, fatal and otherwise, and the expressing of the same wherever it appears. Why then does PEN’s traditional salute to Freedom of Expression become the occasion for a divided house? I think that the problem has to do with a confusion arising out of the deployment of the wrong language in describing the right phenomenon. This is ironic for an organization whose membership consists mainly of writers – Poets, Essayist and Novelists (PEN) – who happen, in this instance, to have been defeated by language. Witness the argument of a small but significant group of protesting American PEN writers:
[o]ur concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.
The over-two-hundred signatories to that letter from which the above excerpt is taken have a valid but problematic argument against American PEN as a representative body and against Charlie Hebdo, both of whom, in turn, equally have valid but questionable opinions in this matter. Everyone is right and wrong at the same time and simply talk past each other.
On the one hand, protesting American PEN writer-members suggest, in the language of their letter, that Charlie Hebdo continues a French colonial ethos of demonizing the Other in a supposedly postcolonial and global world. On the other, the publication’s official position is that its caricatures are a “equal opportunity offense,” which neither discriminates between races nor cherry picks the personalities, institutions or religion it mocks. Charlie Hebdo insists on its right to satirize violence against personal opinion no matter how distasteful. That is irrespective of whether the protest against it provides as evidence the cartoonists’ apparent negation and demonization of the ‘Maghreb’, ‘Islam’ or ‘Arab.’ However, the protesters ignore the fact that a very large population of World Muslims – some Asian, some African, and others European – are not Arabs nor do they live in, or identify with, the Maghreb. Of course, those substantives could stand in as metonymies for the entire Muslim world. But that would ignore the fact that identities are more and more fluid and complex in a global world and that a small crowd, no matter how loud, cannot represent the multifarious population of Muslims in the world – East-meets-West-meets-South and collides with North.
In deploying a binary divisive ‘we-them vs. you-you’ language in their letter, the protesting PEN members unwittingly fall into the trap of a discredited clash of civilization rhetoric reminiscent of Samuel P. Huntington. And all of that because Western relationship to Islam is mediated by a language that seems to have remained static since the Middle Ages when King Richard I (the Lion Heart) of England did battle with Muslim Saracens led by the Sultan Saladin during the Third Crusade. Basically there is an urgent sociolinguistic and theological need to separate the word Muslim or ‘Islam’ from ‘terrorism’ because, by a spiritual equation, a Muslim cannot be a terrorist at the same time. That is irrespective of the fact that some self-proclaimed Muslims interpret the “sword verses” in the Al Quran literally and devoid of historical context for their own political goals – hence another unfortunate and confusing term, ‘political Islam.’ While religion and real-politics can form a toxic and explosive mix, the spiritual is totally anti-political and not at all enamoured with the inordinate material desire for which ‘political Islam’ is a tool.
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