Editorial

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Charlie Hebdo’s Ghost

Amatoritsero Ede

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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7 Responses to “Editorial”

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  1. Finally the much-needed statement that everyone is right and wrong at the same time. On reading other Hebdo commentaries there was a one-sidedness where this paradigm was missing. I was surprised to read this politicized topic written with such beautiful language, alliteration, metaphor, twining of language into complex meaning. Rather than distract us the extended complexity fleshes out the political description.

  2. Niyi Afolabi says:

    The ghost within us speaks when we choose to respond to events–not the way the world expects us but by virtue of our conscience. Here is a piece of indictment and celebration of the power of the word against the vestiges of hate in the name of religion.

  3. mat says:

    Important read Ama. I would have only stressed that the Middle east have journalists that die every day for pissing off the same sorts of people. And that the Charlie Hebdo massacre should have pushed for a wider understanding on the restrictions of press freedom in the region and offer more attention to those who risk their lives to defy the same censorship.

    And that any argument that ‘we should not’ be publishing things of ‘offense’ in fear of retaliation is the same argument made by authoritarian regimes in the region to censor any opposition. Islam is not terrorism. Of course not. But i must also add that press freedom is a fight taken up by people from all corners of the world.

  4. Yemi Soneye says:

    No, I don’t think that the writers who dissented were wrong. The murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff was reprehensible. PEN America’s decision to laurel Charlie Hebdo for its bravery to offend was too. Charlie Hebdo, and similar organizations, give alibi to terrorists who believe in no God and are criminals, as you rightly wrote. The wings of crime with which they strike would have carried them to the sun and razed them were organizations like Charlie Hebdo not to exist. They hijack members of the species who are at the edge, and recruit, because their fingers find offence against Allah, against God, to point at. They inspire people who are remote from the scenes of terror to replicate barbarism because unthinking sacrileges are that rationalize and moralise their cause. The terrorists, Charlie Hebdo, and organizations like them, damage the world.

  5. Lequanne says:

    Ahh such refreshing, nuanced insight into an often polarizing conversation. Indeed if we understood the oxymoron of Islamic terrorist, we would be better placed to mock it freely and effectively! Though, if we take a look at other issues of Charlie Hebdo, there is a continuous refusal to be nuanced in the way you describe. So while I feel you’ve touched on a needed balance, there does seem to be a refusal to understand the Muslim experience and use satire in their defense. Nonetheless, you always manage to take hard topics and beautifully–almost romantically–articulate a hard-ass perspective.

  6. Cajetan Iheka says:

    Nice work, Ama. A balance that disrupts the easy either/or binary on which the entire conflict is based. However I am interested in the idea of sensitivity towards Islamic values. While I do not subscribe to the idea of bowing to the pressures of terrorists, it is important to consider the adherents of the faith who often feel pain at the cruel satirization of their religion. It is because of this harmless victims of Hebdo’s insensitivity that I feel that the award is a mistake.

  7. Socrates says:

    First of all I must comment on the beautiful way you used language. I loved it. Unto the issues, I get the whole point of balance. But let’s not forget that one of those who was a former PEN America president had a price on his head. What I don’t understand is why other religions don’t react in equally violent manner. Of course religious views and all that should be respected, if Charlie Hebdo only picked on Islam, I’d have protested against that. But that’s not the case, other religions and people have also been satirized why does Islam get to have a special case?

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