Vigil in Lille for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack
Vigil in Lille for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack

Yesterday’s shootings at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine are a heart-breaking tragedy. First, and above all, they are a tragedy for those killed and injured, and for their families and friends.

Human life is precious. It is not to be taken just in order to make a point.

A photograph shows journalists in the AFP newsroom in Paris holding “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” placards. There are similar placards on the streets of cities around the world.

But I am not Charlie Hebdo.         

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine. It sometimes satirises Islam. It also deals satirically with other religions, and with other topics besides religion. I have glanced at Charlie Hebdo once in a while when it has caught the headlines, but I am not a fan, and in any case I don’t read French very fluently. So I am in a poor position to judge the balance between the magazine’s various targets, or the way it would appear to a regular reader.

But I can’t help noticing that the material dealing with Islam repeats motifs that are staples of islamophobia. The edition that provoked a fire-bombing in November 2011 was published under the title Charia Hebdo. What’s amusing about that, unless the mere mention of the word sharia gives you a giggle? On the cover there was a cartoon of a mad-eyed man, apparently meant to be the Prophet Mohammed, saying “100 Whip Lashes If You Don’t Die Of Laughter.” How might people still recovering from French colonial rule in North Africa feel about seeing draconian corporal punishment presented in France as their cultural norm?

The editor-in-chief of that edition of Charlie Hebdo was said to be “Mahomet.” The edition was published in mock celebration of the victory of the Islamic Renaissance Movement (Ennahda)  in the Tunisian General election. The October 2011 election was first free one to be held in Tunisia and was an early fruit of the Arab Spring of that year.

Previously, in 2007, Charlie Hebdo had re-published the notorious cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that had caused outrage when published by a Danish paper in 2005.

For the moment, let’s set the Prophet Mohammed and the religion of Islam aside and consider the people – Muslims – who are targeted by this sort of material.

I am not especially fastidious about humour that relies on the supposed characteristics of this or that group of people. Gentle or cruel, offbeat or stereotypical, humour can shed a wry light on some of the quirks of daily life. Jokes on the pattern “there was an Englishman, an Irishmen and a Scotsman…” are a well-mined vein and they aren’t always unfunny. But in the 1970s and 1980s, when people of Irish descent were being harassed and interrogated by the police at British ports, and people in Northern Ireland were being interned and tortured, humour of this sort needed a careful touch.

It wasn’t rocket science. Jokes that might bring a smile to the faces of English and Irish people who stood in solidarity with each other were OK. Jokes that were likely to give oxygen to anti-Irish hatred, or reinforce the otherness being imposed on Irish people, were not OK.

Causing offence ought not to be a crime. But quite often, material that is glibly criticised for causing offence is actually doing something much more serious. It is propaganda directed at those who won’t be offended by it, for the purpose of either inciting hatred against others, or dis-empowering them. The rich and powerful are fit subjects for satire. Dis-empowered, they become a little less dangerous to the rest of us. The disadvantaged and the relatively powerless are not fit targets. Dis-empowered, they fall victim to violence, abuse, genocide.

Needless to add, it is much, much harder for satire to make a mark on the powerful than on the powerless. To disguise an attack on people who are already in a tight corner beneath an indiscriminate tirade against others who are far beyond your range is a dirty trick if you understand what you are doing, and a bad misjudgement if you do not.

Those who defend the kind of material published by Charlie Hebdo often pose as dragon-slayers. For them, it seems, Islam is a powerful institution, even in Europe. They make-believe that satirising Islam is like satirising the CBI, or the British Army, or the Royal Family, or the Bilderberg Group. If they are sincere about this, they need to open their eyes.

The front page of today’s Times calls the attack on Charlie Hebdo an “attack on freedom”. For the Guardian it is an “assault on democracy.” For the Daily Mail, it is a “war on freedom.”

It is being sold everywhere as an attack on freedom of expression and journalism. If the attack was either of those things, it was a pinprick. The torture and jailing of Chelsea Manning, the arrest of journalists in Egypt and Turkey, and the long hounding of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are serious attacks on journalism. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not. It was, of course, a truly serious attack on some people, and was tragic for that reason.

Like the wave of disgust against the Islamic State, the outpouring of sympathy for the Charlie Hebdo staff is already being manipulated to produce a consensus likely to favour more repression of Muslims in Europe and, eventually, more aggression by the US, Britain and their allies in the Middle East. That is the real “assault on democracy.”

The main political parties in France, including those on the left, have been systematically hostile to Muslims. There were signs in the last few months of change for the better on the French left. It will truly be a tragedy if that process is scuppered.

I was not Charlie Hebdo the day before yesterday, and I am not Charlie Hebdo today. All those connected with the magazine have my sympathy for their human loss, but I cannot give my support or respect to their work.

Photo: Michel G