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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Charlie Hebdo or the loss of our innocence

This is still a draft text, a repository of some thoughts to which I will return soon ...

Last night Channel 4 news reported from La Place de la République where thousands of people stayed up late to protest against the brutal murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff and the policemen who got on the way of the perpetrators. The square was packed, with some people in shock, many angry at what had happened, most determined to send a message of defiance. Banners and posters featuring #jesuisCharlie, the hashtag devised to express solidarity to the satirical magazine staff were everywhere and, later on, the same hashtag was projected on the statue of the Republic in the centre of the square, superimposed over the crowd that had gathered. Matthieu Ecoiffier, journalist with the French newspaper Libération, talking to the Channel 4 reporter, was shocked, surprised that Charlie Hebdo could have caused offence. He mentioned the 'innocent' cover of the magazine issue with the title Charia Hebdo and referring to yet another cartoon, wondered how depicting 'Muhammad with a red nose saying that humour and Islam are after all compatible' can be construed as offensive. 
In moments like this collective amnesia can paralyze our critical reflexes and lure us into the vortex of a false sense of superiority and self-righteousness; the journalist as many others who talked to the television audiences, or addressed the crowds in the squares during this horrible day, have been instrumental in cultivating a collective amnesia by focusing on the innocence of the humour that Charlie Hebdo professed to be serving as their discourse left out ugly details of the innocent practices we call humour. 
I feel that I need to introduce a disclaimer here as what will follow might be easily dismissed as an apology for the murders in the 11th arrondissemrnt of Paris: There is no justification for the brutal murders and what follows should in no way be construed as such.

I will not refer to the many caricatures of Muhammad  that may have been considered offensive by Muslims but I will briefly discuss a particular instance that I found extremely revealing of the insensitivity and aggressiveness of the magazine editorial team's satire. In a 2012 issue of Charlie Hebdo, there is another depiction of Muhammad, on the back cover, not with a red nose this time but with a star (on/in his rectum). In it, he is depicted naked, kneeling and leaning on his elbows. His posture can be construed in many ways and I will not enter here in a detailed discussion of the possibilities of interpretation. 
Photograph of an Abu Ghraib inmate
I will, however, point out a similarity, possibly accidental, but nevertheless quite telling. When I first saw this caricature, my mind went to the 2003-4 photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib prison, in particular, the naked brutalized bodies of Iraqi prisoners. I remembered how their nakedness had acquired a metaphoric significance: there lay the bodies of people stripped not only physically but also, and perhaps more importantly, in terms of their dignity and rights.Some of them were forced to adopt postures similar to that of the caricature. Nakedness in these instances denoted, symbolized, was, aporia, vulnerability. The prisoners humiliated, open to the threat of mockery and abuse with their naked bodies ultimate tools of their torture. It is hard not to see some affinity between the systematic depiction of the naked prophet (literally undressed by the caricaturists) and the piles of naked bodies tortured in Abu Ghraib, at least the possible subconscious connections. The Prophet is naked, forced to bear all to the magazine's giggling readers, to adopt the same posture of the 'poor naked wretches' of Abu Ghraib. Stripped of his authority and dignity, he is not the ultimate target of Charlie Hebdo as he was not either in the case of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, In the eyes of many Muslims in Europe the target is they and their communities, their difference, the perceived belatedness of their cultures and values - that is what they have been telling during our research for our book Islam in Europe and that is what they keep telling us. Even non-religious 'Muslims' perceive such exercise of humour as attempts to alienate, exclude, minoritize and racialize. They take them personally, insofar as they constitute daily referenda on the continued questioning of their status in the societies which many of these have known as their only home.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom - Pier Paolo Pasolini
And a further point. Upon reflection, in both Abu Ghraib photos and several of the naked Muhammad drawings Charlie Hebdo hosted in its pages one can discern  the aftertaste of Marquis de Sade's 120 days of Sodom and, more importantly, the sinister biopolitics of the book's filmic rendition in Pasolini's Salò o120 Giornate di Sodoma. I would argue that it is this instrumentalization of the bodies of 'the wretched' and the desire to exercise absolute power on the body of the 'other' examined by de Sade and Pasolini that we see in the European Libertine and Libertarian traditions that have inspired Charlie Hebdo's approach to Muhammad (as well as those of Fortyn, Van Gogh, Jyllands Posten and many others'). Although the torturers of Abu Ghraib are unlikely to have seen Pasolini's film or read Sade, I am certain that Coco who drew Mohammed in CH (above, juxtaposed to one of the many photos of the hell of Abu Ghraib) had. And more, importantly, I am certain that Coco and the other slain carricaturists of CH were aware of the effect of constantly depicting a religious symbol naked, in sexualized contexts was part of a sinister technology of the self, of a Muslim self demeaned and derided. His systematic stripping and denigration has sought to alienate France's Muslim citizens as long as they remained reluctant to succumb to the dominant expectation to leave their cultural baggage outside of the public sphere, to be subjected to what effectively amounts to their dissection in cultural terms in order to benefit from the vague and highly conditional promise of eventual inclusion as equals.

If I could ever conclude an argument that still needs to be made, there is no doubt that militant Islamic fundamentalism presents a threat to Europe just as it does to everybody who does not fit to its procrustean logic of the right path in the Middle East, Sout Asia, Africa and beyond, We definitely need to engage with the threat of Islamic extremism and the hatred that it nurtures, But at the same time we need to rethink our relationship with Islam, we need to stop being surprised when confronted with hatred, we need to remember alongside the drawings of Mohammed with a red nose the ones with the star in his rectum. We cannot forget the imaginaries of humiliation of the 'Other' that Abu Ghraib reminded us belong to our own European modernity, its experimentation with freedom, its successes and its patent failures.We need to lose our pretentious innocence when we speak of our freedoms when we use these to belittle, denigrate and culturally eliminate others.

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