By Devang Pathak:
You woke up today the same way you have in recent weeks- after the Sydney attack, the Peshawar school massacre and the months of ISIS atrocities. You felt disheartened and hopeless about the world, thanked your God that you and your loved ones are safe, and prayed for those who died. I hope this is how most of us reacted but I know I might be wrong. I know many must have reacted with prejudice and quick judgements which might not sound politically correct. The latter behaviour is what I am concerned with.
Charlie Hebdo is a satirical French magazine which has been operational since 1969. The magazine changed its name from Hara-Kiri Hebdo to Charlie Hebdo after a government ban, taking its name from the Peanuts character Charlie Brown. The magazine is infamous for its scathing cartoons and humour which had drawn brunt of the government in its early years, including several bans. It ceased publication in 1981 but was restarted in 1992. The magazine never attained huge circulation until its most famous decision in February 2006.
Charlie Hebdo decided to republish the Danish cartoons which were receiving flak for the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, along with some of their own cartoons. There was a boost in circulation from 100,000 to 160,000 with more being ordered for next day print. This was followed up by an edition in 2011 where the Prophet was the ‘guest editor’. The cover went viral and Charlie Hebdo had its first brush with violence in the form of fire-bombing of its office in November 2011. Their website was also hacked. All this culminated this week into the deadliest attack in France since 1961.
On January 7th, the suspects, Said Kouachi, Cherif Kouachi and Hamyd Mourad attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris killing 12 people. Those who were killed included Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of the magazine, France’s famous cartoonists- Jean Cabut, George Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac, aka Tignous, Economist and writer- Bernard Maris along with two policemen who were there to protect the magazine and the editor after numerous past threats. Mr Mourad has surrendered to the police while the search for the other two suspects is still on.
The only two issues which are being overwhelmingly discussed right now are these- the threat to freedom of press and the intolerance of one religion. One fact which is not being discussed is how Charlie Hebdo mocked many mainstream cultural issues. They made fun of Christianity but only the Islam cartoons drew attention. They made fun of France’s politics, carrying forward a legacy of irreverence and satire since the French Revolution.
Cartoons and satire are always controversial. It ranges from making fun of the way the world behaves- our hypocrisies and behaviour towards certain things in the world to hyperbole and crude insults. Can it go wrong or excessive? Of course it can. Charlie Hebdo had its share of controversies beside the said cartoons. There was also room for criticism of the publication which was done by various Muslim groups in France. The magazine was even taken to court over the 2006 cartoons. Charlie Hebdo tried to look at the world in a way which differs from you and me- away from the glasses of religion and censorship. Did you not agree with them? Don’t subscribe to them.
Can we then start with taking the merits of the issue? Can we start blaming the magazine? Can we blame the terrorists? We can maybe do something else: self-reflection.
In a fashion similar to the Syndey attack, a Twitter hashtag has become famous- Je Suis Charlie ( I am Charlie). I agree with this. You are Charlie Hebdo. Yes, you my reader- the voracious commenter and Tweeter. The Internet is your magazine which you use to write your opinions and views. I do the same with my blogs and articles. Now let’s imagine that as we are ready to mock or state something which might not be agreeable to someone somewhere, a gun pops out of our phone or computer screen. Imagine being shot for a Tweet. That is what is quickly approaching.
The world is a generally decent place. The hateful and the bigoted are often weeded out of the mainstream and reside on the fringes. The same could have been the case for Charlie Hebdo if it pursued a stringently bigoted path of anti-Islam. The truth is that it didn’t and more than anything, it was never meant to be taken seriously. The greater universal truth is that no one deserves death for an opinion or expression- not a cartoonist questioning society or a Facebook user expressing his frustration, be it any religion, colour or gender. The terrorists who played a role here and everywhere in threatening journalists, educators and thinkers and even killing them- gave more credence to an age old statement than any book or essay. The pen is mightier than the sword.
I repeat my unsuccessful attempt to appeal to these extremists who function under different cloaks and beliefs, and always fail to understand one simple flaw in their fear mongering to convert, propagate or enforce- what love can conquer, a bullet never will.