Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Islamophobia As a Function of Racism

This month, a publication whose work went largely unnoticed by Americans and our media outlets has been thrust into the spotlight and is the focus of strident discussion and disagreement in the aftermath of a violent attack on its editorial staff. On January 7th, 2015, armed gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a so-called satirical magazine in Paris, killing twelve and injuring four. 

While the origins of the attack were initially unclear (al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen have since claimed responsibility), the motivations of the killings have been imminently clear. This is not the first time Charlie Hebdo has been targeted by religious extremists. The publication has long been the focus of complaints critical of the magazine's "humor." For years, alongside cartoons lampooning the Pope and French political leaders, Charlie Hebdo's artists have included depictions of Muslims and Muslim holy figures (specifically Muhammad) in caricatures deemed by many to be homophobic and racist.

This has not blunted the outpouring of support for the magazine and its murdered artists and editors in the West. Moderates and liberals alike have chosen to stand up for what they view as a free-speech issue, proclaiming "Je Suis Charlie" (I Am Charlie in French) in order to show their support for unfettered freedom of the press to produce whatever material it deems appropriate. On the 11th, an estimated 1.6 million took to the streets in Paris in solidarity with the dead artists. Backlash has been widespread, with many blaming Islam in its entirety for the attack, with Rupert Murdoch publicly stating that all Muslims must be held responsible.

Some of us, however, don't want to say "Je Suis Charlie." It's not out of misguided stubbornness; we simply don't want to identify with racist art.

Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie

It is of course important to take a stance against violence enacted by religious extremism. However, it is important to remain critical of racist rhetoric (and yes, art can certainly be rhetorical). Our social media has been choked up with a debate centered around the "right" of free speech. At least, mine certainly is and I'm sure yours has seen a lot of fierce arguments on either side of the discussion. On one hand, proponents of "free speech" state that Charlie Hebdo can say whatever they want to free of sanction, while on the other people are refusing to stand in support of its controversial cartoons.

The thing is, this debate isn't actually about free speech or really terrorism even. At its core, this discussion is about anti-Muslim hatred, its impact on others, and whether or not we should feel free to make racist art about a vast demographic with a tremendous wealth of cultural variation and substance.

Critical to the arguments on behalf of secularist "free speech," of course, is the argument that Islam is a religion, not a race. Therefore, Charlie Hebdo's work is satire criticizing religious power structures instead of racist trash and therefore should be protected. While secularist liberals may identify with such ideas, it's important to accept that Islamophobia, a culture of hatred against Islam and those who profess it, is inextricable from racism.

Islamophobia: A Colonial Tradition

It has always been in the interest of the West to ridicule Islam. Colonial powers have throughout history benefited politically and economically by engaging in rhetoric detrimental to Muslims. Whether it be the Crusades or the French occupation of North Africa, white dominance over the regions where Islam hold sway depended on the ability of European colonizers' ability to paint Muslims in the public eye as unwashed savages and infidels.

While the French colonial empire has largely ended, it is still in the interest of those who inherited the legacy of colonialism to assert the superiority of white governments of European descent. Make no mistake, there is still a lot of profit to be made by the exploitation of Arab and African land and labor, and one of the easiest ways to maintain dominance is to continue an idea of Muslims as dirty, insane extremists bent on the destruction of wholesome white culture.

Charlie Hebdo is exemplary at that. Feeding on white rage at the immigrants in their midst, they created images paralleled by our own far right, notably once depicting Boko Haram rape survivors as ugly welfare queens capitalizing on the product of the sexual abuse that had been visited upon them.

"Don't touch my allotments!"

Good old American racism.

Americans, of course, are used to this sort of depiction. It is undeniably racist; in both instances brown women are depicted as ugly, smelly harridans demanding the hard-earned cash accumulated by more deserving (and of course, white) citizens. In both, a rich culture is debased and reduced to the stereotype of shrewish brown manipulator in order to further agendas of white preservation and supremacy.

With Islamophobia, we combine critique of religion with shocking racism. In the West's public perception, Islam is equated with Arab. When we produce caricatures of Muslims, we invariably depict them with turbans, giant mustaches and noses, curved swords and swarthy complexions. When we lampoon Muslims, we ignore the complete reality of Islam and instead focus on a historical racial target of the West's aggression: the brown people of the Middle East.

This has been proven since the attack. A wave of violence and hate-filled messages have struck Muslims in France, with one piece of graffiti all too clearly illustrating the marriage of Islamophobia and racism. One mosque opened its doors one morning to find a message painted on a nearby wall: "Death to Arabs."

Yes. Islamophobia is about racism, my friends.

And No, You Shouldn't Be Charlie Either. 

We can condemn murder without replicating harmful narratives that lead to the destruction of brown lives. While Charlie Hebdo's pens certainly never killed anyone, anti-Arab sentiment repurposed as art has indeed contributed to a culture of violence and exploitation felt deeply in the Middle East and in Paris' backyard. It's easy to see as an outsider; affluent white French get the best neighborhoods while North Africans and Arabs are relegated to brown ghettoes in the suburbs of Paris. Muslims are banished to the back streets and alleys, left to begging, selling tourist trinkets, and making falafel in order to scrape by.

That's really the crux of the problem with Charlie Hebdo's "satire." Frankly, it's not satire. Satire is about critiquing power and lampooning those who have it. It's quite clear that French Muslims do not have power. Having a white editorial staff depicting the entirety of Islam as gap-toothed murderous fanatics isn't courageous; it's taking a cheap shot against an already oppressed minority. It's bullying, and we shouldn't support that.

In short, I am not Charlie and neither should you be. Charlie Hebdo continues to perpetrate a legacy of racism and ugly oppression. Why would you want to?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This article is excellent. I endorse every word except the point about the French Empire having largely ended. It ruddy well has not ended. Throughout Francophone Africa, France still props up despots beholden to it, and enforces its will when necessary by military intervention and occupation.

    In the meantime, the Arab population of France (most of whom are not immigrants, having arrived in France when Algeria was made a department of the country, not a colony) is packed into ghettoes with no facilities whatsoever, and Islam blamed when they - inevitably - erupt, it's Islam that is blamed.

    Again, congratulations on your article.


  3. Well written article, putting together in coherent fashion many of the stray thoughts I have had since I started doing some research on Charlie Hebdo.