On Friday the Guardian published a drawing by Joe Sacco, entitled ‘On Satire’, as a reaction to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, which really made me think. Above are two extracts from the drawing.
My initial reaction, and I think the reaction of the vast majority of people, to the news that key members of Charlie Hebdo had been murdered, was one of sickened horror. How could such an act of barbarism happen, and who could take such serious offense against these, in some cases, elderly men (and one woman) who picked up their pencils to mercilessly satirise the modern world. I thought to myself, who actually takes satire seriously? One of the wonderful things about satire in the form of drawings is that is very quickly gets to the heart of the matter, often in an incisive, snide, irreverent, cheeky, politically incorrect, joyful, cruel way. No-one is really exempt from being targeted occasionally. Satire has a very healthy dose of a lack of respect for authority, which is very important to be exposed to from time to time.
Even though I am a committed Francophile, I can never really make up my mind about what I think about France’s so-called republican values. This may be because I have been brought up in a country where the ideal of the state is no-where near as prevalent as it is in France, and the Prime Minister doesn’t have nearly as much power as France’s President does. Therefore, on the one hand, I thrill to the notion of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, on the other hand I feel that in real life these values are maintained at a very utopian level, and are not necessarily felt in everyday life. Yet, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was extremely clearly an attack on republican values. Freedom of speech, or perhaps more accurately, freedom to draw what you want, clearly falls within these values, and this is what so offended the Kouchi brothers and their followers. I have been amazed and glad to see the mobilisation and the deep felt reaction across Europe to the massacre, as it would appear that these French values are appreciated by everyone, and that everyone, at an intellectual level, embraces them as European values. I must say, this was obviously an attack on France, but it resonates so much because it is also a two fingers up to the larger ideal of European democracy.
Yet with all these impassioned feelings of shock and horror, I still felt uneasy about the fact the European values, and French values, are also supposed to embrace Égalité. In some ways, Charlie Hebdo did address that, as it was blasphemous not only towards the Muslim faith, but also towards the larger Christian faith. As I said earlier, no-one was really exempt from its mockery. Yet, we have to admit that in this day and age, mocking Muslims is becoming quite dangerous. It is also mocking a faith whose vast majority are peaceful, law abiding citizens, trying to live normal lives under the scourge of a small minority of people. Actually, every time an attack is reported in the news where its author was Muslim, my respect for the Muslim faith grows as I wonder how hard it must be to continue to practice your faith peacefully and privately despite increasing levels of prejudice against it. After the attack, François Hollande made a point of saying that these attacks had nothing to do with the Muslim faith, and the brother of the Muslim policeman, Ahmed Merabet, who was killed has very recently spoken out to say that those who carried out the attacks were not members of, and therefore representative of, any religion. And of course, Charlie Hebdo was not meant to be taken seriously. But just because you say it’s a joke, does that mean that everything is ok? And whilst people might argue that Égalité is mocking both Muslims and Christians together, everyone probably also knows deep down that you can mock Christians without a huge amount of risk, yet if you mock Muslims you expose yourself to huge geopolitical tension, and you also hurt and offend a population that is very prevalent in France. To ask people to adhere to the value of Égalité, you must first demonstrate it yourself.