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OP-ED: Je ne suis pas Charlie

  • Published at 07:16 pm September 2nd, 2020
Charlie Hebdo
File photo: A woman walks past a street painting, known as C215, in tribute to members of Charlie Hebdo newspaper who were killed by jihadist gunmen in January 2015, in Paris, on August 31, 2020 AFP

There has to be a balance informed by tolerance and respect

Last year, cartoonists were dismayed and shocked when The New York Times declared that it would no longer carry cartoons in its international edition. 

Had it happened on its own, it would have been acceptable as editorial policy. That the decision followed publication of a cartoon showing Donald Trump wearing the Jewish religious cap, the kippa, leading a dog on a leash, the face of which was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put paid to the concept of self-censorship. 

Opinions might differ, but the weightage inclines to what must have been more than a “gentle nudge” by the powers that be. The Times is open in its criticism of Trump and his policies. It is also one of the US president’s favourite punching bags of “fake news.” 

While one section of cartoonists has bemoaned the demise of humour and satire, others acknowledge, however grudgingly, that readers have a reduced appetite for these, and prefer photographs and videos, graphic as they may be. 

The sad passing or retirement of iconic creators of series such as Peanuts and Garfield and withdrawal of our very own Rafiqunnabi’s Tokai may have been a precursor to this. Such a realization has potent ramifications for the industry and its future. 

Exemplary success in reaching young minds through cartoon characters espousing socially accepted values and behaviour, and the huge success of animation in films and motivational campaigns suggest all is not bleak. Work has increased with art galleries as well. 

That being said, the obvious key-words are “socially accepted.” This, at a time when hard questions are being asked of prevailing education and curriculum content. With news media focusing on and to an extent enflaming issues, political and social exposure of the young generation can’t be avoided. 

All of these influence impressionable minds. Influences that have a bearing on mental make-up as they progress to adulthood. The Times’s decision probably related to the anti-Semitic nature of the Trump illustration, and is in conflict with the general American views of Israel and the Jewish religion. 

With the explosion of social media, cartoonists and media have been on the receiving end of abuse, hate messages, and criticism that far outnumber those of appreciation. 

Criticism of decisions and views are natural. Taking the law into one’s own hands isn’t. The trial has commenced in France over the dastardly attack that killed eleven members of the magazine Charlie Hebdo’s staff in January 2015 with public demonstrations of support. 

Ten persons are in the dock, three will be tried in absentia. Three of the terrorists were killed in the ensuing fight and chase with French security forces. All this has led to pessimism among many that justice won’t be fully served. From the French legal perspective, the weekly magazine wasn’t violating any laws by publishing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) including one showing him carrying a bomb in his turban.  

These had been published earlier by a Danish magazine. France doesn’t have any considerations for hurting the sentiments of followers of the world’s second most followed religion, Islam, for whom any visual depiction of the Prophet (pbuh) is sacrilegious. 

Emmanuel Macron has refused to condemn Charlie Hebdo and has defended the right to blaspheme. Blaspheme the magazine does. Essentially left-leaning, it has an avowed atheist stance ridiculing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in addition to lampooning politicians. Yet, two of its previous targets, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacque Chirac, wrote to the court in its defense. The trial will hopefully serve justice no matter to what extent.

The pertinent question that is being asked is whether freedom of speech, reflected through illustrations and captions, should be just to express a view or aim for a social good or reform. The answer has to be “no.” 

The follow-up question? Should there be a muzzling of such views or even criticism? Another emphatic answer: “No.” There has to be a balance informed by tolerance and respect for others’ opinions. The media has to be responsible. Authorities even more so. 

Charlie Hebdo hasn’t shown any regrets. If anything, they have taken the defiance to absurd levels by reprinting the offending cartoons. If that isn’t influencing the court, what is? Sorry, but je ne suis pas Charlie. l

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.

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