A Fine Line Between Hurt and Humor

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Almost 4 million people across France rallied to support the victims of an attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. The attack, which left 12 dead and nearly a dozen wounded, was exacted by three Muslim extremists agitated by depictions of the Prophet Muhammad illustrated in compromising situations.

The majority of mainstream media has figured the murders as an attack on free speech by religious extremism. Outlets have opted to focus on the slain staff of Charlie Hebdo as brave champions of the right to offend, and social media users around the world have responded to the tragedy using #JeSuisCharlie, but this narrative is too simplistic.

While we in no way condone the violence brought on those who were either murdered or injured, to martyr them is to mask the ways they might have contributed to the historical oppression of French Muslims and Algerians, and, by extension, limits a much-needed conversation about the function of satire.

The victims of the attack — editors, writers and staff members — devoted their careers to shedding a humorous light on serious topics and to challenging systems of power — as satire often aims to do. Freedom of the press, a right that protects journalists, means Charlie Hebdo’s staff members have the right to express themselves without having to fear for their lives, even if their expressions are sometimes offensive. This right has been upheld in previous lawsuits brought against Hebdo.

In 2007, the satirical magazine was put on trial under anti-racism laws after two groups of French Muslims argued that the magazine printed “public insults against a group of people because they belong to a religion.” The French Muslims cited a Hebdo illustration depicting Muhammad wearing a turban with a bomb in it and another with the prophet addressing bombers with “stop, we have run out of virgins.” The French court ruled in favor of Charlie Hebdo, citing its staff’s freedom of expression.

After winning the suit and garnering support from various French political leaders, Charlie Hebdo continued to publish similar content. The offices were firebombed in 2011, also in a response to its illustrations. Editor Stéphane Charbonnier, who was one of the 12 people killed in last week’s attack, constantly received death threats. In the past, Charbonnier defended the magazine by saying that “anti-racism and a passion for equality among all people are and continue to be the founding principles of Charlie Hebdo.” He added that Hebdo aimed to question those in power — especially those in “clerical organizations.” Though the producers of the magazine were conscious of the effect they had on their readers, the publication did not skirt away from its objective.

In an article published by The Atlantic, Gérard Biard, the top editor at Charlie Hebdo, defended the illustrations by saying the magazine had also “made a habit” of ridiculing other non-Islamic religious figures. He added that special attention was focused on the Islamic community because its beliefs prevented it from “full integration into French society.”

Historically, French policies have aimed to assimilate immigrants into a culture in which every member adheres to a strictly secular French identity. The European Court of Human Rights recently upheld France’s ban on overt signs of religion in an effort to keep the public and the private sphere apart. While this ban includes all religious wear, many have critiqued it as specifically targeting the Muslim religion.

For nearly 5 million Muslims in France — the largest number in Europe according to the Washington Post — joblessness and poverty remain much higher than in the rest of the nation. Charlie Hebdo’s targeted mockery of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad contributed to what the Post characterized as “the everyday humiliation of Muslims in France.”

When satire ridicules a religious figure considered sacred by an already marginalized Arab community, the effect is not, as it might intend, a humorous challenge to religious extremism, but further alienation of that community. Satire is most powerful when it’s challenging those in power and not those without it.

Further, while the depictions were made in jest, some of the images inadvertently contributed to a discourse that denounces Muslims, and suggests that actual integration of many Arabs in France is contingent on giving up an important part of their identity.

Examples in U.S. history have proven that illustrations can be creators of stereotypes and facilitators of racism. Caricatures and cartoons of communities of color have fostered stereotypes that feed into racist beliefs. Throughout the 19th century, racist cartoons were the main contributors to anti-black sentiments that fomented racial violence across the nation.

However questionable the illustrations in the magazine may be, we cannot overlook the murders of over a dozen people in the span of a week. While we remain critical of satirical illustrations and the way they impact discourse around cultures and religions, we do not condone the unspeakable violence that occurred. There needs to be more discussions of how media can challenge or contribute to systems of oppression, but that conversation cannot happen if we respond to offenses with violence rather than seeking dialogue.