Je Suis Charlie Chaplin: How Satire wins Freedom of Expression

As I write this, there’s an intense pressure building up in France. The terrorists have been killed after a long drawn operation encompassing the entire city. But ripples are floating throughout the world, ever since Charlie Hebdo’s office was attacked and a few of its journalists killed. Media all across the world started rallying for the ‘attack on the freedom of expression’, and everyone in the world became Charlie.

Charlie Hebdo, or Charlie Weekly, published some cartoons lampooning Prophet Mohammad, one of the most respected figures in Islam. It has a history of doing so, and getting threatened for doing so. But they decided to keep at it. Charlie Hebdo got one of its writers, Maurice Sinet, charged for Anti-Semitism in 2009, and later dismissed from the magazine. The publication was earlier banned by France in 1970 when it poked fun on the death of the former French president Charles de Gaulle. It was reestablished in 1992.

The recent cartoons and the consequential events cannot be seen in the limited timeframe in which the incident is being talked about. The magazine has been taking potshots at Jews, Christians and Muslims since a long time. They have depicted Jesus Christ as a reality TV star, the Pope holding a condom, and also the ISIS leader Abu Bakr on their satirical covers. But a lot of focus has remained on Islam and their leaders.

France has a very secular society. So secular, that they are radical in their approach. France detests public display of one’s religion and believes it to be private act. This is in direct contrast to what practicing Muslims believe – Men wear skullcaps along with a beard, women wear veils or other forms of head scarves. The situation becomes a little stressful when France decided to ban burqas and naqabs, veils for women, with the Muslim population was roughly around 4.5 million. The country has one of the highest per capita populations of Muslims among the European nations.

In 2013, the French government launched a charter to keep religion out of school. Though an attempt to bring religions at an equal sphere, this was seen as an attempt to marginalize the Muslim community. The community desisted all these attempts, and protested publically.  The French xenophobia started to become more evident.

This is where Charlie Hebdo kicked in with their cartoons. They said they made fun of the fundamental approach of Islam, and it’s Editor-in-chief, Gerard Biard said in 2012, “We’re a newspaper against religions as soon as they enter into the political and public realm.” Thus a series of cartoons came about ridiculing the activities of the Muslims in France and also across the world. They also began to breach limits.

Satire is one of the best ways to put across wisdom, and protest in a peaceful fashion. It can have a far-reaching impact, both positively and negatively. France’s ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’, in its article 11 clearly states that, “The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, save [if it is necessary] to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law.” The Pleven Act of 1972, and the Gayssot Act of 1992 are important pillars of the constitution, prohibiting incitement to hatred, discrimination, slander and racial insults and prohibiting any racist, anti-Semite, or xenophobic activities, including Holocaust denial, respectively. Clearly, the law was trespassed many times in the garb of apparent freedom of expression.

I condemn the killings, of course. No amount of logic can justify what happened at the Charlie Hebdo office. The killings are not representative of the religion also. I, as a Muslim, and also a journalist, condemn the attacks and all such activities perpetrated by some fringe activists. But then also, I am not Charlie. I condemn those drawings too, because that’s not satire. That’s racism. That’s insult.

A satire or humor works best when it’s not forced, when the artist need not delve into the vulgar territory to incite humor and when the joke hurts and yet makes you smile. Remember Charlie Chaplin? He did satires, and did them well. If ever I wish to be Charlie, I would prefer the Chaplin one.


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