I was standing in the line at Woolworths yesterday. It’s an upmarket grocery store in a chi-chi shopping centre in suburbia. I always read the paper while I am waiting and the front page was full of images from the past week. As I put the paper down I noticed the two women in front of me. They were both dressed in the traditional long robes and hijab scarf that I associate with devout Muslims. They had been watching me read. The older woman said: “I am so sorry.”
I smiled at her and shook my head. Trying to convey that I didn’t hold her responsible. But she just looked down at the floor. The younger woman took her arm: “Come Mommy.” As they moved to pay, I saw the daughter glance at the paper. The image of the gunman shooting the policeman as he lay on the floor begging for his life lay between us, like a burnt bridge.
When I got home I ran around the web some, trying to piece together the cartoon history that had set the two brothers on their deadly path. There was a lot. And, I have to be honest, as deeply and fiercely protective as I am of the universal right to freedom of speech; I found some of the drawings distasteful. Muhammad was depicted in various graphic, sometimes sexual, often naked positions. And, while I couldn’t fully understand the French, and so possibly lost out on the humour – it all felt a little teenage, gratuitous, Mad-magazine-ish.
It also felt like hate-speech. I mean, who exactly were they targeting?
I wondered how Catholics opening the Daily Mail would feel about a cartoon of a leprechaun being anally rended by Jesus, as the Pope watched? Or Jews on discovering Abraham drawn pleasuring a bull in the op-ed section of The Palestine Chronicle?
The thing about satire is it needs context, taking it out of the magazine and sharing it all over the internet removes context.
A number of respected news outlets around the world have elected not to print or post the most controversial of the cartoons. NPR, The New York Times and the Washington Post have used their editorial boards to review the contents. Something they do on a regular basis – when material is potentially offensive because of religious, racial or sexual content. The NPR clarified their decision: “Just because offensive images are part of a story does not mean a news organisation must publish or post them with its news reports”. In other words: we will report it – because that is our duty, but we will not inflame or titilate – because that is not our way.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be allowed to view the cartoons, should we choose to. I did, and I found them easily enough. But here’s the thing- slamming the beehive with a giant stick is only going to infuriate the bees. And, like extremists, they will swarm and sting until someone stops them. That’s partly what happened here.
Perhaps it’s time for a re-evaluation of what we are prepared to read, see, watch or put up with. To start a discussion as to why certain sections of our community aren’t able to laugh at unflattering images of themselves. Is it, perhaps, because that is all they ever see? We can’t just ignore how this story played out. If we do it’s going to happen again. And we’re going to devolve into a separated society, an ‘us and them’, an apartheid. To pretend something isn’t profoundly wrong is fatal. We’ve all see how that movie ends.
Cherif and Said Kouachi claim to have been members of Al-Quaeda. Boko Haram killed 2000 people in Nigeria over the weekend and sent a ten-year old girl, small body strapped with explosives – into a market where she detonated her bomb. These are not acts of worship: they are the actions of fanatics who think they have the right to eradicate anyone who doesn’t agree with them. While they say they have committed these atrocities in defence of their religion, these people are the monsters. The Prophet is not.
Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee at Paris Kosher grocery store Hyper Cacher, who saved several people by hiding them in a walk-in freezer when a gunman laid siege to his workplace on Friday, cut to the chase: “We are brothers. It’s not a question of Jews, of Christians or of Muslims. We’re all in the same boat, we have to help each other to get out of this crisis.”
We would be charlies not to.
(Image of front cover of next week’s New Yorker drawn by Ana Juan. Copyright The New Yorker.)