Tuesday, 13 January 2015

"We were simply joyful unbelievers"

Amazing new Charlie Hebdo cover. The headline says, "All is forgiven." I'm not a fan of most of the prophet-cartoons out there - that Danish one with the bomb as a turban, for example, is just nasty. But this one really follows the best tradition of graphic art. It's witty and moving.

And what a powerful message:

“We feel that we have to forgive what happened," said Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo, on BBC Radio 4 today. "I think those who have been killed, if they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to ask them why have they done this … We feel at the Charlie Hebdo team that we need to forgive."

Luz, the cartoonist who drew the cover, only survived the massacre at Charlie Hebdo because he was running late. There was a fascinating interview with him in Les Inrocks shortly after the attack. He said he wasn't even sure how he could continue drawing. One of the things that weighed on him was the enormous responsibility placed on the team's shoulders after the first cartoon controversy in 2007. He questioned the sudden scrutiny of their cartoons for a deeper symbolism and political meaning, "when on a worldwide scale, we are merely a damn teenage fanzine".

"We were simply joyful unbelievers," he said. "All of those that died were joyful unbelievers. And now, they’re nowhere. Just like everyone else."

It must be unsettling for an irreverent, anti-establishment artist to suddenly find himself turned into a national symbol, a warrior saving the Republic. Luz said his dead friends would have scorned the singing of the national anthem at the rally in their honour. Charlie is not about symbols, he said, but about specific cartoons lampooning specific people and situations. And in that vein, he was going to force himself to publish the next edition, not for some wider cause but for his friends:

"I’m going to think about my dead friends, knowing they didn’t fall for France! Today, it seems that Charlie fell for the freedom of speech. The simple fact is that our friends died. The friends we loved and whose talent we admired so very much."

Friday, 9 January 2015

"Mustapha Baudelaire", or why this is not a clash of civilisations

Mustapha Ourrad

Among the twelve people killed at Charlie Hebdo were two Muslims, copy editor Mustapha Ourrad and policeman Ahmed Merabet.

Zineb El Rhazoui, a French-Moroccan journalist at Charlie Hebdo, writes in this heartfelt piece:

"Mustapha died. He only obtained the French nationality a few weeks ago. With his North African accent, rolling his r's, he was the one who corrected our French. Every Monday, which was deadline day, he would not leave his office except to bend over the shoulder of a journalist and ask in a low voice: "What exactly were you trying to say?"

Mustapha Ourrad left Algeria in 1978. I found some pictures of his home village on an Algerian news site, TSA, along with quotes from old friends that paint a picture of an ambitious young man straining to see the world.

"He was very young and summarised the books of André Gide, Malraux and Baudelaire for us; which is why we nicknamed him Mustapha Baudelaire," his childhood friend Ousmer told TSA.

Mustapha Ourrad's village in Algeria; source: TSA

Already the far-right is trying to use the horrible events of this week to stoke fear of immigrants and warn against the evils of multiculturalism. If anything, the team at Charlie Hebdo was proof that immigration and multiculturalism are good things. Migrants benefit from global opportunities, host countries benefit from a global talent pool. Multiculturalism is not the problem. Murderous lunatics are the problem.

I haven't seen many articles on the religious and cultural diversity at Charlie Hebdo, whereas I've seen plenty of articles on what this all means for relations between French Muslims and non-Muslims. This is a false divide. Journalists like Zineb El Rhazoui and Mustapha Ourrad have/had a Muslim background, but they clearly, obviously have/had more in common with Charb and Tignous than with their attackers. This is so banal it hurts me to write it, and I'm only writing it because of all that ridiculous talk of the "clash of civilisations". There is no clash of civilisations. Liberty, equality, human rights are not Western privileges. Zineb El Rhazoui said she was hired because of her activism in her native Morocco during the Arab Spring. In 2013 she published a comic book called "The Life of Mohammed" together with Charb, one of the cartoonists. And guess which subject she graduated in? Sociology of religion.

Charlie Hebdo & Voltaire

Photo: Le Monde/AFP

"I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." (Voltaire)

When I read about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo this week, I felt such sorrow for the twelve victims. Much has been written about the cartoonists, who bravely exercised their right to poke fun at every single world religion. As Salman Rushdie said in reaction to the killings: "Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect." Now that the news cycle is moving on, some columnist seem to be grasping for clickbait and creative angles, and I've seen a few stories saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were provocative or rude. This of course misses the point. The point is not that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were great. 100,000 French people didn't spontaneously take to the streets in mourning because the cartoons were great. The point is that everyone has the right to draw cartoons. And if someone takes offense, they also have the right to respond: by drawing another cartoon, by arguing against the cartoon, even by sueing if they feel the cartoon is defamatory. That's how democracy works. What is unacceptable is to kill someone because you disagree with them. It is also unacceptable to blame the victim, or, as the Financial Times did, to suggest the editors at Charlie Hebdo could have used more "common sense", which sounds suspiciously like "well she shouldn't have worn such a short skirt". Cautious satire, common-sense satire, is pointless satire.

In that context, I was thinking of the non-journalists who were killed at Charlie Hebdo. The bodyguard, the two policemen, the receptionist, the caretaker. In some ways, they were the best and bravest defenders of free speech and liberal values. They weren't the ones who drew the cartoons. But they worked in a building that had been repeatedly threatened, and in the case of the policemen, they tried to protect the lives of others simply because it was their duty, because it was the right thing to do. It's sad that so little is known about these victims, and I hope we'll learn more about them. I keep thinking that there must have been at least one among them who didn't even read Charlie Hebdo, maybe didn't even like the cartoons. Someone who truly embodied that Voltaire quote: someone who perhaps disapproved of what the cartoonists said, but defended to the death their right to say it.