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Issue 271, Friday 25 November 2011 - 29 Dhu al-Hijjah 1432

Don’t let Charlie Hebdo be seen as a victim

By Siraj Datoo

The offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo burned the day it was due to publish an issue with a cover appearing to make fun of Islamic law

Can satire and Islamism co-exist? This was the question posed on the MailOnline’s comment website, Right Minds, shortly after the firebombing of the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly), a satirical French magazine in Paris.

Following the election of Islamic parties in Tunisia and Libya, Editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane Charbonnier, decided to publish a “special edition” of the newspaper which declares Prophet Muhammad to be the “guest editor” and features a comic image of him on the front cover.

Yet is the MailOnline’s question the one we should be analysing? Perhaps we should instead be focussing on the issue of freedom of expression; talking about the firebomb as Charbonnier argues that it was “an attack on freedom itself” and in particular the freedom of expression. This is also the opinion of many French political leaders and commentators who all came out in a similar tone. French Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, for example, said that “all attacks on the freedom of the press must be condemned with the greatest firmness.”

Indeed, the attack on the satirical weekly was inexcusable and freedom of the press is an extremely important value to defend – and this is also the attitude taken by head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Mohammed Moussaoui. What is most striking is that this attack occurred before the paper had even reached the public – the perpetrators had not even seen what the issue consisted of before they threw Molotov cocktails.

This brings us to a yet a more important point. The reason that Charlie Hebdo was already being talked about – and possibly (at the time of writing the culprits remain unknown) why its headquarters were set ablaze – was because the editors had already revealed details of this “special edition” to the media. The newspaper had effectively informed the public what the paper was going to contain before it was published, rather a strange move for a newspaper. Unless, of course, their aim was to provoke.

Freedom of the press allows newspapers to put across their own viewpoint, criticise the government and Charlie Hebdo is meant to be a weekly that satirises the latest political events. However, this issue was direct goading and I argue that the primary aim was to create controversy in order to gain international news attention, especially since it seems they are in dire need of good marketing. After all, I live in France and this is the first time I have heard of the paper. Even worse (for them), I received disgusted looks in the first five newsagents I visited asking for Charlie Hebdo each saying that they didn’t stock the paper.

When I eventually obtained a copy, it became clearer why the other newsagents did not sell the paper. For a satire, it missed one crucial element; the paper is just not funny. The front cover depicts a cartoon of the Prophet in which he jokes, “A hundred lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” The editorial, apparently written by the Prophet, states, “There is no god but God, otherwise all hell will be let loose.” Further inside, another image of the Prophet is seen. This time, he has a red nose with a caption, “Yes, Islam and humour are compatible.”

If this was a theatre, the phrase used to describe the paper would be “all sparkle and no dazzle”. The issue is simply an attempt to mock perceived Islamic values, rather than to make a serious point and this is demonstrated further in their other comic skits, with a special feature insulting the idea of the niqab and ridicules the idea that neither Tunisia nor Libya can be democratic if they are lead by Islamic governments. Essentially, the jokes are poor and a little dreary.

Now Charlie Hebdo has started to act the martyr. They re-published the same issue in the name of freedom of expression and started to whinge when they no longer could moderate the comments on their Facebook page and have criticised the corporation. What they failed to mention is that they in fact broke Facebook’s Terms and Conditions by creating a fake user account called Charlie Hebdo and that the social netwrok has been deleting such user accounts for the past year.

This anarchist paper prides itself on its ability to make humorous commentary on political issues yet this special issue lacked hilarity and instead has continued the right-wing Islamophobic trend that has been sweeping the country in recent years. Without even reflecting on the niqab ban earlier this year and the ban on wearing the hijab in public schools, the Government last year went so far as sponsoring debates around the country about the role of Islam in French society, all in the name of secularism. For too long have French governments been targeting Muslims as part of their sinister right-wing agenda to gain more votes. Perhaps the political leaders should now be asking whether they have indeed gone too far with their attack on Islam and should instead be concentrating on real matters that affect the nation, such as the fact that their unemployment rate is an astounding 9.9%.

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