Charlie Hebdo and Islam: How I see it

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 11:17 PM
Who defines the limits of journalism? Who decides when the journalistic pen crosses the boundaries of objectivity and ventures into obscenities? You would probably say that common sensibilities define the boundaries of journalism. But I believe that the field of journalism is too dynamic to be defined by boundaries. I guess that that is the whole point of the exercise of the freedom of expression: it is hit and trial, like medicine, with the use of discretionary perceptions aiming at not hurting or targeting anyone in particular without a solid reason. That is a loose definition, one that you won't find written anywhere. But the principle purpose of journalism, to show the world as it is with its several shortcomings, inevitably allows space for some expression of freedom. And it isn't logical to expect all journalists to be artful with this freedom. Or moderate. That would be like an attempt at controlling people and free will. And who has ever been successful in doing that? The field of free writing can only prosper and continue to part-deliver on its promise of a well-informed world where journalistic articles make a difference IF and only IF journalists continue to get the freedom that they get now (in some countries at least) to write what they like. We can then only hope for them to be unbiased and non-judgemental in their reporting. That is the best logical hope for the world, and I say this without getting diluted in the fantastical vagaries of idealism that really exist nowhere.

When we talk about freedom, it goes without saying that some journalists take more liberties than the others. They are more callous in their depiction of the news and more fearless in voicing their opinions, knowing pretty well that they might even qualify as judgemental to a significant part of their target population. Some readers continue giving patronage to such pieces of journalism for this very fact – because they love the loud and fearless voice. Some others see it as plain news and filter what they feel is the essential component hidden within the lines. Charlie Hebdo is one such publication. The weekly satirical newspaper is published in French and features political jokes and cartoons. Its non-conformist tone had managed to anger a certain section of Muslims who took great offence to the paper’s cartoons on Islam (of course they chose to turn a blind eye to similar cartoons on Catholicism, Judaism, etc). Before the horrendous January 7, 2015 shooting massacre of twelve people at the newspaper's headquarters, the magazine had also been firebombed in 2011 after the publication had named the Prophet Muhammad “editor-in-chief” of an issue. The publication’s rebellious response had been the following cover:

 When translated, it simply meant - "Love is greater than hate". 

Charlie Hebdo was not ordinary. The work that they did was in no way similar to what other news publications do. Plain reportage of news was never their forte. But that did not warrant for the intolerance, hate and death that was bestowed upon the newspaper for the work that they did. With warnings or without, no one reserves the right to take away life for the sole reason of discomfort with someone's artistic expression. You don't shoot an author for his book. You debate it. Similarly, Charlie Hebdo could have been given a taste of its own medicine by the initiation of another publication with similarly loud views, the terrorists could have boycotted the newspaper for its supposedly vitriolic work OR they could have chosen to go on a silent protest on the streets against what had been drawn. Social media wars are also not out of question in today's digitally savvy world. But one CANNOT pick up a gun and start shooting people in the name of saving the Prophet.

Islam as a religion is like all other religions. It has a holy book called the Quran. It also has its own prayers, teachings and customs. But like all other religions, Islam is also subjectively translated by different people in different ways. Some Muslims say that Islam teaches them tolerance. Some others say that it teaches them that Prophet Muhammad is the last Prophet of God. There is yet another sections of Muslims who believe in Jihad. Jihad is the religious duty of Muslims. A person engaged in Jihad is called a Mujahid and the plural of that term is Mujahideen. 

Unfortunately, the world today sees the term 'mujahideen' as one related to terror. It has ever so often been used by news organizations in the context of an Islamic bombing or a terror attack of any other form. The image has stuck on and the word 'mujahideen' has become a sullied one. Who is to be blamed for the plight of Muslims around the world? Who is to be blamed for the questionable looks that a Muslim name evokes in different parts of the white-world and the eyebrows that it sometimes raises? The terror attacks of 9/11 made life miserable for all brown people, and particularly Muslims, living in America. Similarly, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the violence in its aftermath will come back to bite all Muslims in France. It is not their fault and they are not at all related to what happened. They might disapprove of this savage act of violence inflicted upon the journalists and policemen by their bigoted counterparts. But while the perpetrators are eventually caught, and they will be, and punished, it is the Muslims in France and around the world that will carry this burden on their heads for the times to come. Yet more eyebrows will be raised when they say their name aloud. Did the perpetrators not worry about the bad reputation that they bring to their religion around the world - the same religion under whose cover and for whose 'protection' they conduct these killings? Do they not worry about the misery of their fellow 'brothers' that inevitably follows these attacks? Clearly not and it leads us to wonder what the whole point of the violence was anyway.

If the point was to save Islam and bring it respect, the aftermath is always quite the opposite. Muslims around the world are labelled terrorists and leading lives becomes a little more harder for them. No one likes labels and tags. Nobody wants to be judged. But what do perpetrators of violence expect at the end of their heists? Do they 'avenge' the Prophet? Is the Prophet so weak and helpless that his teachings won't survive without these terrorists picking up their guns? The term 'terrorist' is defined as anyone who indulges in any act of violence and views himself as the victim of a historical wrong. So anyone who commits homicide in the name of religion becomes a terrorist. They do not 'avenge' anyone by such acts, they only endanger their own lives in the process and make the lives of other people like them around the world more miserable. Is this logic too hard to see? Is it too complicated to understand? Is tolerance such a bad virtue that it absolutely has to be shunned for anything to stand? Despite the many reasons that these terrorists give for their actions, at the end of the day, there is no rational justification for their acts.

I started this opinion piece by saying that the flourish of journalism cannot be curbed. It thrives in the multitude of artistic freedom of expression, punctuated by the desire to tell real stories without prejudice. Religion is something similar. Its existence has to be taken with a pinch of salt. There will always be elements who translate religion to suit their needs. They will exploit it and mangle it to propagate their capricious views. They hide in the vein of religion, without realizing that they are the cancer that plagues the body. They will pick up the gun and shoot people over silly cartoons. They shall not laugh at themselves and their gods. And they will slaughter anyone who chooses to do so. They will not be fair and they will not be objective. They will also continue to make the lives of their fellow brothers around the globe difficult with their actions. History is full of people who have acted irrationally. Irrationality is in fact the chief cause behind history being written. Someone's belief in their superiority and someone's inherent belief in their inferiority, someone believing that something needs to be avenged and someone else believing that they have been slighted. Some slighting others and some others mocking the slighted. Some sane ones who ask everyone to stop the irrationality. That is the order of the world. And we continue to live in such an imperfect world.

"One ought to hold on to one's heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too."
-Friedrich Neitzsche


nicely articulated. I for one lean towards the absolute freedom of expression simply because once we start drawing lines there is no end to them. Differences of opinion must not be countered through violence or the gun. But for a large number of people around the world who have come to believe in the purity of their thought process, this fact is lost. Your point about the consequences of such acts is correct but the perpetrators themselves do not subscribe to the vision of the society that we live in and hence we cannot for a moment expect them to assume that they only make life difficult for those whom they seek to protect.
Purity as a virtue is a mirage. We live in a messy world with a lot of greys and ambiguities. Charlie Hedbo is one of those. It is provocative and eye catching, maybe not pretty always but it cannot be wished away. Similarly, unless we get comfortable with the distortions that the world throws at us, we will continue to adhere to a rigid line of thought, blame the other and seek corrections or make statements through guns and bombs and coercion.

Nice pain, captured the anguish of someone who has known the field well.

the lazy knight: thanks for the detailed comment!! much appreciated like always :) i agree with all of that you say. the piece had to be written to lend a balanced voice to the ongoing, and sometimes lopsided, debate. its hard to be rational when people are being killed.

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