The world is mourning the daylight murder of 12 people, including four of Charlie Hebdo’s (the French satirical magazine) top cartoonists. An act of unbridled terror, a clamping down on liberty, freedom of expression and the basic democratic right to say the unsayable and the putatively offensive – this was a horrific crime by those who claim to be defenders of Islam. It’s a false claim, since the faith, despite its Koranic origin, is a sum total of the beliefs and practices of those who follow it. Of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, a good 23 per cent, only a handful think it’s fair to kill because someone has offended your deeply cherished sentiments.
Hence, the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s office in the heart of Paris is just that: a gruesome killing of not just journalists but also the idea that they represented: that no god or messenger of god can stop an equal-opportunity lampooner. That no figure, human or divine, however sacred, majority or minority, was above ridicule. In fact, what the killers, undoubtedly a lunatic fringe inspired or possibly trained by the bigger killing machines like ISIS and Al Qaeda, want to extract is a backlash so fierce that it gives more fuel to their engine of malintent.
The massacre was orchestrated for effect: spectacular and ideological. The perpetrators, the self-proclaimed vigilantes of a faith so abused and misrepresented, had clearly expected the climate of Islamophobic backlash and cultural paranoia to intensify, so that it becomes easier for them to justify their existence. Moreover, this is just the right peg on which the European Far Right brigade, such as UKIP in Britain, Le Pen in France, or Pegida in Germany will hang their patently racist ideologies from, declaring the need for a greater clamp down on ‘immigration’, and furnishing more inane justifications for continuing wholesale discrimination of Muslims world over in the garb of fighting terror. It is but natural that the extremists, whether of radical Islamic origin or white and brown-skinned fascists in Euro-America or India, are in a mutually symbiotic situation, where they inflame passions in an equal and opposite manner and keep the state of critical chaos going.
While the bloodbath in Paris must be condemned unequivocally, what must be lauded is the fearless spirit of Charlie Hebdo, and its decision to satirise all and sundry, including the revered figures and rules of religious denominations that happen to be minorities in France as well as the an icon of French pride like Charles de Gaulle. Charlie Hebdo, particularly its slain editor-in-chief, the cartoonist Charb, had taken on the strongest and the mightiest in France, and hadn’t maintained an artificial self-regulation when it came to a virulently militant offshoot of global Islam. It never caricatured Muslims, just the sacred beliefs. In the true spirit of satire, it broke conventions and poked fun at all the holy cows, whether of religion, language or politics. Hence the lesson to be drawn from the Charlie Hebdo massacre is not less criticism, but more. It must be remembered that cultures, even religious cultures, are not fixed or frozen in time. They evolve, responding to the forces from above and below.
While it is important to inculcate sensitivity towards minorities, it must not translate into a policy of appeasement in which blatantly regressive beliefs and deeply subjective taboos are not questioned in the name of secular respect. However, it must be remembered that Peshawar and Paris massacres are not very different from each other since both are predicated on felling of lives rather than saving them. Killing innocent children and cartoonists who have only their pens to express themselves is driven by exactly the same sentiments. While some among us have, rightly or wrongly, pointed out the overtly ‘racist, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misygynist’ cartoons published by Charb and his team of satirists, why should that be countered by a gun and not a counterpoint? In a functional democracy, every voice, no matter how offensive, must be allowed to be heard. The effective way to deal with stereotypes is debate and dialogue, not extremism of any hue.