Charlie Hebdo & free speech after Turkey-Syria earthquake

Charlie Hebdo & freedom of speech after the Turkey-Syria earthquake
5 min read

Mariya bint Rehan

10 February, 2023
Charlie Hebdo’s offensive cartoon depicting the Turkey-Syria earthquake which has claimed almost 22,000 lives is a reflection of the dehumanisation and racism that is deeply ingrained in French and European society, writes Mariya bint Rehan.
French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon mocking the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria that has claimed almost 22,000 lives.

French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has once again chosen to cross the chasm between humour to vulgarity and offence in its recent publishing of a cartoon that distastefully mocks the current tragedy in Turkey and Syria.

An earthquake which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, has claimed close to 22,000 lives at the time of writing, left tens of thousands injured and hundreds of thousands homeless, is apparently the perfect vehicle from which these satirists chose to exhibit their humour, cool detachment and questionable intellect.

The magazine shared its "drawing of the day" by artist Juin, on Twitter. Nonchalantly composed, scarce black lines depicting a damaged building, upturned car and heaps of rubble with the caption: "No need to send tanks”; the cartoon embodies everything about the lack of understanding, empathy and humanity in French exceptionalist thinking.

In the name of freedom of speech, Charlie Hebdo continually reduces what it asserts as its own uncontested freedom to speak with the act of offending purely for the sake of offence alone - an intellectually sneering gesture.

For the magazine, their distance from tragedy, disadvantage and discrimination is dressed up as a kind of moral superiority, an unrelenting ability to mock, look down upon and scoff at others’ welfare and concern is their pièce de résistance. This false and dangerous idea that one can be cerebrally above the realms of emotion, and exist entirely in the plains of rationalism that comes from being perennially cushioned from any real world issues – from being privileged, or a ‘Charlie’ if you like.

When the objective is to shock and dismay for the sake of shock and dismay alone, at the expense of and to the utter disrespect of the lives lost and ruined, than the value, context and truth of that detachment and intellect must be bought into question.

There are obvious racial and Islamophobic undertones to Charlie Hebdo’s caricature, which evokes the military regalia of the tank, now so cemented in popular imagination as a kind of literal and figurative civilising force for Muslim majority countries, in its seemingly off the cuff humour.

And the French, and Charlie Hebdo, are obviously no strangers to Islamophobia; you could argue it’s one of France’s finer exports. The irony of preaching ‘liberté fraternité égalite’ while enacting racist and discriminatory policies which, say, deny French women the right to cover their hair, have the temerity to cover their bodies at the beach, or enter Parliament with a head covering, is not lost of the thinking portions of the world.

Freedom of speech when exercised to amplify those voices that are dominating power structures, at the expense of those that are under the foot of it, is an entirely French way of doing things.

In fact, France’s discomfort and hypocrisy when it comes to Islam and Muslims comes from the inherent tension that exists in a democracy that was borne from the death of religion in public life. The French Revolution, and it’s establishment of France as a secular republic, came at the expense of religion, and to use the defining principles of French democracy that they hold so dear to promote any kind of religious freedom seems far too mentally a taxing exercise for the French ruling elite.

France’s anticlerical past and commitment to secularism, or laicite, is an ad hominem, which manifests itself today in privileging France’s Christian majority and promoting xenophobia and discrimination towards Muslim. It seems France’s insistence on the separation between religion and state consists of a double standard which utilises Christian populist values and talking points specifically to interfere in the private religion of its Muslim citizens.

While right-wing sentiment grows and festers in French society and politics, and given its colonial past, France has a long way to go to fight its historical and political demons, and to afford its Muslim citizens the basic decency and respect it characterises as a hallmark of its democracy.

While Charlie Hebdo classifies itself as ‘leftist’ publication, its many derogative attacks on Muslims – in one instance they cowardly attacked a young Muslim girl for daring to exist – exemplify an Islamophobic trend in European politics. Increasingly, across the continent, we see Islamophobic sentiment being the common and uniting ground of right-wing, sometimes populist, movements.

As a cheap, easy ticket to power, many political players in Europe play the Islamophobia card to attain electoral credibility and weight, and whip up the kind of mass frenzy which is so useful on the political stage.  The ‘Muslim’ in national politics of Europe is a proxy through which the West works out its place and identity in a rapidly changing world; saviour, dominator, and in the case of Charlie Hebdo, extoller of selective freedom of speech and democracy.

What we need to ask ourselves is how Muslims have become so dehumanised on a national and international stage that a catastrophe of such proportions can be cast into a comedic bracket. How is the blood and life of Muslims so cheap, that Charlie Hebdo can use a tragedy of the scale that we see unfolding in front of us, purely as a reputational badge to add to its decoration of ‘outspoken’ and ‘fearless’ commentary? Freedom of speech, something that French Muslims require to speak back to their oppressors, should not be reduced to something so repulsively cheap, so for once, pas drole Charlie.

Mariya bint Rehan is a writer and illustrator from London, with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally. 

Follow her on Twitter: @ummkhadijah13  

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.