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Comment: Charlie Hebdo from the perspective of a Muslim


Co-written by Zara Syed.

Satire is a necessary form of expression. It encourages critical thinking in the form of a healthy dose of humour. Nevertheless, in an era of free speech, where does one draw the line and who should determine these boundaries?

The case of Charlie Hebdo is intrinsically controversial, yet for an incident that should  have opened up a debate exploring the depth, and complexities of circumstance, Charlie Hebdo became impenetrable to criticism. In the days following the attacks the world mourned the loss of  12  individuals and over a million gathered in Paris for a rally of national unity. The magazine continued to publish the volume containing the comics in question that week, selling out after distributing seven million copies in 6 different languages.

Undoubtedly, it’s a commonality between all Abrahamic religions that murder is not an option for retribution. Thus, it should have been obvious that the Muslims of the world were on par with the rest of humanity regarding this atrocious attack. Despite this, in the hours and immediate days following the event a strong backlash against Islam and the everyday Muslim ensued.

Free speech is an essential tool in society but open dialog should be permitted even as we grieve, because it is just as essential. Charlie Hebdo has a history of xenophobia, homophobia and racism. The typical satire that  pokes fun at organized religion by secularists or atheists is manifested in Charlie Hebdo as flagrantly racist. A deeper look into the magazines history reveals certain hypocrisies. In 2009,  political cartoonist Maurice Sine, who had been with the magazine for twenty years, was fired based on allegations of Anti-Semetism for mocking the relationship between former President Sarkozy’s son with a wealthy Jewish woman. Sine was charged for “inciting racial hatred.”

In the past week, we have been bombarded with hashtags promoting freedom of speech yet the magazine did not condemn the racialized bigotry in their cartoons when it came to depicting Muslims. I’m in no way attempting to create a polarity of Islam vs Judaism, I simply believe it is important to note this double standard in all its seriousness.

Why are Muslims not given the same protection against hate speech? Muslims are being painted as the “other” and are  homogenized into a concept that clashes against Western notions. Media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo shootings have portrayed this in the narrative of the “clash of civilizations”, and for the average citizen, the matter is perceived as black and white, lacking any grey area.

First, amongst the grievances, it must be acknowledged that for Muslims the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were perceived as extremely racist, similar to how the Jewish population was portrayed by Nazi propaganda in World War II, or how African-Americans were caricatured in  early 20th century Disney animations. Secondly, Muslim voices must be encouraged in public spaces especially at a time when there is a spotlight on the entire Muslim population. It’s difficult to be vulnerable and speak about these issues as a Muslim particularly when one’s identity is the topic of discussion.

The global violence in association with Islam (a twisted, manipulated form of Islam), along with the fear-mongering overwhelming the media can make it quite scary to talk about these issues as a Muslim. The idea of having to shield oneself from the firing squad of accusatory eyes every single day is hard for many to understand, but Muslims, Sikhs (who are often mistaken for Muslims) and various people of colour suffer from this experience everyday.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo caused a bitter and withdrawn reaction within myself and many other Muslims. My bitterness stemmed from déjà vu due to a similar incident in Denmark in 2005. In a familiar tone on the issue of censorship and freedom of speech Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons that depicted Muhammad (pbuh), the Holy Prophet of Islam, in a manner that incited riots escalating to madness.

There was an internal denial; a desire to avoid what had happened because facing the truth meant coping with a dark reality. It’s difficult to go through the day when you feel like you have to apologize and represent an entire religion. Walking around prepared with a battle on my tongue is tiring. I am exhausted with people expecting me, and many like me, to  be on stand-by as a defensive lawyer for the actions of a few criminals who do nothing but mar a religion followed by over a billion humans.

These are dark times for Muslims. Your pain is felt everywhere, and that is why it’s  important to talk about our experiences and find comfort in each other. Only by coming together and creating something positive can we find the light in these dark times.

For my fellow POC out there, Muslim or not, stay strong in the face of ignorance as people label and paste you because you “look” a certain way.

For every  person walking the street waiting to lay blame on the next human they see who looks like their version of a terrorist, there are  two waiting with open minds and compassion.

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