Gerald Karey writes: “Je suis Charlie. Je suis ne pas Charlie Hebdo”

Je suis Charlie. Je suis ne pas Charlie Hebdo.

by Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)

Until the massacre of the writers and cartoonist at the French weekly, Charlie Hebdo, I had never seen the publication, nor was I familiar with its brand of outrageous satire.

Adam Gopnik wrote in the Jan. 19 issue of The New Yorker:

They worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy . . .. Charlie Hebdo was — will be again, let us hope — a satirical journal of a kind these days found in France almost alone . . .. The coarser and more scabrous cartoons that marked the covers of Charlie Hebdo — and took in Jesus and Moses, along with Muhammad; angry rabbis and ranting bishops, along with imams — were the latest example of that tradition.”

The magazine was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it — offensive to everybody, equally . . .. The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants (self-righteous) all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what its cartoonists were killed for . . ..

Satire is intended to sting, to wound, to provoke (although not to provoke murder), but most critically, I believe, to make one think. At its best and most effective, it exposes hypocrisy, false pieties, the self-righteous and the self-satisfied, and there is no shortage of worthy targets.

Good on, Charlie Hebdo. However, based on what I’ve seen, and admittedly it’s a very limited sample, the Charlie Hebdo brand of satire frequently is intended just to offend.

I haven’t seen it, but the weekly published a drawing of the prophet Mohammed having sex with a goat. That’s offensive to Muslims on so many levels. Beyond that, the point of the drawing was?

Imagine the uproar in this country if instead of Mohammed, Jesus was depicted having sex with a goat. Christ screwing a goat? People don’t take well to having their religion mocked or demeaned.

Recall the reaction to “Piss Christ,” in 1987, a photograph by American artist Andres Serrano of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. Serrano received death threats and hate mail, and he lost grants. (Serrano received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, which enraged many politicians in the U.S). The work was vandalized at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, and gallery officials reported receiving death threats.

“The Holy Virgin Mary,” a painting created by Chris Ofili in 1996, employs oil paint, glitter and collaged pornographic images. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one of Mary’s bare breasts. New York’s mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, called the work “sick” and “disgusting,” and attempted to withdraw the city’s $7-million grant to the museum. He failed.

But, in fact, few religions are free of hypocrisy and deserve being jabbed by a satirist’s sharpened pen. And the atrocities committed in the name religion are more blasphemous than any Charlie Hebdo blasphemies.

To quote Valerie Tarico in  “How Religion Can Let Loose Humanity’s Most Violent Impulses” on

In Nigeria, Islamist members of Boko Haram massacred a town to cries of Allahu Akbar-Allah is the greatest! Simultaneously, the United Nations released a report detailing the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Muslims in the Central African Republic by Christian militias, sometimes reciting Bible verses. On a more civilized note, Saudi Arabia began inflicting 1000 lashes on a jailed blasphemous blogger — to be doled out over 20 weeks so that he may survive to the end. . . Is killing in the name of gods a distortion of religion? Alternately, is it the real thing?”

With the possible exception of Buddhism, the world’s most powerful religions give wildly contradictory messages about violence. The Christian Bible is full of exhortations to kindness, compassion, humility, mercy and justice. It is also full of exhortations to stoning, burning, slavery and slaughter. If the Bible were law, most people you know would qualify for the death penalty. The same can be said of the Quran. The same can be said of the Torah. Believers who claim that Islam or Christianity or Judaism is a religion of peace are speaking a half-truth-and a naive falsehood.

What a rich source for satire, to be sure. However, it’s not without risks. Satirists have been denounced, harassed, sued, repressed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. None deserved it, but it is an occupational hazard, although being killed for expressing a blasphemous opinion is barbaric. As are one hundred lashes. Islamic law is hard on blasphemy.

As is the Bible. Leviticus 24:13-16: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. Say to the Israelites: ‘If anyone curses his God, he will be held responsible; anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him.”

Islam is that old time religion. Judaism and Christianity now employ less drastic responses to blasphemy.

Pope Francis, talking about the Paris killings, said, “I think both freedom of religion and freedom of expression are both fundamental human rights. Everyone has not only the freedom and the right but the obligation to say what he thinks for the common good. We have the right to have this freedom openly without offending.”

Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, “It is wonderful to see Pope Francis condemning the horror, but also worth remembering that magazine’s special Christmas issue, titled “The True Story of Baby Jesus,” whose cover bore a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child. Did the Pope see it?”

Pope Francis also said, “You can’t provoke, you can’t insult the faith of others, you can’t make fun of faith.”

While I stand with everyone horrified and appalled by the murders, the Charlie Hebdo brand is not to my taste. From what I’ve seen of it, which isn’t much, my sense is that it was often offensive and outrageous for the sake of being offensive and outrageous. Also, immature — a publication produced by a collection of aging university lads, however talented, who simply enjoy mooning.

And I don’t know if, beyond the cartoons, they actually do serious journalism. Keep in mind that dozens of journalists around the world have been silenced, imprisoned and tortured by the very governments that may have been represented at the massive Paris demonstration in support of Charlie Hebdo. That, of course, would have been an example of the political hypocrisy Charlie Hebdo loves to mock.

But those journalist, most of whose names few of us know, are the real heroes.

Je suis Charlie. Je suis ne pas Charlie Hebdo/

Gerald Karey taught English in a middle school in a Turkish village from 1965 to 1967. After the Peace Corps, he worked as a general assignment reporter for two newspapers in New Jersey, and for a McGraw-Hill newsletter in Washington, D.C., where he covered energy and environmental issues. A collection of his essays entitled Unhinged, was published in October, 2014.

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  • This is a very thoughtful essay on satire. I wonder, however, if the issue is not satire or freedom of speech, but rather how should sacred space and objects be protected? Most religions protect their sacred space and objects in churches and temples.
    So, such items would be protected by property rights in a private place.
    But a “sacred item” in Islam is that which can not be displayed because it is sacred. For example, In the Old Testament, the name of God could not be mentioned.

    The only modern equivalent that come to my mind, is that of the Catholic religion that holds that the consecrated host is literally the Body and Blood of Christ. Suppose an artist received the host in his hands during mass and instead of consuming it, kept it and later used it to create an art object?

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