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A little over a year ago, the offices of Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo was bombed by terrorists.

In the thick of the outrage against what many saw as an attack on freedom of speech, Teju Cole and a few others drew attention to the racist undertones of the magazine’s representation of Islam. Cole argued in a well thought out New Yorker write up that while the bombing was dastardly and unjustifiable, the magazine’s portrayal of Islam was more than satire—it was “islamophobic.”  Charlie Hebdo‘s so-called satirical representation of Islam, insists Cole, was not expression of free speech. It was a “bullying racist agenda.”

Cole and over 200 writers went on to sign a petition to put pressure on PEN not to give Hebdo the PEN/James and Toni C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. As you can imagine, Cole and the group of writers who spoke out received a lot of criticism. The reigning sentiments then was that to criticize Charlie Hebdo was to stand against free speech.

Sadly, Cole’s inkling that the magazine was prejudiced against Islam seems to have been confirmed in a write up that surfaced online a few day ago. The piece is titled “How Did We End Up Here?” [read here] and essentially suggests that all muslims are potential terrorists.

Teju took to Facebook to condemn the magazine’s claim that “Muslims, all of them, no matter how integrated, are the enemy.” Cole drew parallels between Charlie Hebdo‘s racist logic, the discrimination against Jews in Nazi Germany, and Trump.

Cole’s response is scathing. It is also timely in the wake of all the racist and anti-muslim rhetoric that trailed the Brussels attack.

Here is the entirety of Cole’s response.

Charlie Hebdo was given last year’s PEN/James and Toni C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, despite the objections of hundreds of members of PEN. Now, the people of Charlie—who in my view were simultaneously the victims of a terrifying, unspeakable crime, and the producers of an antic and gross publication (nothing wrong with that) that was at the same time deeply prejudiced—finally step away from the mask of “it’s satire and you don’t get it” to state clearly that Muslims, all of them, no matter how integrated, are the enemy.

Historical analogy can be tiresome and too easy, but sometimes it’s the sharpest thinking tool around. Reading this extraordinary editorial by Charlie, it’s hard not to recall the vicious development of “the Jewish question” in Europe and the horrifying persecution it resulted in. Charlie’s logic is frighteningly similar: that there are no innocent Muslims, that “something must be done” about these people, regardless of their likeability, their peacefulness, or their personal repudiation of violence. Such categorization of an entire community as an insidious poison is a move we have seen before.

Read the piece yourself—don’t just react. Read the piece and think through who you wish to be in relation to the kinds of arguments it presents. If I hadn’t carefully scrutinized the url (and thus confirmed that it really is legit), I’d have thought someone was doing a cruel parody of laïcité. The fact that the essay itself is written in English also indicates very clearly that Charlie is aware of its global audience now, of the bigotry that is increasingly popular here in the US, disguised and undisguised.

Meanwhile, you might remember that SOS Racisme, a French “anti-racist” organization, was brought to New York last year to defend Charlie from accusations of racism. One of the founders of SOS Racisme was Laurence Rossignol, the current French minister for women’s rights. This same Rossignol said last week that women who wear the hijab are like the “nègres américains” (American negroes/ American niggers) who accepted slavery.

So, SOS Racisme gets on stage and, on behalf of PEN, gives an award to Charlie Hebdo, and everybody applauds and congratulates themselves for their fine understanding of satire. The same Charlie, in this new editorial, writes: “From the bakery that forbids you to eat what you like, to the woman who forbids you to admit that you are troubled by her veil, we are submerged in guilt for permitting ourselves such thoughts.”

What thoughts? The wish to discriminate freely against Muslims without having to be called out on it. The freedom to draw everyone who is Muslim, or comes from a Muslim family, or is connected to North Africa, or “looks” Arab, into one big universal blood guilt that makes them literally responsible for the horrors perpetrated by a few maniacs. The desire to have this hatefulness lauded as courage.

This is precisely the logic also of the masses who praise Trump for his “honesty”—as though only ugliness could be honest, as though moral incontinence were any more noble than physical incontinence. But when someone shits their pants in a public gathering, we do not immediately congratulate them on their freedom, on their honesty.

I don’t enjoy writing about this—and I certainly didn’t enjoy the endless insults I inevitably receive for daring to even write about it. But the situation is fucking absurd. It is deeply consequential for Muslim people in France, in Europe, and everywhere where they are minorities. It is consequential for their safety, for their daily lives, for their well-being in the countries they call home. I’m more convinced than ever that PEN, a fine organization whose fierce advocacy of persecuted writers I’m proud to continue to support, in this case got it very, very wrong.

***

A further thought: I feel that something we anti-Charlie American commentators have not conveyed plainly enough—those of us who know it—is our understanding of the leftist anti-authoritarianism that was Charlie Hebdo’s initial context and audience in the 70s. This is very agitating to French people who do know Charlie.

So: There’s no erasing the deep affection in which Charlie’s sophomoric energy was held. The real grief that people felt (French friends of mine among them, some of them very much on the left) when Charlie was attacked was not just generalized shock, but a very specific hurt having to do with the loss of childhood heroes, heroes that could be enumerated and named.

I’m secular, godless, anti-authoritarian and with a fondness for gross-out humor. I dislike religion in general. My first publications, as a teenager, were cartoons. My MPhil studies were in European vernacular humor. I get it. I have seen funny things in Charlie, even some of the offensive stuff is funny, or at least you can see the mechanism of “funny'” within which it functions.

What was perhaps hard to read, for Charlie fans in the 21st century, was the way the magazine had crept conceptually into a new space. And it was precisely this space that the magazine had thought itself immune from. Their insistence on neutrality, “equal opportunity offense,” and anti-racism, those repeated mantras, actually concealed the internal shift in the magazine, towards what was apparent to outsiders before it was apparent to the fans (hopefully now apparent to them): that Charlie, from the left rather than from the despised right, had become a bastion of a particular ideology, of selective offense, and of racism. Far into that shift, Charlie supporters were still hectoring people for not understanding satire or France. (A number of us were mocked by name for our immense Anglophone stupidity on the pages of Charlie last year.)

But this is where uninterrogable “neutrality” will lead. The April 2016 Charlie Hebdo editorial was the logical and unsurprising outcome of that shift; but even this editorial will find defenders.

 

************

Post image by U.S. Consulate General Barcelona via Flickr

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

10 Responses to ““The Situation is Fucking Absurd” | Teju Cole Speaks out Against Charlie Hebdo’s Racist Remarks” Subscribe

  1. Bianca 2016/04/05 at 09:06 #

    The conflation of religion and race is the problem here. It’s not racist to criticize a religion. No one says people who criticize/insult Christianity are racist, because people of many races are Christian. The same goes for Islam. Many people of different races are Muslim. So it isn’t “racist” to express criticism of their religion.

  2. Phil 2016/04/05 at 09:29 #

    An absolute disgrace. The first thing fascists do is blame the victims for bringing death on themselves – we see it every day after the latest atrocity.

    For writers to push this agenda is the worst intellectual surrender and George Orwell would weep.

    ‘Islamaphobia, a word invented by fascists, used by cowards to manipulate morons’ – which applies to you?

  3. david 2016/04/05 at 09:45 #

    As expected, Teju Cole reveals his utter lack of knowledge of Islam. He’s not alone. The lack of knowledge is widespread in the non-Islamic world.

    The most crucial missing part is this: Islam is far more than a religion. If it were only a religion, people in the West would have little trouble dealing successfully with muslims.

    In addition, Islam is a political doctrine and a military. To make things truly difficult, there is no separation of the three components of this comprehensive ideology. Nor is that separation likely to occur.

    Islamic leaders have shown they will never accept the principles delineated in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights as a guiding framework for their world.

    Hence, freedom as we define it is impossible in the Islamic world. Therefore, Islam deserves all the opprobrium that can be heaped on it. If that’s Islamophobia, so what.

  4. Sita 2016/04/05 at 09:49 #

    I think people are often unable to separate things when it comes to Charlie Hebdo. The sad and scary fact is that they were the victims of terrorists. But that must be separated from their work, no? No body deserves to be killed by terrorists, even if they were racist or islamophobic.

    So therefore, why are we not supposed to talk about the fact that Charlie Hebdo IS racist and Islamophic? They contribute to the oppression of the already marginalized communities in their nation.

    Racism and Islamophobia doesn’t balance out terrorism. Both of them are wrong and must be looked at individually and given its due analysis.

  5. Ray Halpin. 2016/04/05 at 12:00 #

    The offices of Charlie Hebdo were not ”bombed,” as claimed in the introductory notes to this story. Two men armed with automatic weapons forced their way into the building, shot dead 11 people, injured another 11, and killed a policeman on the street outside.

    Charlie Hebdo was not guilty of ”Islamophobia.” It was guilty of satire, which few in this age of identity politics and knee-jerk grievance appreciate. Their satire was savage, but no more savage than the satire that helped to destroy hypocritical institutions like the Catholic and Anglican churches at a time when the vast majority either deferred to them, or remained abjectly silent in their presence. The Islamic ‘church,’ if I can call it that, is just as hypocritical as its Christian brethren, therefore should not expect to avoid the kind of stinging criticism normally reserved for hypocrites in societies that owe their liberties to the defeat of religion.

    Finally, if the reports are accurate, it looks like Charlie Hebdo may have overstepped the mark in describing all Muslims as potential terrorists. An odd claim to make, and entirely unjustified, given that the Islamists’ main victims are Muslims, who fear and despise them just as much as the rest of us do.

  6. Anni Maus 2016/04/05 at 12:26 #

    Thank you, Teju Cole, for your bravery and willingness to put yourself out there. I agree 100% with your disgust at the propagation of Islamaphobia whether expressed by the right thru direct hatred or from the left in so-called satire.

  7. Ray Halpin. 2016/04/05 at 15:01 #

    I’d like to amend an earlier post. Having finally tracked down the supposedly offensive editorial, and having read it closely, I can honestly say that only a bare-faced liar, or an intellectually challenged half-wit, could find anything ”Islamophobic” about the said editorial.

    Shame on Teju Cole. And shame on the craven, unprincipled commentators who demonstrate a pitiful lack of backbone in following a politically correct line in this matter. The only people benefiting from your cowardice are the Islamists themselves, who in killing far more Muslims than any other religious group, prove themselves to be the most Islamophobic of all.

  8. Steven Temple 2016/04/09 at 15:05 #

    I can’t agree with Mr Cole. The Charlie article addresses an inconvenient truth. Mr Cole is a part of the problem, not the solution. Most of us do not have our knickers all in a knot about Islam. But we are resistant to a way of thought that allows no criticism, no humour. The Quran, and the history of Islam, contain plenty to be afraid of. Muslims today are tolerable to the degree they don’t adhere strictly to all their holy book says, to the degree they are revisionists. That is what the large majority of Muslims are, which is why we can like and get along with them well enough. The Salafist terrorists are not so much terrorists as devout fundies taking their holy book literally. Call me a racist for saying this. The charge of racism is just a new form of red baiting. It has become mindless and ubiquitous. Mr Cole needs to find a job teaching sociology in some grade B uni where he will fit the faculty to a T. The rest of us have to keep our eyes, ears, and yes, minds, open.

  9. Sharon Goodier 2016/04/09 at 15:59 #

    The three French benchmarks as of the uprisings immortalized (but not mentiones) in Les Miserables are Libert, Equality, Fraternity or death. Satirizing minorites fails on all three counts. Not that violent reaction is acceptable> it isn’t. But even a satirical magazine has to have a bottom line that adheres to the above ideals.

  10. Sada Malumfashi 2016/04/12 at 16:55 #

    …but even this editorial will find defenders.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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