Revised twice for improved clarity 10/1/15 15:40, 20:10
Much has already been said and written about taking offence to satire and cartoons.
Jewish people have been persistently dehumanized in cartoons. Depicted as the suckers of the blood of all that is living and greedy money minded bastards.
An example in case was a cartoon in the German Sueddeutsche Zeitung last year, which aimed to depict Facebook’s Zuckerman as an Octopus from the film Pirates of the Caribbean, but struck cords and similarity with German Nazi era. The critical world was up in arms and the artist himself saw, he wasn’t at his best with this and apologised. Interestingly enough at the time the principle and first critique against this cartoon came from one of the writers of Germany’s main satirical magazine Titanic.
The West understands that as far as Jewish caricature is concerned, there are limits as to how far one should go in the realm of acceptability. That does not mean that Jewish people in the political spotlight can not be caricatured and laughed about from the cynical angle, it is just how it is done. This case was unusual, because it regarded the internet tycoon Zuckerman and his Jewishness, accidental or not.
More usually the line is overstepped in the many conflicts between Israel and its neighbours some cartoonists overstep the line.
Draw as you see them or legitimate critique?
This is particularly so, in large sections of the Arab press, and that of Muslim dominated countries, from North Africa to Malaysia. In fact if you are looking for newspapers in which the Third Reich caricature of Jewish people has an active second life, all you need to do is search there and you will find soon all the stereotypes confirmed, “the Jew” as the above mentioned blood sucking and child killing beast out for profit, or “rapist of Arab lands and women”. There are some Jewish and anti-racist organisations like CIF and ADL and others that spend all their time skimming the press for such content and they are not getting less busy because the Arab spring came along. And, I like to argue, in the absence, for most, of real and meaningful encounters with real Jewish people, the cartoons become a self fulfilling prophecy. They are then not just the critique of Jews but the depiction of Jews, as imagined by many. There is no mistake that yesterday a second set of radicals took action upon that misrepresentation of Jewish people, and selected of all targets ordinary Jewish people in a Jewish grocery store as adequate and appropriate hostages to attempt the safe passage of the two infamous brothers offended by the cartoons of a French satire magazine. Turning the dice around Arabs and Muslims suffer similar faiths by cartoonists.
Being able to draw on divine themes in satire and cartoons is part of what let to the end of what is labelled the dark ages of Europe, where the church determined and censured all.
Looking back, one has to admit that the critique here was principally of certain people and institutions, bishops, the Vatican, and kings and queens, often representatives thereof . That said, and looking at contemporary critical approaches to religions, people who believe in God are a diverse lot, whilst some in the bible belt of the USA will fight abortion and insist on creationism, there are others who believe in evolution and God. There are many good people amongst people of faith, deeply humble and dedicated to help others. There are those whose faith is an internal struggle and one of relations to others, and others who proselytize or kill others for God. And there are those sad cases of rape and abuse behind the clerical curtains, or the starving of children born out of wed lock recently in Ireland. Cartoons and satire must be specific in that sense and in every case.
I dare to go further. Some secular voices can be as inflexible and extreme as religious fundamentalism, accepting nothing less, as those religious ones attacked. To condemn all religion as Salman Rushdie did this week, in the wake of the events in Paris, that they are all medieval and have no game in modern society, is denying humanity as it is, namely that the majority of people on earth believe in God/s. For most of its existence humanity needed religion, its existence whether true by scripture or a human invention, depending where you stand on the divide, is essentially human. Rushdie and others are dishonest about religion denying its potential as a constructive and positive force too. I have have seen and encountered many religious people who are nothing but kind good people, and who judge people and like to be judged likewise not by their faith but by their deeds. I feel Rushdie’s pain, his life was made hell by political religious fundamentalism, perhaps we can not expect more from his pen.
Who speaks and where?
And then there is the context of where satire is applied. A Jewish person criticising certain sections of Jewish Orthodox men in front of a paying Jewish audience shines in a different light, than somebody standing in front of a general audience and stating, “last week I went to a Jewish area, or last week I met a Muslim and starting a story from there.” Perhaps the most precise and accurate critique comes always from within. In the case of IS, the Egypt correspondent of the German newspaper taz quoted such a case in a Lebanese satirical show he saw recently: A Christian couple approaches a sudden make up IS check-point. The IS guards ask for a quote from the noble Quran to pass. Failing to do so would lead to instant execution. The husband quotes something in Arabic and the guards smile and lets the couple through. The wife asks the husband later, what it was, surely it wasn’t the Quran. No, answers the husband, it was from the bible, “who says those IS people know the Quran?” In the background one sees the IS guards waving save passage. Point made, specific and local context and not collectively against all Muslims or God.
Between Anti-Semitic cartoons that were used to oil the Nazi propaganda – still being used today in some Arab newspapers – down to legitimate critique, satire has to be therefore appropriate, precise in its target rather than general and daring. There is a fine thin line between critique and propaganda.
Monotone Critique equals Propaganda
The rules of the free society however, the one that people went on the streets for after Wednesdays massacre, states that in such a free democratic society there is also a right of reply and the general public consistently answers a daring sketch, it is a form of debate. As said there is a balance to be struck. Consistent monotone critique of one side of an argument equals propaganda. A political satirical magazine, unlike some papers with a clear agenda (e.g. to blame all usually on Muslims or Jews) usually attacks and takes account of at all sides. From foreign policy of the West and NATO and the pope, to Islamists and Le Pen Fascists, simply all players in political society are subject to its daring focus. It is a platform of argument.
By all means cartoonists can and should be criticized, along with my profession of journalism, that class of knowers, writers and talkers, who pass quick judgement upon others and distribute it manifold to sell our papers. I am myself a member of it and as with the case of the Sueddeuscthe I have made my point about the cartoon there almost a year ago. Personally I am always very careful to stay away from misrepresentations, but I can make mistakes. Here in the UK, at least since News of the World, some of us have been receiving the cartoons they deserve, in fact some even sit in prison now. Democratic societies hence usually do work themselves out somehow. Not to say there are those who tend not to have a voice, and good newspapers and satire magazines alike have an obligation to address this. In Britain the victims of journalism were in part big wigs, hence the prosecutions.
No need to dishonour Mohamed
Creativity can avoid offending the majority whilst being specific to its intended target. In this way, unless points on the debate between secularism and religion are made, one can probably do without depicting or offending other people’s holy figures, and if in deed one wishes to make points against religion, than one can address all religions in one stroke, rather than being selective.
In a time when Front National is one of the strongest French parties, and in large parts of the Muslim world fundamentalist religious parties have the upper hand we need to deal with both phenomena. And yet the economic interests of the world still divide nations and continents unequally, as was imagined at the height of colonialism almost 100 years ago in the age of Sykes and Picot who drew most of the borders of that contemporary unequal world to suite their interests. This means that within all of that there are questions of control of access to power and justice. The fact that fanatics did very wrong deeds last week should not obstrue the background of what upsets young people of migrant background in the West. Algeria, the place of family background of the those terrorist brothers, well there is a country with a blood drained history with France and there are others. And with Mali, the country of background of the other assailant the French engagement is even more recent. The West likes to believe that somehow wars fought afar are inconsequential. In a globalised world with airplane passage how can it be.
But Islamic fundamentalism is a divisive force too that causes much pain, most of all to other Muslims. It deserves to be subject to critical observations and yes cartoons. How we apply critique and satire however must also be guided by the warning how some Arab media consistently depict Jews, and that it would never pass judgement and sensitivities in the West, because we know it came from the ultimate evil, the Nazi era, years ago.
Cartoonists have thus a difficult job. It really is in the balance and in careful assessments. Interestingly in the responses to Wednesday I have seen some quite welcoming examples, that were specific about religious militants and left aside Muslims, like Dave Brown’s depiction of the Eiffel Tower as a fountain pen on top of which is a militant. This is how it should be. Specific, local context, as specific as possible, and not offending all Muslims to make a point on these extremists. But the homework is not just to be done in one place. Perhaps we will see the dawn of an era of better satire and caricature and cartoons, less polemic and more to the point, not just in Europe from now on.
We must remember reactionary forces that adhere to Islamic fundamentalism have slaughtered more Muslim civilians than Europeans. Their other victims are non Muslims in the Middle East and in Arab lands the West likes to confuse as Muslim Arabs, Christian minorities, Jews of North Africa and the Middle East, Zoroastrians and other smaller reigious and ethnic groups. The terror to our secure existences in the West may freak us out, but in the Middle East the price paid is much more heavy. The crisis has begun there long before shots were fired in Paris and the victims are ordinary Muslim men and women. That is why specificity is so important and making any group not per se subject to despotism but apply the pen carefully where it is most appropriate.
(c) Daniel Zylbersztajn (All Rights Reserved)