by Narjas Zatat
What does the Choju Jinbutsu Kigakan from Japan’s Heian period (794-1185) and the anti-papal satirical pamphlets by Hans Holbien the Younger from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century have in common with one another? All of them are forms of political satire. The first criticised the whims of the nobility, and the second sought to highlight the pervasive corruption of the Catholic Church in England. Satire has always existed in the very fabric of society as a vehicle through which the actions of those in power may be scrutinised, dissected and, when necessary condemned in a manner designed to ridicule. It is a tool that upholds the freedoms impressed upon us, and legitimises the rights of liberty and freedom of expression.
In light of that, the Hebdo massacre is indicative of a shift in the conception of satire, and the implications of its changing nature are severe indeed. In France, satire has become a loaded gun that is perpetually aimed at its Muslim citizens. Charlie Hebdo is an example of an Islamophobia that hides behind a peculiarly sinister smile. In her article French political scientist Catherine de Wenden argues “the attack in Paris can be seen as arising from changes in France over the past few years”. Popular culture has given a ready platform for the decimation of anti-Muslim rhetoric. In the past week alone two dominant publications, Soumission (Submission), written by novelist Michel Houellebecq in which he depicts a France led by a Muslim leadership and French Suicide by Éric Zemmour, about the so-called ‘detrimental’ impact of Muslim Immigration to France were both welcomed. The depiction of Muslims in France indicates the existence of a deep and pervasive well of Islamophobia that Charlie Hebdo readily and without remorse drank from.
Islamophobia has continued to play an integral role in the formation of policy, and the rise of extreme right-wing political parties have aided in keeping it alive. Marine Le Pen, leader of the “anti-immigration and anti-Europe” party National Front is well known for her racist comments against Muslims. In the wake of the Hebdo attacks the British newspaper, the Telegraph published her comments: “We must not be scared of saying the words: this is a terrorist attack carried out in the name of radical Islam”.
Her political party is built upon a foundation of a particularly vicious form of secularism; a secularism that does not tolerate any form of religious pluralism. Her categorisation of the attack as a “terrorist” attack, rather than a crime committed by three men exacerbates an already toxic environment in France between Muslim and French secular society. The campaign to marginalise Muslim immigrants in particular on a state level was conceived during Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, where he redefined the meaning of nationhood and identity through the regulation of the hijab in the workplace, and the eventual banning of the face-covering veil. In February of 2014, François Hollande visited the Grand Mosque of Paris to commemorate the fallen Muslim soldiers who fought for France in World War I. However his catapult into presidency did little to change the status quo. Since his inauguration in 2012, hate crimes committed against Muslims have increased year-by-year, and he has failed to overturn the laws surrounding the hijab.
The context is essential in understanding the events that have unfolded on that fateful day: the massacre did not happen in a vacuum, and claiming that it is merely an arm of the “terrorism” of radical Islam does not address the very real marginalisation and oppression of the Muslim community in France. Radicalisation can only occur in the absence of identity. It is the responsibility of France to normalise relations with its Muslim community in order to stem the flow of European decent into terrorism.
I would like to conclude with the following: satirical depictions of African American slaves in antebellum America could very well be seen as merely a light-hearted expression of the right to the freedom of speech. However the circumstances of history, and the lived reality of slaves means that these satires kept the slave institution alive. In this vein, so to is the policy of anti-Islamic sentiment in France being kept alive by the perpetuation of prejudice through the mockery of ‘freedom of speech.’
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