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It’s not the cartoons– a contrarian perspective from a Muslim cartoonist


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In the last few days I’ve seen more than enough cartoonish clichés of pens and pencils vs. swords and guns scrolling through my Twitter feed. 

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I don’t think this is about cartoons.

Imagine a world where the western powers were not invading, occupying, drone bombing, kidnapping, torturing and holding Muslims in prison without trial. Now try to imagine that world in which cartoonists who drew Islamophobic cartoons were murdered.

I can’t.

The right wing media uses opinion polls about Muslims to paint a black and white picture akin to the Rebel Alliance vs the Galactic Empire. They parade the freakshow that is Anjem Choudary as their go-to expert, as if he’s the spokesperson for the entire ummah in order to reinforce their position that Islam is a violent ideology. According to a Gallup poll in 2003, 72% of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq. In other words, you have 72% of the population that supports a violent, imperialist attack on Muslims.  According to al Qaeda’s beliefs, that means all 72% of those Americans are guilty and are legitimate targets. And that’s terrifyingly similar to what people like Bill Maher claim when they say hundreds of millions of Muslims support the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Why can’t Muslims just take a joke?

Despite one of the Kouachi brothers yelling “the prophet has been avenged” after he completed his mass murder spree, the Prophet has not been avenged. Why? Because you can’t hurt prophet Muhammed ﷺ‎ He’s The Prophet of God and he’s dead. He doesn’t get hurt. The hurt comes when people feel personally insulted by a racist and Islamophobic cartoon and they use that as an excuse to carry out murders. The honor of the prophet is a red herring.

Charlie Hebdo was an easier and more dramatic target than a military or governmental target, the latter having caused actual damage to Muslims but the former having had much less in the way of security obstacles. Charlie Hebdo was also hitlisted in al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine.

Freedom of expressions means the government cannot put you in jail for what you say but that doesn’t mean people can’t call you out on your bigotry

The Islamophobic cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are the American equivalent of white people drawing cartoons of African Americans as monkeys or Germans drawing cartoons mocking Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. Cherif and Said Kouachi, the suspects in the terrorist attacks, are of Algerian ancestry. France’s Muslim population originates predominantly from its former North African colonies including Algeria. France’s brutal colonization of Algeria lasted 132 years and during the 8 year Algerian war of independence, 1 million Algerians died. It was only 50 years ago that the French left Algeria. Amedy Coulibaly, the suspect in the kosher supermarket shootings, was of Malian origin, another former French colony. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the descendants of colonizers, felt that printing cartoons mocking the beliefs of former colonial subjects was somehow a funny and cool thing to do. I disagree with them.

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My role as a cartoonist is to challenge power and dominant narratives, not to attack marginalized people. I draw cartoons about Obama, Netanyahu, Arab dictators, and Israeli settlers because they’re the ones in power, they’re literally calling the shots and making people’s lives miserable. These are legitimate targets for political satire. Trying to satirize prophet Muhammed ﷺ‎  in a cartoon just makes you look like an ignorant jerk.

Tariq Ramadan made an important point on Democracy Now; Charlie Hebdo was going bankrupt a few years back so they switched from being “equal opportunity offenders” to targeting Muslims because that sold copies of their magazine. In other words, making money off Islamophobia. If true, this makes me sick.

And it would appear to be so. In Oliver Cyran’s epic takedown of his former employer, he painstakingly catalogues all the reasons why Charlie Hebdo took a dramatic turn for the worse. It’s definitely worth a read as much for its insights as for its scathing wit:

 Scarcely had I walked out, wearied by the dictatorial behaviour and corrupt promotion practices of the employer, than the Twin Towers fell and Caroline Fourest arrived in your editorial team. This double catastrophe set off a process of ideological reformatting which would drive off your former readers and attract new ones – a cleaner readership, more interested in a light-hearted version of the “war on terror”  than the soft anarchy of [cartoonist] Gébé. Little by little, the wholesale denunciation of “beards”, veiled women and their imaginary accomplices became a central axis of your journalistic and satirical production. “Investigations” began to appear which accepted the wildest rumours as fact, like the so-called infiltration of the League of Human Rights (LDH) or European Social Forum (FSE) by a horde of bloodthirsty Salafists. The new impulse underway required the magazine to renounce the unruly attitude which had been its backbone up to then, and to form alliances with the most corrupt figures of the intellectual jet-set, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy or Antoine Sfeir, cosignatories in Charlie Hebdo of a grotesque “Manifesto of the Twelve against the New Islamic Totalitarianism”. Whoever could not see themselves in a worldview which opposed the civilized (Europeans) to obscurantists (Muslims) saw themselves quickly slapped with the label of “useful idiots” or “Islamoleftists”.

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People should be free to create whatever art they want. The culture they live in decides whether it’s offensive enough to end up being career suicide as it was for one of the former cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo who was fired for drawing an anti-Semitic cartoon. We cannot make offensive art illegal if we want to live in a free society, but we can examine the context and power structures under which bigoted cartoons are created and hopefully come to the conclusion that cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammed ﷺ‎ will just be considered one of those socially unacceptable things you just don’t do. 

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That’s not going to happen until citizens of western countries start viewing Muslims as actual human beings instead of “militants” or the group of people to collectively blame during a tragedy like this.

In a recording obtained by French radio station RTL, Amedy Coulibaly was speaking about legitimate grievances that had nothing to do with cartoons:

“Me, I was born in France. If they didn’t attack other countries, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Everybody could get together. If they could do it for Charlie Hebdo. Organize protests and let the Muslim people be, and we will let you be. Why are you not doing that?”

The solution to protecting our freedoms isn’t to bomb Muslim countries, torture Muslims and ramp up our surveillance of them. The solution is to stop the cycle so there will be no more motivation for these attacks.



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