Stéphane Charbonnier in the Toronto Star in 2013 said firmly that Charlie Hebdo is not racist.
Charlie, our Charlie Hebdo, is feeling decidedly ill. Because an unbelievable lie is going around, among more and more people, and we hear it every day. According to them, Charlie Hebdo has become a racist sheet.
One day, an Arab taxi driver tells someone who works for the paper, whom he recognizes, to get out of his car – supposedly because of images mocking the Muslim religion. Another day, someone refuses to do an interview with us because he “doesn’t speak to a newspaper full of racists.”
We’re almost ashamed to recall that anti-racism and a passion for equality among all people are and continue to be the founding principles of Charlie Hebdo…
Mockery of religion does not equate to racism. Yes, it can be used as a proxy or stalking horse for racism or classism or xenophobia or other kinds of othering and hierarchy-policing. It can, but it needn’t, and it’s not right to treat the two as simply interchangeable.
Charlie Hebdo is the child of May ’68, of the spirit of freedom and insolence… The Charlie Hebdo of the 1970s helped to form the critical spirit of a generation. By mocking the powers and the powerful. By laughing, sometimes uproariously, at the ills of the world. And always, always, always by defending the human individual and his universal values…
It remains to understand why. Why has this ridiculous idea been spreading like a contagious disease? We are Islamaphobes, claim those who defame us. Which means, in their own kind of Newspeak, that we are racists. That’s how this backward thinking has won over so many people.
Forty years ago, it was considered obligatory to jeer, run down, even crap on religion. Anyone who set about to criticize the way the world was going could not fail to question the great power of the biggest clerical organizations. But according to some people, in truth more and more people, these days you’ve got to shut your mouth.
And yet, what could be less legitimate than the power of religious institutions? What could be more elitist and authoritarian and mystification-mongering than deriving authority from an absent god?
Charlie still devotes many of its cover illustrations to Papists. But the Muslim religion, imposed like a flag on innumerable people across the planet, as far away as Indonesia, must somehow be spared. Why the hell? What is the relationship, unless it’s just ideological, between the fact of being Arab, for example, and belonging to Islam?
We refuse to run away from our responsibilities. Even if it’s not as easy as it was in 1970, we’ll continue to laugh at the priests, the rabbis and the imams – whether that pleases people or not. Are we in the minority on this? Maybe, but nonetheless we are proud of our traditions.
That’s an example right there – in English*, the word “Papists” has a terrible ring: it sounds quasi-racist. But in France, of course, where Catholicism is the majority religion, it wouldn’t. As a Yank, I would never say “Papists” but I do say god-botherers; the strict meaning is fairly comparable.
Now, obviously, Charb wouldn’t have said “yes, we’re racist, so what?”…but then again he did say “yes, we bash religion, so what?” so maybe we really do get to take him at his word.
*outside Ireland, at least