Tag Archives: Orientalism

“Je suis Henri”: Charlie Hebdo’s Tragic Caricature of the Principle of Human Liberty

“Je suis Henri”: Charlie Hebdo’s Tragic Caricature of the Principle of Human Liberty

 

تركيب‭ ‬پياله‌اى‭ ‬که‭ ‬درهم‭ ‬پيوست
بشکستن‭ ‬آن‭ ‬روا‭ ‬نمى‭ ‬دارد‭ ‬مست
چندين‭ ‬سر‭ ‬و‭ ‬پاى‭ ‬نازنين‭ ‬از‭ ‬سر‭ ‬دست
از‭ ‬مهر‭ ‬که‭ ‬پيوست‭ ‬و‭ ‬به‭ ‬کين‭ ‬که‭ ‬شکست

Breaking a cup whose parts are so intertwined
Is not condoned by one who is drinking inclined.
Who lovingly joined and who broke in spite so rashly
The tender heads and legs of many a humankind?

—Omar Khayyam, 11th century A.D.

 

I. Is There a Limit to Liberty?

The satirist weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo’s basic reason for publishing defamatory cartoons of religious figures and symbols, including especially those of Islam, is that it wishes to practice freedom of speech beyond any limits in order to safeguard the principle of human liberty. At the heart of its argument, however, is a confusion of the meaning of that liberty.

Human liberty as a universal principle basically stands for the right to express one’s views to the extent that such expressions do not violate the right of all to do the same. Without considering such a self-limitation as a defining part of the principle itself, the principle becomes self-defeating, self-violating, absurdly tautological, and meaningless.

However, violating the right of others to freely express their views does not have to be violent to undermine the human liberty principle. Any seemingly benign, even “funny,” steps taken in that direction can potentially lead to material and social subjugation of others amid an imperial or asymmetrical power context.

That explains, for instance, why defamatory depictions of Jews and their Holocaust, of Armenians and their Genocide, of Blacks and their Slavery, of Native “Americans” (in all the “Americas”—the term itself imperially imposed) and their Genocides, among others, have become, rightly so, illegal, eschewed and/or problematized in mainstream global culture and politics. For, historical experience has shown that even seemingly benign orientalist caricaturing of “others” have served as effective ideological and subliminal instruments for provoking and practicing cultural humiliation, subjugation, or conversion of other groups as pretexts for the political domination, economic exploitation, and violent colonization or even annihilation of their lives in numbers unimaginable in human history.

Such imperial subjugations of others obviously violate the liberty of the subjugated because in violating their material, including social (economic, political, cultural), conditions and their rights of self-determination, their human liberty and rights of free speech are also violated—no matter how much and how far the “universal human rights” of the subjugated are trumpeted in imperial policy pronouncements.

II. Can Fanatics be Found Also Among Secularists and non-Muslims?

The fact that a secular group claims not to believe in a “god” does not mean it actually does not. One can be quite religious in believing in and practicing a secular and even atheistic dogma as a “sacred” belief. One can even be fanatic about it, by “religiously” (in the negative meaning of the term), obsessively, unthinkingly, inconsiderately, stubbornly, and in an “extremist” way holding on to it, no matter what others say and do.

There can be fanatic atheists and secularists as there are religious fanatics. Examples of these can be found in all ideological, political, or cultural trends. Fanatics may be found among Marxists or non-Marxists, Republicans, libertarians, democrats, the Left, the Right, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc., without any of these groups being regarded as fanatic in general.

A fanatic secularist is one who considers his or her belief so absolutely true and “sacred” that such a belief itself becomes revered as a “god.” He or she believes in something so stubbornly, so dogmatically, so absolutely, that no room is left for its questioning.

The fanatic, secularist or religious, simply ignores that even those in the group he or she belongs may have differing interpretations of the same symbol, or of the same principle, they apparently share with one another.

III. Is Islam, or any Religion or Culture, a Monolith?

All cultures, religious or secular, consist of pluralities of contrasting, contradicting, and at times even openly antagonistic trends. Fascisms and (Neo)Nazisms were/are byproducts of Western extremist/fanatic secularism (even when they instrumentally use religious symbols), as much as ISILism/Al-Qaedaism and the Inquisition are/were byproducts of extremist/fanatic religiosity.

A figure like “Muhammed” or a term like “Islam” can have different meanings to different sects and branches of Islam and readings of the Qur’an. Simplification of religious meanings and symbols of any religion, as if they mean the same to all their diverse adherents, is not a reasonable thing to do and clearly not expressive of the best even Western scientific spirit has to offer in understanding human social and cultural realities.

The fact that a satire magazine is published in the West and in France does not necessarily mean it is the best that Western culture has to offer. An enemy of an enemy does not necessarily make a friend. Fanaticism can also be challenged by fanaticisms of other kinds. There can be conflicts among fanatics, and others do not have to take side with one, just because one does something more obviously wrong than the other. Just because a magazine claims to be secular and fighting others’ religious fanaticism does not mean it does so itself in a non-fanatic way.

Islamophobia does not have to offer a scary portrayal of Islam as a whole to achieve its aim. Presumably “funny” cartoons can do the same even more effectively by simplistically reducing the complex heterogeneity of a targeted tradition as a whole to particular interpretations and practices that are attributes only of one or another specific faction, sect, or trend in that tradition.

Even complex novels can fall into the traps of Islamophobia, let alone simplistic caricaturing that depicts religious symbols while presuming that the whole of a religious worldview can be reduced to a particular meaning fabricated in the mind of a most or least skillful Charlie Hebdo cartoonist.

IV. Is Religious Reverence Expressed Only One Way?

Peoples and traditions have different ways of and preferences for going about depicting their values, and respecting that diversity is a sign of maturity, that is, of an ability to put oneself in others’ shoes.

It is reasonable that religious cultures may avoid concrete personifications or depictions of religious meanings and figures, because by freezing a deeply spiritual cosmology or reverence in a tangible sign one may limit the spiritual insight or meaning being signified.

Spiritual traditions may prefer not to depict religious objects in order to avoid, from their point of view, cruder idolatrous customs prevalent in human religious prehistory. Such a preference that a satire magazine artist simplistically takes for granted as a sign of a whole tradition’s backwardness (in choosing not to depict the image of a religious figure it reveres) can exist for a completely different reason—one that a satirist from another culture cannot readily understand as much as those belonging to a culture or tradition appreciate.

Spiritual traditions who choose not to depict the objects of their reverence are not incapable of creating sophisticated and highly artful images and forms, let alone simplistic cartoons such as by those who selfishly take pleasure in practicing their childhood hobbies by insulting whole cultures. Spiritual traditions choose not to do so because they wish not to cast their symbols in such forms that may then be misidentified with particular human features and valuations. Was Jesus White? Did he have Black or Asian features? Did he look like a blond, long-haired Westerner, or was he a darker-skinned, Middle Eastern-looking, bald man? Why is Moses’ God reported to have said He is nameless? Why do some avoid spelling out “G-d,” and why do others capitalize “He”? Why not “She”?

In some spiritual traditions, creative mystics have developed their own ways of metaphorically representing their cosmologies in their art and poetry, such that not even the closest of their own friends, let alone those coming centuries later, can understand what the mystic meant to say. Even the artist himself or herself may not be sure how to convey a particular spiritual state he or she has experienced.

For instance, conscious building of ambiguous and multi-meaning tropes such as wine, drunkenness, cup, jug, and so on, in poetry and prose as found in Persian literature—which the British, the French, and Western audiences generally have for centuries admired so much (albeit in limited and often orientalist ways, unfortunately, due to the absence of proper verse translations of them, and due to the imposition of their own cultural meanings on the poems read/translated)—has been pursued exactly for the same reason, namely that deep spiritual cosmologies and feelings cannot be codified and frozen in rigid artistic expressions.

This does not mean, however, that religious traditions who choose to depict their reverent objects in visual representations are wrong to do so; However, if we listen closely to the deeper voices in such traditions, we find that they have a complex understanding that what their images depict are not to be taken literally but considered symbolic expressions of love and reverence for something they regard as most beautiful, yet so ungraspable.

And yet, we may also have cases where spiritual objects are depicted in unflattering or sectarian ways usually by those not belonging to the traditions they depict, causing divisions among the believers and/or non-believers, fueling their sectarianisms for the imperial purpose of ruling them, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo under consideration here.

Charlie Hebdo is presumably seeking to demonstrate its Western civilized nature, defending its interpretation of the principle of human liberty. However, the constant, pre-meditated, planned, intentional insulting and taunting of another culture presumably in the name of safeguarding human liberty principle—when those in the targeted culture almost universally say “Don’t do it!”—is expressive more of a spirit that seeks to impose itself on others than demonstrate respect for civility.

It is one thing to ridicule one’s own culture or religious group, and another to ridicule others’ traditions. To decide rashly, just for the fun of it, to impose especially unflattering images on the symbolic imaginations of other spiritual traditions who have repeatedly expressed their preferences for not being violated as such is an exercise not only of rudeness, but also of imperiality.

Disrespecting other tradition’s repeatedly expressed wishes not to be violated in what they diversely regard as their values can be an imperial form of religious harassment, of spiritual taunting, of cultural abuse and bullying in the global cultural playground.

V. Can Empires or Cultures be Tolerant and Intolerant at the Same Time?

The esoteric and deeper voices and practices in all spiritual traditions have been tolerant, understanding, and appreciative of their own and other religious traditions’ way of expressing their faiths, while some exoteric and extremist factions in their broader traditions may often differ and at times even quite violently suppress the more tolerant factions in the traditions with which they associate themselves.

Tolerance and intolerance amid Eastern traditions are as much facts of human history as are tolerance and intolerance amid Western traditions. Remember the recent cases of WWI and WWII, both originating from the West. In fact, if we look carefully at modern forms of imperiality we will find, adopting a broadly world-systemic perspective, that the presumably “proud” perpetuation of tolerance in the West has often been conditioned by and dependent on that same West’s “not so proud” perpetuation of support for intolerance in the semi/peripheries.

It is the same regarding wealth and democracy distribution patterns. That is, increases in wealth and democracy in the imperial centers in the modern world-system have often been dependent on the imperial powers’ perpetuation of policies that have increased poverty and repression in the lives of a majority of those living in the semi/peripheries. So, it is, for instance, that a West priding itself of its tolerance and democracy uses its intrigue and intelligence muscles to stage a coup in another nation (Iran), toppling a democratic government and bringing back to power a Shah’s regime, and supporting its intolerant, repressive policies for decades, and benefiting much from it.

In the age of globalization, one cannot assume that one’s own interpretation of human rights is exactly the same as that of others, nor that one can any longer contain it within one’s own borders; otherwise, insisting on a “my own way, or the highway” attitude is bound to become, and/or to be perceived as, imperial practicing of a “human rights” ideology which, like its “spreading democracy” counterpart, cannot be forced on others without negating itself in the process.

A dogmatic view of human liberty devoid of its own self-limiting content by definition, then, will find it difficult to explain why it engages in or condones one form of caricaturing of an “other” (Muslims), when, by law, it prohibits and eschews (and rightfully so) practicing the same against other “others” (Jews, Blacks, Armenians, Native “Americans,” etc.). The only difference here may be that in the latter cases, the historical record has proven that benign orientalist caricaturing, simplifications, and humiliations of others have contributed to their holocausts and genocides, while in other cases, their holocausts and genocides are (wrongly) presumed to have not yet come or that they may not come.

How do you think Gazans and (more broadly) Palestinians feel when their homeland is occupied and cyclically destroyed, the acts being often justified and accompanied by derogatory symbolic depictions of them as “Arab natives” who should be pushed aside by a cowboy-minded, Western backed state for decades pursuing its unending frontier expansion policy?

What can one do about an occupier who has not arrived (despite many voices from its own critically minded citizens) at the conclusion that it is in its own enlightened self-interest (especially having experienced such horror in the hands of Western Nazism and Fascism during the Holocaust) not to oppress and humiliate others, because it will just not work—since the human spirit of resistance to such oppression is much more powerful and enduring than any pens and weapons can repress?

Why are the West and Israel not learning the lesson that occupying others’ lives and lands and violating their human liberty is bound to lead to punches in return, as all just wars in self-defense are waged—horrible wars that can and should be avoided on all sides simply by letting sound reasoning to prevail?

It is unimaginable how a people so oppressed, as the Jewish people have been, can allow some in their midst to become so oppressive toward another people in the past several decades—simply to add just a bit of land over here and just a bit of land over there, and then trumpet such behavior as a civilizing mission and frontier achievement. Odd it is that the killings on one side are seen and widely condemned but the killings on the other side, perpetrated with such disproportional use of force, are conveniently ignored, and even lauded.

Western Enlightenment did not just presumably bring forth a respect for human liberty, but also a renewed call for the pursuit of human reasoning and the scientific spirit in the broad senses of the terms. What does it take for a West that is proud for having arrived at such a presumed enlightenment, and for having witnessed such horrors (ironically originating from amid its own side of the world) in the Holocaust against the Jews, the gypsies, and the communists in the Nazi concentration camps, to realize that it is just not a good idea, and not even in one’s own enlightened self-interest, to forcefully occupy and violate the lands and lives of others, and thereby their human liberties? Does it have to take the scale of a holocaust for the remaining survivors of the Holocaust to also loudly, emphatically, unequivocally, demand from Israel to stop the oppression of Palestinians, of turning their occupied homeland into a vast concentration camp?

The best of social science can demonstrate unequivocally that when you harm another, you are at that very same time harming yourself. An “other” cannot really be related to, in love or in hate, without relating to a self in one’s own subjective reality that represents that “other.” Hatred of the other is at the same time hatred for a self in you that represents that other. Your anger at an other, is an anger at a self in you that represents that other. Only soldiers who have gone on “human liberty” missions overseas and killed others can understand what the killing did to themselves. Peace can never come to oneself without making peace with others. Is Israel any safer than it was decades ago? What’s the point of all the Western science if it cannot come with a clear answer to that simple question?

Why is it so hard to realize that it is just not a good idea to make such oppressive and imperial acts easier, bit by bit, cartoon by cartoon, magazine issue by magazine issue, so crudely, yet so subtly, by disrespecting, humiliating, and violating the spiritual cosmologies and symbols of the still occupied and the still (neo)colonized?

VI. The Advent of “Comical Imperialism” and “Islamoridicula”?

The new phenomenon of “comical imperialism” is at the same time so new, and really not new, that it deserves its own new term. What one may also call “Islamoridicula” is fast becoming a new face of Western imperiality and orientalism in the 21st century.

“Islamoridicula” may be defined as perpetuating the “othering” of Islam as a whole not through fear, as in Islamophobia,  but by ridiculing a whole tradition in a comical way, unnecessarily bleeding all sides of the conflict to death in fanatic defense of an absurd belief that “I am liberating you by insulting your dignity”—hence the triple-puns on “ridiculing,” “ridiculous,” and “Dracula.”

Comically reducing the complexity of a whole cultural tradition to simplistic cartoons does with caricatures what Islamophobia does with fear. As the latter elevates the fear of violent extremist forces associating themselves with Islam to a fear of Islam as a whole, Islamoridicula reduces the whole of Islam and its shared symbols to the comicality of simplistic cartoons, both serving the same latent function of rendering a whole culture as being not civilized, as “not able to represent itself”—thus, deserving to be represented, kept in line, ruled.

The presumably “literary,” or more specifically comical, license helps protect Islamoridicula from the charges of orientalism, of committing prejudice and discrimination against a particular culture, since the French or others have already outlawed doing the same against some religious groups in its outright hateful expressions.

The literary/comical license is so handy that the same content in orientalist and Islamophobic arsenals can now be quite effectively repackaged militantly, stubbornly, and fanatically, as the symbol of a presumed Western human liberty principle, and fed to the millions.

The new imperial product seems quite pedestrian in form, but is in fact quite complex in content, a neo-orientalist way of enabling further neo-colonization of another culture by dividing and ruling it around a confused and caricatured notion of the human liberty principle.

Comical imperialism and Islamoridicula are not funny. They are quite serious, and can lead to severely tragic consequences for all sides. They are forms of imperial bullying that, when they meet fanatic extremists on the other side who are themselves in pursuit of their own form of imperial caliphate bullying of others for their own beliefs, can result in confrontations in which many innocents become victims.

Since the imperial content of Islamoridicula is disguised in presumably non-serious and funny symbolic arsenal rather than outright hatred and threats, it lends itself, its adherent so think, to a more effective way of ruling others by ridiculing them.

Does one really believe that a comical representation of a revered religious symbol cannot be at the same time an implicit expression of hatred for, and a subliminal expression of fear of, what it represents?

VII. And Then, There Were Free-Thinking Muslims … Or, … Were They Muslim?

Simplifications of Islam cannot in any way account for the seriously critical, scientific, philosophical, spiritual, literary, even at times humorous ways progressive and free-thinking trends in Islam have themselves historically critiqued the conservative, regressive, and extremist/violent trends in Islam itself.

Omar Khayyam’s is a good case in point. In his authentic scientific writings, he explicitly lamented about his time when scientists and scholars were marginalized, repressed, and even ridiculed by conservative and orthodox Islamic factions. So, facing life-threatening circumstances, and a free-thinker that he was, he preferred to be wise and prudent about the situation, to write and teach less so as not to jeopardize the lives of those students or peers seeking his knowledge, or even his own life.

Khayyam was not a man of duplicity. He was one who would rather remain silent, than express and write something he did not believe in. In the same passage of his scientific tract, he complained about others’ duplicity, which is telling of the higher values he himself espoused. It is an indication that when he did, so rarely given the harshness of his time, write scientific, philosophical, or religious essays, what he wrote could not be regarded as something unthinkingly said but not really meant on his part. There is nothing in Khayyam’s authentic scientific and philosophical writings that casts any doubt regarding his faith in Islam.

Those around Khayyam thought he was not generous with sharing his wisdom, teaching, and writings; but it is evident that as an Islamic free-thinker who may have even penned, among many quatrains, some satirizing his conservative foes, he leaned on the side of caution and realism, and preferred to be prudent in sharing them, if at all, or widely, simply because he valued life, of others and of his own. He lived long amidst a harsh and deadly era of rivalry among Islamic and political factions.

Even though he was severely critical of his times, living amid repressive forces of Seljuk imperialism and its Islamic orthodoxy, Khayyam remained independent and true to his faith as a Muslim—his scientific and philosophical writings, and many quatrains attributed to him, clearly telling of a free-thinking Islamic intellectual that is willing to subject all existence to criticism, sparing nothing from the sharp edge of his critical mind. Yet, he lived a Muslim and died a Muslim, reportedly praying just before dying, still in thoughtful reverence for the teachings of his also free-thinking Muslim predecessor, Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

So, critical and free thinkers within the tradition of Islam, such as Khayyam, did not abandon their basic faiths in Islam as a religious world-outlook when expressing their criticisms against conservative trends in Islam. They still expressed reverence in their scientific and philosophic writings not only for their God, but also for Islam’s prophet and his family.

When Charlie Hebdo targets and ridicules Islam and its symbols and figures as a whole tradition, it is collapsing centuries-old conflicts within Islam into a caricatured simplicity of a monolith, as if free-thinking Muslims such as Khayyam or Avicenna themselves have not been, for centuries, also both targets as well as challengers of the repressive trends within Islam.

However, the West that has presumably rediscovered Khayyam, albeit in an orientalist clothing, is inclined to believe that if Khayyam was a free thinker, he must not have been a Muslim—as if being free-thinking and being Muslim are incompatible. Avicenna was also a Muslim, and so were many Islamic scientists during the times when the West was still in the grip of its Dark Ages. It is the same story when the West, having embraced Rumi today, also asks whether “Rumi’s Islam” is the same as what Islam “really is.”

So, even the trends within Islam who have themselves been—amid the harshest of times, and having themselves endured significant hardships—harbingers and inspirers of much critical, free, philosophical/scientific thinking and creative literary writing and poetry in the West, are selectively set aside as if they don’t belong to the tradition of Islam.

Such attitudes, of course, serve Islamophobia and Islamoridicula well, since they help to conveniently set aside the trends whose existence within the tradition of Islam clearly complicate the broader culture’s heterogeneous and diverse intellectual landscape. This way the simplistic portrayals of Islam can be more easily caricatured into cartoons.

VIII. Tragicomicality of Matter-Mind Dualism: Is the West’s Attitude toward Islam Self-Defeating?

The irony of it is, those in the West who critique a whole religion for the intolerance or extremist violence of some of its adherents, self-defeatingly give up their own allies within that very religion who are also critical of such intolerance—because by so reductively, provocatively, imprudently, and simplistically abusing the universal figures and symbols of a religion as whole, they end up beating all those associated with that religion, including their own likely same-minded allies, with the same symbolic stick. In fact, conversely, by pursuing such strategies, they end up strengthening and fueling the fires of the very regressive trends in the broader tradition they are presumably seeking to silence.

Such simplistic reductions of a whole religion especially by caricaturing its founder is not a rational, nor a scientific, nor an enlightened, not even a modern concept, in the best meanings of these terms. It is just succumbing to the most disgraceful, pedantic, racist, intolerant, childish, and discriminatory levels of debate, beating whole civilizations with one stick, simply because it is fun to do, easy to draw, visually easy to communicate to broad masses so short of time in their already busy lives, and now, in many millions sold, quite lucrative.

But doing so is not even prudent to do, and is just simply careless toward one’s loved ones on all sides. The notion that one can just boundlessly and “freely” insult others beyond any limits in the sphere of the “mind,” without doing so having any effect on “matter,” arises from a deeply dualistic and binary philosophical tradition—that of separating matter and mind still inspiring the Western culture.

It is an ultimate, philosophically perpetuated caricaturing of our commonly shared cosmic, universal reality to think—now in the age of quantum science and the breaking down of simplistic boundaries of and disciplines about mind and matter—that one can separate liberty in all things mental from liberty in all things material.

Even Pope Francis, in his own pragmatic, prudent, and street-wise way, said, and rightly so, that if you insult someone’s mother, expect a punch in return. Not that the punch has to come, but it will likely come, given how unpredictable and diverse human lives and peoples’ upbringings are.

Social life is not a Newtonian, predictable, reality, but a quantal one. A seemingly benign, yet insulting, cartoon drawn in the tiny space-time of an editor’s desk can have butterfly effects everywhere all over the globe for years, decades, or perhaps centuries to come.

IX. “Je suis Henri”: The Other Charlie Hebdo?

Murdering the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo and those killed in related events was a horrible thing to do. Nothing justifies taking anyone’s life because of differences in mind. However, to expect that somehow the mental zone “up there” is completely out of touch with humans’ emotional and material lives “down here” also displays an impractical and immature attitude that is careless not just about one’s own life, but also about the lives of those inside and outside a magazine’s office.

Why did the police officer beside the editor, or the police officer on the street, among others, have to die so suddenly, and, as a victim’s tearful brother said, so wastefully? And yet, despite such sadness and such perhaps anger, he and his Muslim mother called for tolerance.

Those who regard “the sticking to the principle at no matter what cost” attitude as a sign of bravery, willing to give up their and their own peers’ and police protectors’ lives for it amid continual physical threats, are basically following exactly the same logic as the criminals who, in the name of “sticking to the principle at no matter what cost” take arms in the name of a faith to murder their adversaries in order to defend and avenge for their own beliefs.

What is missing in both is not just a pragmatic sense that mind and matter indeed are not as separate as one may think they are, despite having relative autonomy from one another, but also that both mind and matter, and the objects of their pens and weapons, are not solid and unitary things, are not monoliths, but consist of a whole diversity and multiplicity of views and adherents.

So, it happens that the murderers claiming to be Muslim end up killing a Muslim police officer in cold blood while another Muslim man hides Jewish customers in a freezer to save their lives, while, on the other end, we conveniently forget that even a founding editor of Charlie Hebdo, Henri Roussel, had for a long while been courageously critical of provocative cartoon wars waged by his former peers. So, neither “Muslims” were a monolith group, nor “Charlie Hebdo” a monolith magazine.

Why did the French President(s) not listen to this French citizen, Henri Roussel? Why do the millions of French not listen to this French man’s voice as well? Why did the magazine editors not listen to him? Why aren’t they, still? Was he not also a founder of Charlie Hebdo? Is he not being heard, simply because his is a single man’s voice in a minority, caught amid a sea of contrary majority opinions? One who, still, even after the tragedies, bravely insists on what he believed to be the principled position to take?

Where has gone the French and the Western respect for the individual, when Henri Roussel’s voice is sidelined, not heard, and reluctantly published, let alone sold in millions? Why not raise the banner instead of “Je suis Henri”? Where were the banners for him?

X. The New Cover of Charlie Hebdo: Is Charlie Growing Up?

But the most telling of the fact that nothing is a monolith is perhaps expressed in the cover of the post-murder issue of Charlie Hebdo. It is quite ironic and tragic that it had to take so many lives for a surviving editor of the magazine to learn the lesson, perhaps not intended as such, that even his caricatured “Muhammed” can be forgiving, and that even his caricatured Muhammed can be Charlie.

The Charlie of the post-murders magazine issue cover is not, whether we like it or not, the same Charlie as before. This Charlie has grown up just a bit under the pressure of unfortunate and quite preventable events. All Charlie Hebdo needed to do is to listen more openly to one of its own founding voices, that of Henri Roussel; but it didn’t, and it is still not listening.

A better cover could have portrayed Charlie himself as saying “I am not Charlie”—having learned that things in this world are not black and white, Us versus Them, but one in which there are grey areas in between things.

Why shouldn’t Charlie also grow up symbolically a bit more and realize that it will be helpful to calm down, to meditate a bit while learning some lessons about how to do it from the traditions he has bashed so mindlessly before—to sit and observe his breathing, to notice the chatter of such mindless rhetoric about “how to get back at them,” to become detached from such pedantic joke-mongering tendencies, to become a bit more mature and learn that there may be some value in also liberating oneself from the Cartesian dogma that “I am” merely means “I think.”

Some meditation can help one better realize that it takes much more than to “think” to be human and humane: to realize beyond the dualistic Cartesian mindset that to be human, “I am” should mean a plurality of “I think,” “I feel,” and “I sense” so that “I can experience” what it means to be in the shoes of the “other,” to be pained by insulting them as much as they are insulted by my cartoons—even, if I may still think they are wrong and I am right. It may help one to realize that there is always a grey area in between all things, between matter and mind, and that a seemingly benign “joke” here and now can lead to a crime in some other there and then.

But then, even the French law has learned this, albeit in a one-sided way, in the case of the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, for instance. Somehow, though, the case of Islam is deemed to be different, despite millions of the French and billions of the world’s Muslim citizens comprising the human family. Are not Muslims a part of the humanity whose liberty the editors claim to be also championing?

The tragedy of loss of so many lives associated with the Charlie Hebdo events is only partially so, however. The other tragedy was that in the heartland of Western Enlightenment, and amid the understandable shock of a tragedy just experienced, millions of grievers on the street did not wonder (by raising contrasting banners) whether it really makes sense for Charlie to be Charlie any more, that he should remain so static—to demonstrate instead that Charlie needs to also grow up just a bit from the tragic events.

And likewise, why not elevate the slogan from a Newtonian to a quantal point of view and say that “Somehow, oddly today, I am and am not Charlie, because I can grow up, I can change, I can learn.” To be honest with oneself and admit, “well, I feel ambivalent about it”? Why not ask, “look, a religious figure previously caricatured is now acknowledged to be capable of forgiving all those involved. Then, why did I ridicule him before?” “Why should I continue ridiculing the all-forgiver?”

A self-critical editorial perspective can advocate tolerance, forgiveness, and a realization that all faiths and unfaiths may have something useful and wise to offer the human conversation in the spirit of tolerance and love. Perhaps the magazine can turn to satirizing satire instead, not in an insulting and tasteless way but in a smart and tasteful way, satirizing those (including Charlie Hebdo itself in the past?) who pursue intolerance in the guise of advocating liberty, satirizing instead the tendency to simplify the complexity of the spiritual and/or secular cosmologies of humanity’s traditions by reducing them to childish cartoons.

Why not put cartoons to use for some healing on all sides? You know, meditation techniques taught in such diverse ways in the spiritual traditions Charlie Hebdo ridicules can be quite helpful in going beyond the fragmented mental chatters amid everyday life, and to improve one’s concentration and memory. It can help one to remember many things that otherwise are just left out of the comical portraits the cartoonists draw. In fact, it can even lead to some quite amusing ways of putting satire to good use.

For instance, as the French take up the banner of human liberty for all, it will be “amusing” to remind them in satire what they were doing in Vietnam or Algeria just a few decades ago. As they take pride in their Western tolerance while supporting those occupying others’ homelands in the Middle East, it may be “fun” to satirize how France itself was occupied by its Western neighbors just a few decades ago during WWII. “Amusing” it would be to satirize the West’s claims for respecting people’s rights of self-determination while reminding the readers, in millions now, of the history of Western colonialism. Oh, it would be just “fun” to remember how many perished and literally vanished during those years in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. And not many were left to come to the streets to protest those.

It may be also “fun” to relate how an ally in the Middle East complains of its safety, while having 200+ nuclear bombs in its possession, and the most sophisticated of today’s weaponry in its arsenal. And yet, is not safe from the stone thrown by a 14 year old girl, so it imprisons her for months. And nobody asks, let alone sanctions, it to also declare its nuclear arsenal. “Funny” it is that Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and more recently ISIS, grew out of the regional and local allies the West were sought to arm in order to challenge their undesirable foe governments in power at the time (Soviets then, Syria now). Is it not “fun” to have allies who do not let “their women” even drive a car be such close friends in the region and such good allies in the fight against those violating the principle of human liberty?

XI. Is History Repeating itself as a Farce? A French “Un-Enlightenment”?

Human liberty is not an abstract, religious dogma, an absolutism, but a practical universalism such that logical limits to its meaning are by definition implied in its very principle. Doing otherwise is simply an act of caricaturing the universal principle itself.

A France that self-centeredly claims to be the fountainhead of modern notions of liberty and enlightenment for a whole humanity (as if other cultures have not contributed to the same in their own ways) cannot pretend to be so by outlawing one form of provocative humiliation of others while championing amid millions on the streets—with world leaders hand in hand leading them (among them many not too respectful of human differences, by the way)—the same provocative humiliation of others as the emblem of its self-proclaimed mission. Doing both at the same time is a tragicomic exercise in contradiction for which many French and Western generations down the historical road will have to answer.

Are we experiencing a French Un-Enlightenment today, history repeating itself as a farce? One would expect the French to practice the Western self-critical spirit that it claims to also share, and not rush into codifying a schizophrenic cultural and political legacy of Un-Enlightenment for centuries to come, by pursuing a double-standardized press policy. It should calmly sit around the nation’s editorial table, meditate a bit more on the matter before rushing into the streets, not fear being self-critical when listening also to the voices of its own Henri Roussels.

It should critique also its recent Syria policies, one that has contributed to such an armed expansion of regressive trends in Islam (itself, a microcosm of how the regressive trends in Islam we know of today have survived better and been strengthened because of the Western imperial policies in modern times in pursuit of the West’s economic and political interests in the region]. It should critique its hitherto policy failures in legally prohibiting the Islamophobic caricaturing of its own and the world’s Muslim citizens this time before their holocaust comes—if it has not arrived already in its own troubling shape and form, judging from so many lives and heads shed everyday without a trace, with not as many coming to the streets to grieve for them as well.

Ultimately, the gallantry and bravery of the French will be judged not by fanatic and unthinkingly blind pursuit of a cartoon magazine’s misguided strategy to advance human liberty by insulting others, but by the extent to which it soberly, rationally and self-critically reviews its press policy and demonstrates that it is indeed unbiased, objective, and able to detach itself from the mental chattering of a fanatic desire to self-defeatingly continue a biased press policy built on pedantic harassment and bullying of others in the global schoolyard.

And do so in favor of a consistent adherence to the principle of advancing human liberty for all, and not just for the French or the West only—and in doing so, spare itself and Muslims in France and worldwide at least this completely uncalled for and unnecessary excuse for so tragically violating the rights and the lives of one another.

XII. What Was It That Made Voltaire, Voltaire?

The comparison between the caricatured human liberty principle as advocated by Charlie Hebdo today with that advocated by the Voltaire of the French Enlightenment is quite misplaced, ahistorically constructed, and simply cartoonishly drawn.

What made Voltaire special was not his willingness to stand up to his times’ religion per se, but his willingness to stand up to his times. What Voltaire advocated for then, is status quo now.

What Voltaire represents is the courage to stand up to the mass hypnosis of what passes in one’s own time and nation as a fashionable trend, and to have the courage to tell the truth to the face of one’s own cultural and political power and whatever passes as one’ own time’s and nation’s misguided common sense.

It is not a sign of bravery to go with the mainstream of the French culture and politics today and fanatically support a press policy that is obviously inconsistent in and of itself and prejudiced against a particular spiritual tradition.

The spirit of Voltaire lives in the brave voices of those like Henri Roussel who both before and after the recent tragic events stood and still stands firm, while grieving, on his own grounds insisting that using Charlie Hebdo to humiliate another culture was wrong.

“Je suis Henri” is a more apt expression of “Je suis Charlie.” Voltaire’s spirit is today represented in the voices of Henri Roussels, in the voices of anyone willing to stand against the absurd and fashionable mainstream and to speak for human liberty in a spirit of empathy, than that of ridiculing others for the imperial fun of it.

There is nothing honorable about imperial bullying and religious harassment via cartoons in the name of the principle of human liberty. It is very easy to ridicule others. It is much harder to examine and reexamine one’s own faults.

Is not being self-critical what made the French Enlightenment enlightening?

XIII. Don’t Other Cultures Have Their Voltaires?

Empires and Al-Qaedas (or ISILs) are two faces of the same imperial coin. The West regards itself as a beauty, desperately seeking to cleanse the images of the beast on the wall of Islam, not realizing that the wall is a mirror and the reflected images of the beast on the wall ever cross-morphing by-products of its own orientalist imperial adventures across modern world-history.

So, if one really wishes to do something serious about it, one has to be aware also of causes of monstrosities in oneself that are reflected as such in the mirror. This calls for a different kind of enlightenment.

Islam’s free-thinkers were clearly not Cartesians. Facing the harsh realities of their times ruled by conservative and repressive Islamic trends, they found it essential to express their wisdom not simply in thinking tracts, nor in simplistic cartoons, but in poetic forms that appealed not just to thinking, but also to feeling, to sensing, and to experiencing of themselves, “others,” and the universe. For them, matter and mind were not dual and separate, but related to one another as aspects of a unitary existence.

Before tragicomic acts take uglier turns, it may help listening again to such voices of Islam as expressed in Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, or in the Song of the Reed by Rumi, whom the West conveniently forgets when drawing its hateful caricatures on the face of its Islamophobic press policy and magazines.

All Rumi’s Reed is saying below is that the only way we can let the light of love, rather than spite, reach across humanity is by bravely wiping the rust off of our own mirrors. You cannot enlighten others, without enlightening yourself through serious critical introspection and meditation.

Otherwise, there will aways be a blind-spot in everything you think and do, missing those causes that are inside you, that will generate and regenerate the same monstrosities you are seeking to liberate yourself from by ridiculing others.

You cannot liberate others and the world, without liberating yourself from within. That is the heart of a different kind of enlightenment we have inherited from the genuine voices in all spiritual traditions of humankind—in so many beautiful expressions that can never, ever, be comparable to Charlie Hebdo’s simplistic cartoons, even if it so belatedly acknowledges a Muhammed crying.

And Rumi’s “Muhammedan” Reed cried a long while before the French Enlightenment.

XIV. Rumi’s Islam: Surrendering to Love—The Song of the Reed

Listen to how this reed is wailing
About separations it’s complaining:

“Since from the reed bed parted was I,
Men, women, have cried from my cry.

“Only a heart, torn-torn, longing
Can hear my tales of belonging.

“Whosoever lost his essence,
For reuniting seeks lessons.

“In the midst of all I cried
For the sad and the happy, both sighed.

“But, they heard only what they knew,
Sought not after the secrets I blew.

“My secret’s not far from this, my cry;
But, eye or ear lack the light to seek and try.

“Body and soul each other do not veil
But there is no one to hear his soul’s tale.”

What blows in reed’s not wind, but fire;
Whoever lost it, is lost entire.

What sets the reed on fire is love, love;
What brews the wine entire is love, love.

Reed comes of use when lovers depart;
It’s wailing scales tear love’s veilings apart.

Like reed both poison and cure who saw?
Like reed comrade and devout who saw?

Reed tells of the bleeding heart’s tales,
Tells of what mad lovers’ love entails.

With the truth, only the seeker’s intimate,
As the tongue knows only the ear’s estimate.

Days, nights, lost count in my sorrow;
Past merged in this sorrow with tomorrow.

If the day is gone, say: “So what! go, go!
But remain, O you pure, O my sorrow!”

This water’s dispensable—but not for the fish.
Hungry finds days long without a dish.

Cooked soul’s unknowable if you’re raw;
Then there is no use to tire the jaw.

 ……………………………

Break the chain, be free, O boy!
How long will you remain that gold’s toy?!

Say you have oceans, but how can you pour
All oceans in a single day’s jar, more and more?!

The greedy’s eye-jar will never fill up;
No pearl, if oyster’s mouth doesn’t give up.

Whoever tore his robe in love’s affair
Tore free of greed, flaw, and false care.

Joy upon you! O sorrowful sweet love!
O the healer! healer of ills! love, love!

O the healer of pride, of our shame!
O Galen in name, Platonic in fame!

Earth’s whirling in heavens for love, love;
Hill’s whirling round the earth for love, love.

Love’s the soul in hill. It’s Love in the hill
That brought the hill down and Moses the chill.

If coupled my lips with friend’s on and on,
I’ll tell tales, like reed, long, long.

Uncoupled, though, these lips will cease wails,
Lose tongue, though remain untold tales. 

If the rose is dead, garden long gone,
No canary can recite her song along. 

The lover is veiled; beloved’s the all.
Veil must tear to hear the beloved’s call.

If you do stay away from love, hear, hear!
Like a wingless bird you’ll die, fear, fear!

How can I stay awake and see the road,
If lover’s light shine not on my abode?

Love always seeks ways to spread the light.
Why, then, does your mirror reflect a night?

Your mirror takes no tales—you’d like to know?—
‘Cause your rust keeps away all lights’ glow.

RumisSongoftheReedbyTamdgidi


The voice recitation of the above Song of the Reed in English verse and Persian is available by clicking on the image above or by visiting The OKCIR Channel on YouTube. English verse translations of Omar Khayyam’s ruba’i (quatrain) and Rumi’s Song of the Reed are by Mohammad H. Tamdgidi.

Essay Author: Mohammad H. (Behrooz) Tamdgidi, Ph.D., an Iranian-American sociologist and a former Associate Professor of Sociology at UMass Boston, is a Founding Research Director at OKCIR: The Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism, and Science (Utopystics) and a Founding Editor of Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge. www.okcir.com | info@okcir.com

[Note: The linking to, or reposting of, the above blog essay is free and permitted anywhere, on the strict conditions that (1) nothing is omitted from or modified in it, (2) its authorship is credited as signed, and (3) this and the above signature notes including a link to this blog posting as http://okcir.com/blog/ is included at the end of the essay.]

© Mohammad H. Tamdgidi, 2015.