Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Affair

This is my reply to the Facebook comment thread linked to here:



Thanks to all of you again for taking the time to engage, and the length of this post reflects the seriousness with which I regard this subject. First, a disclaimer: I’ve never read an entire Charlie Hebdo issue in my life, or indeed heard of it before this incident. I am largely unfamiliar with French culture and the reality on the ground in France; I don’t know how widespread racism is there, whether immigrants are truly accepted in society (and I think this is a question for many European countries at the moment), etc… so this is why comparing different viewpoints like this article, over the past several days, has been very important for me.

One of the things that interested me most about this article in particular was that it was mainly discussing not just Islam itself but also the experiences of people of color in France (linking it to the author’s recent trip to Paris to discuss just that with Parisians of color). It’s very important to emphasize that for me, questioning this kind of content is not about making a “special excuse” for Islam, or encouraging double standards. Cartoons that peddle racist stereotypes about black people, Chinese people, and Buddhist people, as Alexandre mentioned, would be just as unacceptable for me as those that depict Islam and/or Muslims – and just as I would be vehemently against the kind of anti-Semitic cartoons that are already stringently banned under French law, as they should be. (A fact that calls into question double standards of a different nature, as many commentaries have already pointed out.)

First and most important: we can all agree that there is such a thing as racist, offensive and xenophobic speech. The tricky part is that, of course, everyone’s standards for what constitutes “offensive” are different, both on an individual and a cultural level. For example, in the US, these kinds of cartoons would NEVER be published (even newspapers that are reprinting them in solidarity blur out some of the more controversial ones). This has to do with the history and culture of the US, which has had to try and move beyond a very fractious and still-dangerous “race problem”. This is also the angle from which the author of this article, who apparently lives in the US, views this subject by. As a dual citizen of Saudi Arabia and the US, I also am definitely more on the side of the US in how I interpret speech as offensive or not. So our standard of judging certain kinds of speech as unacceptable is pretty low.

However, what would never be acceptable in the US would in fact be acceptable in France; as I’ve learned through my research over the past several days, France has a tradition of no-holds-barred satire that dates back to the Revolution. As a result, the standards for offensive speech for the average French person is much higher – which might result in someone French considering what I think is a tasteless joke as pretty funny; so we can’t automatically say “oh the French are racists!” just because they might appreciate a different type of humor than we do. Also, thank you Alexandre for explaining the cartoon, I see now that it can’t be fairly described as “racist”. I’ve done some more research and apparently even the cartoon of the woman as a monkey was also a comment on HER being described as a monkey by racists. So yes, just calling something racist doesn’t automatically make it so, and there are multiple ways to read different cartoons. What pushes someone’s buttons might be absolutely fine for others. (An article that helped me to digest this: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/01/11/1356945/-On-not-understanding-Charlie-Why-many-smart-people-are-getting-it-wrong#)

If I understand you correctly, Ejmin, your main point is that no one has the right not to be offended; freedom of speech means allowing disrespectful and provocative language, attacking the holiness that surrounds certain concepts; ‘thumbing it to the man’, so to speak. While you are absolutely correct, I’d like to question the occasional intentions behind such speech… I don’t think it can ever really be chalked up to “just for fun”. You point out just a few comments later (lol) that “satiric expressions reflect utterly the imagination of the society from the concepts that matter, so they are good ways of evaluating what's going on in the main stream”. So framing it as ‘just for fun’ isn’t doing it justice; there’s always reverberations and repercussions that can’t be immediately detected in these issues. (Also, I think the point of linking to the CNN report was just to point out that this kind of talk is becoming more and more widespread).

When ‘humor’ is based on peddling harmful and negative stereotypes, that’s when it starts being problematic – but then again, it’s not about what I or anyone else finds tasteless, is it? However, what I feel clinches the issue for me is not the question of disrespecting certain minorities over others, but in that it’s a way for the ‘strong’ to clobber the ‘weak’. When ‘poking fun’ is actually ‘consistently targeting a certain minority’. And while I’m not familiar with the legal definition of “hate speech” (thank you, Saudi legal education, for not having a class on freedom of expression :P) I don’t agree that the only standard to judge hate speech should be “proving that people were motivated to conduct hate crime” as a result. Hate speech should also be understood as maliciously propagating stereotypes that take away from people’s dignity and can actually result in a subliminal, unconscious erosion of their sense of respect by the majority, and leads not only to condescension but also to denigration on a wider scale. Which is arguably what’s happening here.

The fact that ‘Charlie Hebdo made fun of white people too’ doesn’t really resolve the issue at hand – as pointed out in this article (http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/why-i-am-not-charlie/), “Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.

Just a quick example – would a strong, loud bully on a playground be allowed to mercilessly taunt a short quiet weak kid, or would he be stopped? This is the main reason why I feel like there should be limits; not because some people are more likely to get offended than other, but because power dynamics in a society are real and because encouraging widespread stereotypes about people can be very harmful. Not just because it offends them personally, but because propagating these stereotypes is always negative, and because, come on – much of this is not intelligent humor that’s making a point in any way. Maintaining people’s rights to be provocative is one thing, but also acknowledging that sometimes these provocations are based on nothing more than childish and immature ways to express oneself, like an annoying kid sticking their tongue out and going “nyah nyah nyah!”. As the New York Times put it, ““We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/charlie-hebdo-cartoon-publication-debate/?_r=2

So: I guess the takeaway from all this is that, while I am not going to presume to advocate for more stringent laws on freedom of expression, nor am I going to try and condemn the French mode of satire from the outside, I am against lionizing these cartoons and trying to make them out to be some kind of heroic statement for freedom and liberty. Regarding the way that some media outlets have reacted to the massacre, the always-incredible and on-point Glenn Greenwald expresses just what I want to say on the subject: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/
 I’m also reminded of this thoughtful comic on the subject by an excellent cartoonist:

To be honest, my own attitude regarding these kinds of cartoons is to ignore them. They’re not hurting me, and they’re certainly not hurting the Prophet. I couldn’t care less what a bunch of people, who are utterly ignorant about what Islam stands for, think about it. I highly doubt that these cartoons can be blamed for persuading anyone who is not aware of the subject that Islam or the Prophet advocate violence. Humor doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and we need to allocate blame where it is due. I think the cartoons are tasteless and I don’t agree with them, but realistically, especially in this day and age, I think it’s going to become less and less likely that my objection to them is going to lead to them being banned. In the end, the only thing we Muslims can do is to fight against these stereotypes so that they make no sense anymore. So that referring to the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist would be considered an oxymoron that makes no sense, not something that would make anyone chuckle in recognition. And that is what, largely, we have failed to do. We do carry the burden of representing ourselves; a demonstration by Muslims is the one thing I would’ve wanted to see as well. If I lived in a place where I could organize one myself, believe me, I would. As it is, I hope and pray that my actions and words in condemning these heinous crimes can be enough.

In the end, what did those terrorists accomplish? Their disgusting attempt at “defense” of the Prophet, if it really was “defense”, just led to the propagation of more of these ludicrous cartoons around the world. To stepping up the attempts at blasphemy, to enforcing the terrible stereotype of Muslims as terrorists, to increased actual hate crime against Muslims who are identified with these awful crimes, and on and on… Here in Saudi Arabia people are actually calling into question that Muslims did this (though I don’t like engaging in conspiracy theories), since they couldn’t have harmed Islam more systematically if they tried!!! That’s why, in conclusion, this cartoon by Carlos Latuff, which I have linked to before, is so apt: https://www.facebook.com/aljazeera/photos/pcb.10153092512528690/10153092508728690/?type=1&theater

Peace be with us all.

Friday, November 2, 2012

'Who Speaks For Islam?' - short story

Should I begin with an overused long and heartfelt SO SORRY I HAVEN'T UPDATED FOR SO LONG (with any readers to whom this might make sense sure-to-be migrated to more active pastures), or just get on with it?

Here's a short story I wrote for a contest by an American Islamic organization. Bit cheesy by the end, I fear. Had to tie it up quickly. I finished and submitted it bleary-eyed at about three minutes to deadline at 5 o'clock in the morning (and then the next day I found out that they extended the deadline another fifteen days, go figure!). Worst thing is, I'd known about it for weeks. But there you go, I should be majoring in procrastination, not law.

So. Do read, and let me know what you think.


Who Speaks For Islam?

The auditorium's lights glowed under the night sky, stars above only dimly visible in the city heavens. On either side of the glossy table onstage two women faced off, a third in the middle acting as moderator. The banner on the backdrop screen, framed on either side by proud unfurled American flags, announced:

FACE OFF: ISLAM & AMERICA – TOO DIFFERENT? GCN Debate –with Arlene O'Carn & Salwa Abed

Television cameras and a rapt audience encircled Arlene, Salwa and the moderator in this modern vision of a gladiator's coliseum. They were sparring with the modern gladiator's primary weapons: words. Only one, however, seemed to be winning.

"First off," Arlene was saying to cheers from the crowd, "we don't need you so-called moderates tellin' us we don't need to fear the fundamentalists. Who says you represent the greater Muzlum community anyway? For one, where's your, uh, garb?"

As Salwa across from her, curly-haired and bright-earringed, took a breath to reply, one of the few women actually wearing hijab in the audience exchanged a frustrated glance with her friend Fatimah, who was similarly attired.  "Is this woman serious?"

"Quiet, Aliya," hushed Fatimah. "She's replying."

"Just because I don't wear hijab doesn't mean I'm not a Muslim," Salwa said firmly. "That's beyond what you have the right to say" –

"Do you pray five times a day?" interrupted Arlene.

"I…" Salwa started, helplessly – and Arlene pounced.

"Funny how often those two happen to correlate. Y'see, Katie," said Arlene O'Carn amiably, turning to the moderator, "I've got no problem with Muzlums like Miz Salwa – just the ones whose practice of their religion prevents them from assimilating into our greater Western society!"

Salwa attempted heavy-handedly to reply, but the damage had already been done. A man in the audience clapped and whooped. Aliya shot him a glare. But the damage had been done; the whole auditorium began clapping, and no amount of glaring could shut them up.

"So now, as long as we don't practice our religion, we're fine? This is pathetic," muttered Aliya to her friend. "I have to say something… 
"THIS IS BIGOTRY!" she shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth, but her voice was drowned out in the cheering tumult. Arlene smiled and nodded, lapping up every minute of it. Salwa was frowning, slightly slumped in her seat. "Why doesn't she fight back?" Aliya demanded directly into Fatimah's ear, who winced. Katie, the moderator, soon brought the crowd under control. While Salwa did the best she could to make up for her earlier lapse, the smug smile never left the corner of Arlene's lips.

"Well, we're all out of time, folks," Katie said finally, turning to the cameras, "thank you for attending this week's Debates by GCN. Don't forget to tune in next week to resume this interesting discussion. Thanks for watching, everybody, and goodnight!"

The two women onstage shook hands with each other and with the moderator. Behind her smile, Salwa appeared to be gritting her teeth. The lights dimmed, and as the TV show music played the audience began to file out the back. Aliya stayed in her seat, arms crossed. "Are we waiting for something in particular?" Fatimah inquired after a few minutes.

Without answering Aliya got up and started down the stairs, towards the empty stage. Fatimah caught at her sleeve. "What're you doing?"

"I just – I wish could go backstage and give that woman a piece of my mind! Both of them!"

"Come on," Fatimah told her firmly. "Out."

Aliya shot her another glare, but allowed herself to be steered outside.

They emerged into the bracing night air. The crowd had dispersed, mostly students heading back to their dorms.

"What is her problem?" Aliya began, unheard by anyone but the long-suffering Fatimah. "I don't understand it. Obviously we all know what kind of a no-holds-barred Islamophobe Arlene O'Carn is – but for the Muslim to capitulate like that in front of her? I just hope she does better next week.
"Who is she, anyway?" she gestured to a publicity poster they passed. "This Salwa Abed. I've never even heard of her. Where do they get these people?"

"Well," said Fatimah, lagging behind to eye the poster, "she's Arab-American, she's written books… A couple on the bestseller lists, it says!"

"Yeah, I bet she has," Aliya dismissed as they continued walking. "One of those, 'oh look at me, I'm a Muslim but I'm just like you' stuff. I'm telling you. These days, being a Muslim and having a Muslim name is worth a lot more than it used to be, if you're willing to shill yourself properly."

"Sounds like you've given this some proper thought, Aliya," said Fatimah, grinning. "Is this a new career path we should expect for you?"

Aliya rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right. I don't blame her, really, it's easy money. Never mind that she's not actually practicing. Never mind that making her some kind of poster child for American Muslims is deliberately misrepresenting us – and Muslims worldwide."

"You know," said Fatimah, "some people might disagree with you on that. The 'we all sin, so it doesn't matter' crowd…"

"I know, but that’s not the point. What I'm saying is, the more people like her, who prop themselves up on TV announcing themselves as the 'real women of Islam', just gives more opportunity to everyone else to label us, going about our normal business while just happening to cover up our hair and dress modestly however the heck we choose to and actually practice our religion, as crazy extreme fundamentalists! It's not fair."

Fatimah was used to her friend's rants and had sportingly allowed her thus far. "Well, why don't you do something?" she put in, once Aliya took a breath. "You get yourself all worked up for nothing. I've heard all this a billion times: why this, why that. The question is, what are you going to do about all of it?"

"I don't know – that's the problem."

They stopped, suddenly, as a van pulled out in front of them. From the back of the building several figures emerged, and trudged down the lawn towards it.

"Is that…"

"The moderator," said Fatimah. "And crew, probably. Want to say something?"

"Sure," said Aliya.

"Okay, go ahead. Tell her."

"You tell her," whispered Aliya. The van had continued past them; the people were almost to the van doors.

"Fine. Um – Miss Katie!" Fatimah called, waving her hand as though in a classroom, and they hurried over.

"Yes?" Katie said. As they came up, she fixed them with one of her screen-worthy smiles.

"Well – we just wanted to tell you what big fans of you we were" –

Katie's smile widened as Aliya elbowed Fatimah in the ribs. "Why, thank you."

"But we'd also like to say," Fatimah continued, with a reproachful glance to her friend, "that we were very disappointed in the way the debate was presented."

"First of all," Aliya put in, "we didn't think at all that Ms. Abed was a good selection as a representative for Muslims."

"I'm sorry you feel that way," Katie said diplomatically, "but we felt that, due to her status as such a successful author and speaker…"

Aliya snorted. "You can ask any Muslim. I'm sure that plenty certainly won't agree that she's in any kind of position to speak for Islam."

"Well, who would you suggest?"

"Um…" Slowly, Aliya was horrified to draw a complete blank.

"I suppose a more appropriate question would be, who speaks for Islam?" Katie asked again, with that fixed, bright smile of hers. For the first time in a while, Aliya was finding herself at a loss for words.

"We gotta move, Katie!" shouted someone from the van, and saving her.

"Sorry! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. See you next week, then," said the moderator, turning to go with another double-wattage smile.

"Looking forward to it," murmured Fatimah, and Aliya's heart lurched in knowledge of her own sore lacking.

They were back in their dorm by now, in the cluttered and dim living room. Fatimah was perched on the couch; Aliya paced back and forth.

"We don't know!" Aliya said, gesticulating and practically shouting. "That's the problem! Who speaks for Islam? We have no idea!"

"You keep 'speaking for Islam' that loud, Roya is not going to be very happy," noted Fatimah, peeling an orange.

"Don't say her name too loud, she'll hear you," said Aliya ominously, glancing towards the closed door. Fatimah wordlessly extended Aliya an orange slice.

"No, thanks… God, why didn't we – why haven't we thought about this before? Where are our leaders?"

"Well, Roya is president of the Muslim Student Council" –

"Yeah, right."

A muffled indignant noise came from behind a closed door, and Aliya stopped her pacing just long enough to direct a not-very-contrite "Sorry, Roya," towards it.

"Parties and dress-up," she continued in a lower voice, "you know what I think of her leadership. And I'm not talking students here, Fatimah, I'm talking about people who could actually hold their own against that Arlene lady."

"One of the professors, then. We've got plenty of people who should be up to it within Islamic Studies, at least."

"Oh, really?" scoffed Aliya. "So who do you have in mind? The radical from Yemen, or the mole from the State Department, or the guy who spends half his time snorting incense and twirling around to voodoo chants? Or the woman who does?"

"Not sure they're voodoo chants, exactly…"

"Voodoo, Sufi, whatever."

"Not very respectful, Aliya."

"Fine. Sorry. All I'm saying is, not many people would take them too seriously either. And then" – if possible, the rate of her pacing increased. "That's not even the central point here! I'm not talking about within our college, though now that we've brought that up, sure, we are in crisis mode and we don't even know it. But setting that aside – I'm talking about the wider community. Big time. Muslims as a whole, the religious community, the Ummah! Where are our leaders? Where have they been, where did they all go?"

She stood there, arms outstretched, breathing hard with impassioned effort.

Fatimah then observed dryly, "Aliya's Philosophical Musing of the Day Number 7762," and got started on another orange.

"I'm not kidding, Fatoom," said Aliya sternly. She sat down next to her to nick a slice. For a few moments they sat chewing thoughtfully.

"I know," said Fatimah. "I'm not either. In fact, I think I might know a member of the faculty who would do a great job against Arlene."

"Really?" said Aliya, turning to her. "Who?"

One week later, once again the auditorium sent its glaring light up into the sky, and Katie the moderator swiveled her chair round to beam at the camera almost as twinkly. "Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the second round of our debate with Arlene O'Carne and Salwa Abed!"
Dutiful applause smattered as they both came out. Fatimah, craning her neck left and right, didn't bother to join in, and sighed in relief when Aliya eased into the seat next to her. "Is everything ready?" she hissed to Aliya, who nodded.

"We'll just wait for the Q & A session. I talked to Katie. Everything's set."

Forty minutes later, the debate was ending. Aliya, both in nervousness and frustration at what was going on onstage, had ripped the program to shreds on her lap. Once again Salwa had failed spectacularly, and that maddening self-satisfied quirk adorned the corner of Arlene's mouth.
"We will now have our Q&A session," said Katie, "starting with… yes you, sir, in the blue shirt…"

The man labored to his feet; his hair was graying, he had a paunch, and he shuffled a bit taking the microphone. Self-consciously he cleared his throat before starting. "I'm, uh, Evan Cornell." The room took a collective breath of zero anticipation. "This is directed to Arlene. I just wanted to say…"

"Yes?" said Arlene, leaning forward faux-attentively.

"I just wanted to say what a disgrace to our American spirit your espoused views are, and how ashamed I am to count you amongst our ranks as an academic," said the man, his voice suddenly, irretrievably, hardening. Arlene was visibly taken aback. "As a public figure, you should know better. Your fear-mongering and saber-rattling are doing far more harm than good in this country, and I just wanted to say that we, as a country and as individuals, have had enough of it."

"Yeah!" shouted someone far off. The applause built and rumbled to a crescendo, and Arlene looked horrified.

"Stop it!" she shrieked. She got to her feet, teetering on her stilletos. "How dare you accuse me? You're – you're one of them! You're a Muzlum! I'm gonna sue" –

"If anyone is punishable to serve some libel claims, it would be you, Ms. O'Carn," said the man, "and actually, I'm not Muslim at all, though I have the greatest respect for the Islamic faith, and for Muslims." He took a quick look to where Aliya and Fatimah were seated. "I don't count myself as belonging to any organized religion, but I feel the need as a human to stand up for what's right when my fellow humans are being prejudiced and discriminated against."

"Well, in that case," stammered Arlene, "I'm sure you'll like it just fine when Sharia creeps over to rule the land! I'm sure" –

"I'm a constitutional law professor here at the university. Once it gets overruled, I'll let you know," said the man dryly, to laughter.

"I think that'll be all," said Katie, visibly grinning, "thank you all for the lively discussion…"

The music blared over Arlene's continued protestations; in the end, she was hauled bodily off the stage by her own bodyguards. Aliya and Fatimah made their way to Evan, with difficulty – surrounded by well-wishers as he was – to give him their profuse thanks.

"So," said Aliya, as she and Fatimah made their way out afterwards, "successful as that was, I still think we need someone to speak for Islam who is actually Muslim. I wonder who it should be…"

"If you think I'm going to say it should be you," retorted Fatimah, "you are mistaken. You've got a long way to go – keep that temper in check, for one."

They laughed, together.

"Hey, towelhead!" someone shouted. Aliya's head whipped around instantly.

"Don't," Fatimah cautioned. But someone had already got to him – there was a helpless squeal and two people broke through the crowd, one holding the guilty party in some kind of headlock. 

"Apologize," he ordered.

"Sorry," the other managed wheezily, and once the man had let go stumbled away.

"I'm not Muslim either," the man said gruffly, "but we all have a duty towards each other."

"Thank you," Aliya told him, and meant it.

"We're going to have to do some Qur'an distributing, I think," she said to Fatimah as they continued walking. "Spread the knowledge."

"'We'?" said Fatimah.

Aliya winked. "You bet."