On the “Racism” of Charlie Hebdo

In the wake of the horrific murders at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, you may find dozens commentaries on free speech, on hate speech, on Islam, on integration, and what the killings tell us about all of that. (There are too many to list here, but this one featuring Claire Adida is notable because she’s a French political scientist who actually studies Muslim integration in France.)

You should also read commentary that reminds us that Charlie Hebdo’s satire really was difficult. It was, indeed, offensive. Divisive even among non-Muslims in France. You may also read that the way that Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam is racist. Two examples are Jacob Canfield at Hooded Utilitarian, and Richard Seymour at Jacobin.

This allegation of racism is problematic. It fundamentally misunderstands Islam, the challenges that Muslims face in Europe and elsewhere, and the role that race does play in shaping and supporting the grievances of Muslims in the West.

It is, of course, obvious that Islam is not a race. As a faith, Islam eschews racial categorization in favor of a humanity divided into believers and unbelievers. In my work on Muslim Southeast Asia, I have found it profitable to think explicitly about the ways in which perceptions of racial distinction shape interethnic relations. Doing so brings into relief the role of Islam in bridging these perceived racial differences. (Nowhere is this clearer than in Malaysia, where the fundamental prerequisite for becoming Malay [masuk Melayu] is to become Muslim.) At the same time, racism has long existed within the Muslim world based on place of origin, phenotype, or perceived descent.

But this point is almost too obvious. I imagine Canfield, Seymour, and others reading these words and rolling their eyes. “Of course Islam isn’t a race, but the way in which Islam is portrayed is racist.”

This reply also fails. We know from recent research that Muslims face conditions of discrimination that transcend their perceived race. More to the point, though, Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam targets not the Muslim as a person, but a set of beliefs held by a subset of Muslims. That mockery has power because it forces readers, Muslim and non-Muslim, to examine the essence of religious belief. These cartoons play on the contested foundations of a spiritual identity. And those foundations are indeed contested, they are political, within Islam. That is how to “get” the cartoons, even if you find them offensive and inappropriate.

Eliding anti-Islam rhetoric with racism also obscures racism qua racism. It won’t do to label every instance of “whites punching down” as racism, because it prevents us from seeing that the mechanisms that produced hierarchies of race, class, and privilege really are different for Muslims and racial and ethnic minorities. They may be interrelated, of course. Nigerian Muslims in the United States are not merely Muslim, they are also Black. But my point is this: the narratives of the dangerous convert, the sleeper, the invisible cancer, all of which characterize the contemporary condition of Muslims in the West, none of those has a clear analogue in race. When racists imagine the problem of integration, they imagine a condition that stems from birth, a destiny inherited biologically. When Islamophobes imagine the problem of integration, they imagine a struggle of ideas, one in which all are vulnerable, in which the most frightening threat is the convert. (This is why commentary about Islamic radicals is so obsessed with pointing out that radicals, say, used to smoke marijuana or visit prostitutes. Even a “bad” Muslim is a dangerous one.)

The analogue for this kind of panic about Islam is not race. It’s communism. And the mockery of Islam by Charlie Hebdo is biting precisely because it targets a belief held sacred, not because it portrays all Muslims as having inherent, immutable attributes.

Note that I am not arguing that there is nothing racial about anti-Muslim attitudes, or the larger problem of Islam in Europe. There surely is. But the term that describes this phenomenon is the racialization of Islam in the West. The Tsarnaev brothers offer a compelling example from the U.S. But the racialization of Islam is an example of a broader racialization of poverty, of violence, of class. (A vivid example of these is Vinz, Vincent Cassel’s character in La Haine.)

Thinking through the racialization of Islam in France, and in the West in general, is obviously good, in a way that Edward Said (enlisted by Seymour as his first line of defense) would approve of. But understanding exactly how Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam is not racist is the first step in taking the challenges of Charlie Hebdo seriously.

Comments 5

  1. Realitycheck January 10, 2015

    Unesco’s prior embassador from Tunisia, Mezri Haddad, is a philosopher, and writes on the topic of reforming Islam. Translation of the French Figaro Article for Anglophone friends.Please share if you find that his view can benefit others.
    Unesco’s prior embassador from Tunisia, Mezri Haddad, is a philosopher, and writes on the topic of reforming Islam.

    I thought it would be good to post this translation of an article which appeared in the French Paper Figaro. This shows an interesting point of view from a Tunisian, as you know, a previously moderate country and still one by today’s standards in many middle east countries. I do have a view that Jacob Canfield’s article, which appears in the Hooded Utilitarian, demonstrates both his inexperience in life and his ill placed focus on race. That focus, in my opinion, demonstrate a form of racism in itself, an inability to go beyond the topic to understand the deeper underlying issues. This approach prevails in our news media, and the counterpoint takes the same superficial, but opposite, approach. Neither demonstrate the underlying issues. The article below may help, it is a direct a translation as was possible to effect.

    —- Start of his article —-
    For most analysts and politicians, the bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo, like the hostage taking in Vincennes (grocery store), are the first attacks in a war against France and its Republic: traumatic ones which no one could have predicted.
    But not for the Franco Islamic Elite, the background soldiers that fight terrorism, as well as for the rare journalists who dare say the unmentionable at the risk of being accused of Islamophobia. These, much like the enlightened Islamic intellectuals,knew this would happen.
    They know that if governments do not take the opportunity of this national crisis to revisit all aspects of their immigration policy, as well as the integration of immigrants, the education aspects, and revisit reform of Islam and its relation with Gulf States, worse will happen.
    What just happened, indeed, was written, not by the hand of Allah but by thirty years of complacency,evangelism and conformism not worthy of the land of Voltaire. (reference to rejection of dogmas). What just happened, indeed, was written, not by the hand of Allah which Islamo-Fascist have soiled and eroded its majesty.
    This script, written as a result of concessions made to those who identify as Islamists (as opposed to citizens practicing Islam), holistically and in a totalitarian way, has concessions made in the name of democracy and tolerance of the Republic.
    From the question of the vail (jihab)to the tragic massacre in Charlie Hebdo, through the Redeker story or the conference from pope Benoît XVI in Ratisbonne, see how much road has been traveled in capitulating our values of Laicity (sep. church and state), and undermining democracy. So many setbacks from light into obscurity! How many blows brought to the western civilization model facing Islamist (meaning fundamentalist, not islamic) barbarianism.
    This universal model of democracy we had been brought to believe: we, other muslims from the orient and the magreb regions; before awakening one day of the Arab Spring, to the lauding of certain western political voices: “Sharia law, why not?”. “Moderate Islam”, they said, will not be a problem.
    Our preachers of “moderate” Islam quickly forgot that when you celebrate it two hours Flight away from France, you risk being subject to its attacks in the heart of Paris. They forgot that the World has become an interconnected global village, that there is no real democracy without secularism, that Islamism is not the religion of muslims but a secular activity ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to the neo-Talibans of Daech (referencing ISIS), who share the same fundamental principles: “Our constitution is the Quran, our model is the prophet, and our state is the Khalifate”
    Mostly, these preachers forgot that quintessentially western civilization is about de-sacralizing that which is sacred and sanctifying human liberty.
    Amongst them who lament the fate of the 12 victims, I recognize those who were indignant that these cartoonists dared touch the “sacred” in producing the 2006 caricatures of the Prophet, who himself never claimed this supposed status, it being exclusively reserved for God and God only. I also recognize some Islamist folk who had sued Charlie Hebdo: as an example, the long standing Imam of the Paris Mosque, as well as the UOIF (Union of French Islamist Organizations)
    Past the whining of the leadership of Islam, the sincere indignations of the political elite, time is ripe not just for national unity,and rejection of stereotypes, but also for self criticism. Rejecting labeling, we must not forget to put back in question the prevailing dogma that paralyses thinking and freezes free speech. What is allowed in psychotherapy cannot be disallowed in politics: Words to heal the ills.
    Even if Kelkal, Merah, and Kouachi and hundreds of sociopaths in Syria stay in a minority with respect to the majority of Muslims in France, one cannot agree that our integration model has had any success. Even less so, in the management of Islam that we said was an opportunity for France, Gallicisation of Islam failed. The same has proven true for other European countries, notably Denmark, in which its citizens of “Diversity” protest under the black flag of Daech (ISIS) at the shouts of “down with the state, we want our Khalifate”
    If integration has “Failed”, integrism in turn has conquered the hearts. Because we let society open itself up to its ennemies, a microsociety developed itself, moving from moderate to radical Islam, thanks to the cultural, educational, political and media microclimates.
    The bad in this, is the Islamo-Fascist cancer which metastasized in suburbs, prisons, mosques, organizations, schools, and yes, our universities.
    Saying things as they are is not stereotyping, it is simplyt to recognize that the terrorists who committed these crimes are Muslim; their Islam, however, is not mine, nor is it that of 5 million peaceful French adherents, nor the one of 1.7 Billion in the religion worldwide. Their Islam is the genetically modified one from the Talibans, Al Qaeda and ISIS.
    Will French Muslims be able to say their daily prayer “Allah Akbar” without bringing upon them suspicion, or even hatred? Will they have to ban this expression which marks the greatness,divine union, and human liberty? Will they need to quiet this reference to the all mighty, now associated to the nothingness that the barbarians bring? These muslims in France that everyone pretends to represent, and from whom no one adopts the tolerant demeanor of, are doubly affected. They were hit at the heart of their country, and at the heart of their faith. They cry the death of their countryment (FR) and the death of God.
    —- End of article —-

  2. FriendlyAnon January 10, 2015

    I really like this post and appreciate your writing it (in addition to agreeing with it 100%), but I’ve found that there’s really no way to convince someone of this sentence who is truly committed to the “CH is racist” line: “More to the point, though, Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam targets not the Muslim as a person, but a set of beliefs held by a subset of Muslims.”

    The conversations devolve rather quickly into hairsplitting minutiae-obsessed debates of interpretation over each “problematic” CH cartoon image brought into the debate. It’s stays at the level of “How many racist meta-narratives can dance on the tip of a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist’s pen?” and doesn’t ever really leave that quagmire.

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  4. kobebryant January 13, 2015

    curious to know just how much reading on racism you’ve done prior to writing this. believe it or not, it does call for a fair amount of study to have a good understanding of how racism and privilege works.

    • FriendlyAnon January 14, 2015

      Did you not read this sentence?: ” In my work on Muslim Southeast Asia, I have found it profitable to think explicitly about the ways in which perceptions of racial distinction shape interethnic relations. ”

      But of course, I’m sure you’re only calling Prof. Pepinsky’s credentials into question because he dares take a position contra to your own. Jacob Canfield is a graphic design and psych major – why don’t you ask him to show you his critical race theory reading list?

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