I Am Sabeen, But not Charlie
By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
May 07, 2015
Over 200 PEN writers wrote an open letter against the decision to give Charlie Hebdo the ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award. The letter, which had 35 signatories originally, was written on April 26 – two days after Sabeen Mahmud’s murder. The signatories include Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie whose moving tribute for Sabeen titled ‘Murdered on the streets of Karachi: my friend who dared to believe in free speech’ was published in British newspaper The Guardian on April 27, a day after Shamsie sent the open letter to PEN protesting against the award. On May 3, an event organised to draw ‘blasphemous’ cartoons was targeted by two Islamist militants in Texas.
The reason cited in the open letter by writers, including Kamila Shamsie, for boycotting the PEN event is simply that Charlie Hebdo’s content “violates the acceptable” and targets a community “that is already marginalised, embattled, and victimized”. To put it simply, the writers claim that Charlie Hebdo did not deserve the award because the publication is “racist” and “Islamophobic”.
Sabeen Mahmud was killed on her way back from a seminar titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)’ held at the T2F café, which focused on Balochistan’s missing persons. Seminars titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ have been cancelled before and since Sabeen’s murder, at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and Karachi University (KU).
An article titled ‘Non, « Charlie Hebdo » n’est pas obsédé par l’islam’ published in French newspaper Le Monde on February 25, reveals that in the 10 years from 2005 till the Paris attack, only seven of the 523 issues focused on Islam. 38 of the 523 targeted religion, with 31 focusing on other religions.
Despite a rate of less than one “anti-Islam” publication per year, why do we have the general perception that the French publication was 'Islamophobic'? This is because the Charlie Hebdo journalists weren’t killed for the other 516 covers, but for the seven that ostensibly targeted Muslims (notice the conflation of Muslims and Islam). This in turn means that we’re letting terrorists and murderers define a publication’s editorial policy, and not the magazine’s journalists, eight of whom were murdered for publishing precisely what they had been threatened against publishing.
Sabeen Mahmud was murdered for hosting a talk that she was threatened against hosting as well. Just like Charlie Hebdo is lazily and conveniently dubbed ‘Islamophobic’ without anyone bothering to dig up facts, the talk was deemed to be ‘anti-Pakistan’, without anyone willing to look at facts emanating from Balochistan. Charlie Hebdo’s satire manifests uncomfortable truths about French politics and religion (including Islam), while ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ peddles discomforting realities about the establishment’s actions in Pakistan’s largest and the most alienated province. Certain Charlie Hebdo covers are offensive to many because they apparently target Islam, while events like ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ are deemed offensive by many because they seemingly target the Pakistani establishment and state institutions.
Why then does an esteemed writer like Kamila Shamsie, and many other opinion makers, extol Sabeen’s legacy of “daring to believe in free speech” while scorning at Charlie Hebdo for doing the same? Why is dubbing ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ anti-Pakistan preposterous, but dubbing satire of Islam anti-Muslim the norm?
Both Sabeen and Charlie Hebdo, “violated the acceptable”. But ‘acceptability’ in each case is defined by the respective thresholds of murderous instinct, which in both cases rested on flimsy sensibilities that are breached ever so easily and frequently. To tout either of the two thresholds as the “acceptable” limit of free speech is to murder freedom of speech itself.
Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing publication that has on many instances criticised and satirised France’s anti-immigration policies and the government's failure to integrate its Arab Muslim communities. On the rare occasions that the publication has satirised Islam, it actually targeted the Islamists and their radical interpretation of Islam, and not the Muslims. When Charlie Hebdo drew caricatures of the Prophet it wasn’t intended to insult him, but to mock his radical followers, and their perception of him. The February 5, 2006 edition of Charlie Hebdo showcased the Prophet being displeased by Islamist fundamentalists saying that “It’s tough being loved by idiots.”
If Charlie Hebdo’s satire of radical Islam was an act of suppression against “a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises” could someone explain how French imperialism has impacted Pakistan, where protests against Charlie Hebdo – and not the murders – erupted following the Paris attack? The closest the French came was during the Karnatic Wars in mid eighteenth century.
If the Paris attack was in retaliation to colonial suppression, why did the rest of the Muslim world castigate Charlie Hebdo and eulogise the murders? Why did Ghulam Ahmed Bilour announce $200,000 head money for Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, even though he has lost his own party members owing to the same Islamist terrorism that targeted the French publication?
The reason is simple: a certain school of thought prevailing among a large percentage of – but not all – Muslims dubs any pictorial depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous, with many touting the act as being worthy of murder. To tout Charlie Hebdo’s satire as being ‘Islamophobic’ and anti-Muslim is to not only peddle the Muslim world as a monolith, but to claim that belief in the narrowest and the most intolerant version of Islam is representative of all Muslims. Ironically, the ostensible protestors against Charlie Hebdo’s Islamphobia are inadvertently guilty of perpetuating anti-Muslim bigotry themselves.
What the radical Islamists and their apologists won’t discuss is the tradition of drawing Prophet Muhammad’s images as a form of tribute by many Muslim artists throughout centuries. What they won’t discuss either is the fact that an ostensibly anti-Muslim publication received glowing tributes from many Arab Muslim newspapers in the aftermath of the Paris attack, with Op-Eds in Charlie Hebdo’s support being published in Pakistan as well. An Iranian newspaper published ‘Je suis Charlie’ on its front page.
You can deem Sabeen’s talk or Charlie Hebdo’s satire as “violating the acceptable” but in either case you can’t simultaneously be a flag-bearer of free speech. For consistency’s sake, it’s better to not pay any regard to freedom of speech, then to be selective in safeguarding freedom of speech. If you’re Sabeen, but not Charlie, for all practical purposes you’re neither.