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Charlie Hebdo murders

It's with a very heavy heart and for the worst reasons that I find mysef writing about French cartooning again so soon after the end of my happy travels around Europe last year.

Charlie Hebdo

The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday has been dominating the news since. Like most cartoonists I feel in some way connected to those that died, were injured and terrorised. I can't count any of them as friends but I've exchanged pleasantries with several during my trips to the annual cartoon festival at Saint Just Le Martel. But I do have other friends who knew them very well and are in great pain right now. Ours is a relatively small, close knit profession. We face common problems. Oppression is a constant concern for many. Take a look at the Cartoonists Rights Network for the latest on cartoonists in various parts of the world battling legal but unethical censure from their respective governments, suffering harassment from political parties and religious fundamentalists or enduring the possibility of assault, kidnap and assassination.

We work in a visual medium creating bold, quickly read images, fodder the internet thrives upon. Outpourings of grief from cartoonists who wish to express solidarity have come thick and fast and festooned social media in a way that hasn't quite happened following similar atrocities in recent history.  To an outside observer it would seem easy to suggest that cartoonists hold their own lives dearer than those of Pakistani school children,  Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian or Syrian war casualties or even the police officers who died in defence of our colleagues (cf #JeSuisAhmed).

Firstly, a careful browse through Cartoon Movement will demonstrate that cartooning is not a white hegemony wringing its hands in perpetual self-pity over the perceived threat of omnipresent jihadists. We are a diverse group (by nationality at least; could do better on the gender front) concerned about injustice of every stripe. French cartoonists are at the forefront of such initiatives as Cartooning For Peace.  A recent documentary film about the profession is entitled Footsoldiers of Democracy. We're not perfectly attuned and privilege conscious, spotlessly ethical saints and some in our ranks are woefully misguided.  But on the whole we do our bit and muddle on, as humans do.  Right now we're grieving for some our own so forgive us if we seem turned inward.  Rest assured we'll return to the task of holding all our masters to account very soon.

Secondly, the most offensive cartoon imaginable is not a death warrant for its creator, publisher or reader. Implying the staff at Charlie Hebdo brought this on themselves with their sustained cartooning about a particularly topic despite threats and bombs is, to me, straightforward and unacceptable victim blaming. There are two groups of criminals at fault here: the callous executioners, these supposedly slick guerrillas who went to the wrong address then terrorised a mother and child to gain entry to the second where they executed old men who were putting together a comic; and the war criminals whose grandiose folly brought about the circumstances that allow such stunted, angry, inadequate people licence to mete out retribution.

Thirdly, the point of the attack on a soft but spectacular target was not to stop "blasphemous" cartoons being published (impossible) but to sow discord, push secular France in particular and Europe in general further to the right, making life more miserable for Muslims in this part of the world and thus easier to recruit, ensuring the grisly business rolls on with al-Qaeda or ISIS or whoever cast forever as the righteous victims in an unstoppable culture war.  The brainless desecration of French mosques is the first sign of the murderers' impending victory. We can give them no further ground. Everyone's primary concern right now should be maintenance of a peaceful, plural society.

Lastly, freedom of speech and offence. Charlie Hebdo's stock in trade is outrage, making scurrilous attacks on religious leaders, politicians, public figures and social mores.  I've walked round exhibitions of their notoriously vulgar front pages and been flabbergasted by some cartoons that would never see print in the UK.  But every issue I've ever looked through cover to cover was largely punching up - at government, the church etc - not down at minorities. And I can say the same for most every other satirical publication I've ever picked up on the continent. Take a dozen decontextualised cartoons, slap them together on a web page and cry "racist" and I fear you're making the same kinf of mistakes certain imams did over a decade ago.

HOWEVER - as a reader my French isn't good enough to take a truly nuanced view of Charlie Hebdo.  If Francophones want to tell me it's an out and out racist hate rag I'm willing to listen.  I'll be saddened and wonder why such material is happily displayed and celebrated by people I know for a fact haven't a prejudiced bone in their body but once again concede I could be missing something.  From where I sit people like the late Charb or Tignous played a game of self-conscious mischief, drawing lumpen grotesques in absurdly scatological milieux intended to be taken seriously on no level whatsoever.  But others, particularly people outside of France most of whom had never heard of the magazine until this week see hair-raisingly racist, homophobic or sexist trash.

The trick, maybe, is to realise we all have a particular point of view. That we may agree to disagree. And that freedom of speech may be more hard won privilege than universal right but that no right exists to murder our fellows under the pretext of offence.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité. Vive la France. As-salamu alaykum. 'Mon the cartoonists.


Recent artwork from Terry Anderson, Glasgow based caricaturist and cartoonist.


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