Charlie Hebdo: Spreading Hatred in the Name of Humour


“Freedom of expression has its limits. Those limits begin where hatred is spread. They begin where the dignity of other people is violated.”


H AASIFA RAHMATH, CHENNAI

MARCH 20, 2021

Last week saw a sensational Oprah Winfrey interview which brought Buckingham Palace under the radar. Meghan Markle and her husband Prince Harry who stepped down as Royals from the Palace in 2020 had made allegations a few days back in the interview that the people inside Buckingham palace never accepted Markle due to her mixed racial parentage. She also said that they were worried about how dark the skin colour of her unborn would be while she was pregnant.

Markle said she faced racial discrimination inside the Palace and that she “couldn’t breathe” while she was living there. Markle also added that she was denied any mental health help in the Palace and that she and Prince Harry eventually decided to step down as senior members of the Royal family and move to Canada before deciding to move to California. Prince Harry also appeared on the now-viral interview and corroborated the story.[1]

Since then, this interview has been sending shock waves around the world and ever since, Buckingham Palace has been in the limelight for all the wrong reasons but has promised an investigation into the allegations made by Meghan Markle.

While this interview has opened avenues and various channels for constructive talks on racism to happen around the world, the very well-known but controversial French Magazine Charlie Hebdo, known for its ‘satire’, created a cartoon where Queen Elizabeth is seen as pressing her knee on Markle’s neck and the caption reads, “Why Meghan left Buckingham” while Markle is seen lying on the ground saying “Because I couldn’t breathe anymore!”.[2]

This cartoon has received a lot of flak from various individuals and organisations for not only satirising the Queen but also for creating the cartoon in such a way that echoes George Floyd’s gruesome murder under the hands of a white police officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck thereby killing him even when he was saying that he could not breathe. Many people are enraged by this cartoon which compares Markle’s statement to a murder that occurred due to racial discrimination in the USA last year.

The magazine, whose stance was supported and justified in the name of free speech when it published and republished the offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammadsa depicting him in a bad light, is now being branded as “wrong on every level” for this cartoon, which depicted Meghan Markle as George Floyd. The fact that Charlie Hebdo has crossed the thin blurry line between what is acceptable as satire and what is not has been labelled as racial and all the negative aspects associated with it.

We can all accept that without the rights of free speech and free press, many small but important voices would not be heard and cannot contribute to the betterment of our societies. We can say that these rights are necessary for making way for good and beneficial changes to occur in our world.

But what importance or benefits do satire cartoons of this kind hold or provide other than hurting the sentiments of people in the name of apparent ‘fun’? If these were to be taken as light-hearted, then Pope Francis would not have said that freedom of expression has its limits[3].

On top of not being beneficial to the world, sometimes these cartoons are the reason why riots or terrorist activities take place as we witnessed in the gunning down of twelve people during the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015 or the recent terrorist attacks in France after the offensive comics of Prophet Muhammadsa were republished in an act of reckless provocation.

Does the world require such reckless provocations when we are striving to achieve peace in this world where hate crimes are rising dramatically at a rampant speed? As the Pope pointed out that it is important to know one’s limits while using the freedom of expression, he also said that nobody should provoke or insult another person’s faith.

This thought has been shared and appreciated by the present Caliph and the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba. In one of his Friday sermons which he delivered after the terrorist attack in the Charlie Hebdo office, His Holiness condemned the act and said that such caricatures grieved and pained peace-loving Muslims throughout the world and were to be condemned. However, he said that any form of violent or illegal response could never be justified and was completely against the teachings of Islam[4].

Hence, Muslims’ sentiments being provoked does not mean that killing is the right way to seek justice. Muslims around the world have to understand that such acts are not Islamic and are completely uncalled-for.

However, there is no denying the fact that such caricatures become the cause of unrest in society. The Holy Quran is very clear in denouncing abusive speech and expressions that may hurt other people’s sentiments. It forbids its followers from reviling the idols worshipped by people of other faiths although Islam seriously questions the rationality behind the act of worshipping anything besides the One God[5]. It also admonishes believers to not ridicule or mock others as it says:

O ye who believe! let not one people deride another people, who may be better than they, nor let women deride other women, who may be better than they. And defame not your own people, nor call one another by nicknames. Bad indeed is evil reputation after the profession of belief; and those who repent not are the wrongdoers.[6]

Any unbiased person will have to admit the fact that this Quranic principle is what can truly guarantee peace in society as it reminds us that the people we ridicule may be better than us.

Thus, it is highly important that we know our limits whenever we talk and refrain from making fun of people, because what we think to be trivial may be of great significance to others, and what is fun for us may not be so for all. Hence, we should make sure that we do not hurt any individual or society through our words or deeds.

To conclude, there is no questioning the fact that the rights of free speech and free press are very much essential for the progress and development of society. Without these rights, many voices that really deserve the attention of the world would not reach us. Already we are witnessing how the voices of many people are being silenced and are prevented from being heard.

But at the same time, it is also equally important to make sure that these rights are exercised within their approved limits and are not used to spread hatred or hurt people’s sentiments, for such actions will only contribute to jeopardizing the peace of the world.


The author is currently pursuing M. Phil in the field of literature and cultural studies.


References

[1] Harry and Meghan Detail Royal Struggles, from Discussions of Baby’s Skin Tone to Suicidal Thoughts– CBS News, March 15, 2021

[2] Why I Left Buckingham Palace (Cover page cartoon) Charlie Hebdo, 13 March 2021

[3] Pope Francis: Freedom of Expression Has Limits– The Guardian, 16 January, 2015

[4] Friday Sermon dated 16 January, 2015, delivered at Baitul Futuh Mosque, London

[5] Holy Quran 6: 108

[6] Holy Quran 49: 12

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