by Zachery Braiterman
* This post initially appeared on the author’s blog.
Clearly uncomfortable with the comics run by Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet, ALZ approached me at synagogue yesterday and asked me what I thought about them. He asked it in such a direct way that I stumbled for an answer. I recovered my balance this way. I confessed that my first impression was not to care for the Charlie Hebdo comics per se. In general, I don’t think it’s a good or even decent thing to tweak the religious sensibilities of other people. It’s why I haven’t seen and I’m not going to see the Book of Mormon, and why I don’t like Bill Maher’s anti-religious satire. But in batting it around with ALZ, I realized that it’s impossible to come to a universal judgment about this kind of thing. I’m not going to pretend to speak from a universal point of view. I’m a professor, a professor of religious studies, which means, in this case, that it’s not my “job” or “profession” to engage in satire. By profession, I mean in the widest and the old fashioned sense “a calling.” I’m not a satirist.
Talking with ALZ, I recalled the recent comic strip by Eli Valley, in which the persona of the strip expressed his own terror about cartooning Mohammed. I thought, it’s the cartoonist’s calling, it’s the satirist’s calling, to do this, to reflect satirically, to reflect satirically upon the world around him or her. In our globalized world, that world and that satire are going to include Islam, especially now as large parts of the Middle East disintegrate into a violent spasm, especially now in Europe with its significant Arab and Muslim populations, and especially now as we begin to trace the blowback back and forth between Europe and Syria/Iraq. Satire is supposed to cut to the core, and at the core of Islam, there’s the Prophet. The satirist has no choice but to take this on, especially now when the honor of the Prophet has taken on such force by such a large segment of his followers. A satirist has to make a decision: either address the Prophet head-on or hang up your pen and ignore what’s going on in the world.
It is the duty of a satirist to satirize. It’s not nice, but I don’t see how the liberal western democracy, which most of us in the west purport to cherish, could have worked without satire, especially satire of religion. Voltaire and Nietzsche come immediately to mind, as well as a long history of satirical magazines in France and Great Britain (to which one could add satiric literature coming out of the Jewish Haskalah, or Enlightenment), the criticism of religion, one’s own religion, and the religion of other people. As Leo Strauss noted with signal disapproval, this goes back to Spinoza and the critique of religion in the Theological Political Treatise. That Strauss did not himself cherish liberal democracy says more against Strauss than the argument he advanced in his book on Spinoza. There’s just no way around it.
As a university professor it’s not my job to do satire. But as a professor of modern religion, it might be part of my job to write about satire, especially if one’s own particular interest lies in aesthetics, art and religion. That’s why I was going to include a Charlie Hebdo comic here at the top of this post, at the risk of offending any Muslim readers. But then I decided not to, only confirming that, if satire is indeed a central component to the formation of western secularism, then we’re looking at serious collisions ahead, if not a “clash of civilizations” per se. It’s a vicious circle. Violent action to defend the honor of the Prophet draws only more critical attention the Prophet. Regarding satire and its impact on modern politics and modern religion I am not at liberty to divulge because a graduate student under my direction is writing about this in her dissertation. Once the thesis is submitted I’ll have more to say. But what I will say for now is that I don’t think that most of the cartoons were actually viscous. A vicious satire would be one that makes fun of dead people, like you see in so many cartoons “satirizing” the Holocaust. For most of them, the intent at Charlie Hebdo was to demean, not Mohammed himself, but the very fanatics whose stupid and brutal violence sullies the Prophet and the vision of Islam.
Yes, I understand the issue is not satire, but has to do with representing the Prophet tout court. The prohibition against depicting him is part of a ban on idolatry. But non-representation is not immune to the exact thing it condemns. The Prophet has been turned into an idol by the very people so hot to defend his honor. My own decision today not to post a Charlie Hebdo Mohammed carries with it some shame and a little anger. It’s not because I don’t want to offend anyone’s religious sensibility. Rather, like Eli Valley I’m a little scared to death. So instead, I’m posting as the banner photo to this post the picture of the aftermath at the Charlie Hebdo attack. It feels safer to post this picture even if it’s a bloody sacrilege that does more to damage Islam than any depiction of Mohammed. Now that’s Islamophobia, Islamophobia at work.