Sidharth Vardhan

On Charlie Hebdo

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(This was first written as review of Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons on Goodreads on May 6 – I haven’t edited out the parts talk to Gooodreads people. It was 1* of 5* because Goodreads didn’t allow 0 stars)

Okay, I have spent a lot of time in making this review stoic but still I can’t help the ramblings that are to follow. I think I stand to lose a lot of friends ere.

I’m a skeptic very heavy leaning towards atheism and an outspoken one at that – I love the works that are critical of religious beliefs and practices. Two of my best treasured books are ‘The God Delusion’ and ‘The Satanic Verses’. In fact last time I went to cinema was to watch a movie that makes fun of practices of different religions.

I do think that religions bring terrorism – all the major religions do, including Hinduism and Christianity. It is high time we accept it. If religious authorities want to take credit when a person takes name of god while doing charities they must also accept blame when the same person takes name of god while killing someone. Also, no one it isn’t the west only which is influenced by those attacks.

That being said, I didn’t like these cartoons. To me cartoons are successful if they make you lough. These ones never made me lough or smile while I did frown a lot. To lough on such a thing shows ignorance – and remember you are not laughing with someone you are laughing at someone. Obviously I’m not in any way sanctioning those attacks but I don’t think I need to like them either just because they invoked violent reactions. Just because someone died for it doesn’t mean it is worth dying for.

I think they are religiously prejudiced. They are kind of things that develop stereotypes which in turn lead to communal hatred Just try to remember how Nazis provoked Germans against Jews. Didn’t they use stereotypes for the whole community like all Jew are misers and greedy? Now I’m not saying magazine intended to do such a thing but we all know what roads good intentions pave. If you still don’t believe me just go to some of the sites where cartoons are available and read the user comments from western users. The most dangerous racist art is the one in which racism is too subtle to be noticed and thus won’t provoke resistance from an easy going reader.

Satanic Verses was a learned criticism. This is just monkey style mocking.

Stereotypes work – if they do work; because of people’s ignorance. They present a small part of community as the whole intentionally or otherwise. ‘All Muslim women wear burkhas. All burkha wearing women are oppressed.’ is an example of stereotype. I know in my personal life many women who wear burkhas though not because there is a law but out of habit. I personally hate veils, often argue against it with them but I don’t think anybody has a right to make a law either making compulsory or banning their use. The right to expression is not limited to writers and cartoonists only.

My problem is with people judging a community they know next to nothing about. You don’t have to go far, stay in Goodreads. I’m not going to ask you to compare number of users who have read Quran and Bible – though you may wanna do that. It would be stupid – to think of a community in terms of only its religious books. Rather just look at the numbers of readers of Persian or Arabic literature. Go check the communal and geographical divide of your books (and may be, your songs and movies too.)

The GRmembers arepredominantly First World. ( The first five countries in terms of number of users are USA, India, Uk, Canada and Australia – all occult except for India. If you were to exclude India that is still about sixty percent in four countries and we are mot counting European users. Hence, we can say it shows what west is reading. Just look at how much books from Muslim world are read. And I want to think Goodreads users present a more opinionated people, but shouldn’t our opinions be educated ones? How can one joke about people one hardly knows about? or perhaps people only joke about those about whom they know little about. Had these cartoonists heard about Islamic prohibition on charging interest on loans? had they ever heard about Muhammad Yunus? Have they ever read Rumi?




A friend of mine on Goodreads had pointed out how we feel the need to disclaim the terrorism before we feel free criticism. A False Dichotomy seems to be created by some sections of media – the Je-suis-Charlies ones and Je-ne- suis-pas-charlies. A good example of what I’m talking about can be found here.

I’m quoting the parts of conversation here:


” Obviously I’m not in any way sanctioning those attacks but I don’t think I need to like them either just because they invoked violent reactions. “

It’s a sad reality that one has to preface objections to the Charlies Hebdos of the gutter press with a disclaiming note on religion-inspired terrorism. Muslims, especially, are put under the spotlight and asked to make a choice between Charlie-like “freedom of speech” or the Bin Laden-like terrorism. The Bush’s logic is alive and well. We saw this in the questions Western media asked when they went about to gauge the Muslim response to the massacre.

The Je suis Charlie catchphrase that become popular in the ensuing mass hysteria misstated the question, in my opinion. As you write, you don’t have to hug the Charlies to denounce the murdering fanatics**.

There was another banner going around that read Je suis Ahmed, referring to the Muslim policeman who was killed in the confrontation with the same terrorists. With one banner French Muslims condemned the terrorists and at the same time distanced themselves from all the Charlies of the press. So yes, Je ne suis pas charlie.

The path Europe has put itself on again may end up with another ethnic cleansing given that, despite grand ideas about democracy, tolerance and civilisation, European record on mass murder at home is quite bad, the latest being the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1990s, and of course who can forget the Holocaust. But this time it would be Muslims in the gas chambers. You have made relevant comparisons here.

I commend you for having the courage to call a spade a spade. Thanks for this write-up, Sidharth.

**(Those terrorists, in all likelihood, were trained and funded by the US-UK “military advisers” as they had returned after fighting in Syria, on the side of the Western powers & their Gulf sheikh proxies to oust President Assad. It shows that you can’t fund extremism abroad while remaining immune to it at home)




Really thanks for the comment, Jibran.

“It’s a sad reality that one has to preface objections to the Charlies Hebdos of the gutter press with a disclaiming note on ….. response to the massacre.”

… And Charlie’s cartoonists were never asked to put any disclaimers. The tendency to divide the world into Charlies and terrorists is the reason behind a lot of positive reviews here. Just read them, they are only second-guessing the contents. Their ratings is supposed to show their support for freedom of speech. To put it in perspective, writer of Fanny Hill was imprisoned and book was banned for centuries, but no one feel the need to give it five stars to show his/her support for freedom to speech or to make disclaimer that they do not support church’s decision to ban it while giving it one star. I myself might be to be blamed for feeling need to give so many caveats:

“But it is no better to assert “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” in response to all the newly self-christened Charlies. The negation plays into a cheap binary that serves neither the massacre victims nor the discourse around free speech and Islamophobia that surrounds the killings. We are in an impoverished place of reflection when so many commentators who do not want to identify with a controversial satirical magazine feel they must heap caveat upon caveat on the claim that they are not Charlie: “I am not Charlie — but of course I condemn the attacks.”
– quoted from here

Yes, Je suis Ahmed. Ahmed more than all these Charlies and ‘Je suis Charlies’ represented Voltaire’s idea of freedom to speech. “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Those terrorists,…. Gulf sheikh proxies to oust President Assad.

Well it is an open secret that it was CIA who trained Osama-bin-laden. All I could discover about terrorists was that one of them was partially lead to extremism because of Abu Gharib torture case.




Sidharth wrote: “”But it is no better to assert “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” in response to all the newly self-christened Charlies. The negation plays into a cheap binary that serves neither the massacre victims nor the discourse around free speech and Islamophobia that surrounds the killings.”

Thanks Sidharth,

Unfortunately, the discourse surrounding this incident had created the simplistic binary ab initio. It only takes a few loud people to speak in binaries and the rest, unwillingly or unwittingly, or simply due to the diminution of the semantics of the debate, succumb to it. That’s how Je ne suis pas charliewas begotten. At any rate I do think the debate about freedom of speech goes off on a tangent whenever it is denied that this freedom can be misused and abused in a way that puts social cohesion at risk and feeds more fuel to the fire of prejudice and hatred through bigoted innuendos and racist insults disguised as dark humour – and much more. And this is where the loud defenders of free speech should hold their horses and reflect lest it’s too late.

I wonder what Voltaire and later John Stuart Mill would have said about the restrictions on hate speech. According to their criteria the haters should be allowed so spew hate as long as they don’t act on it. Those who were beseeching Voltaire to come back from the grave because “they have gone insane” should come out to defend Voltaire’s honour against the institution of laws against multiple forms of hate speech no? Not to mention when Holocaust doubters or deniers are put in jail for exercising their freedom of speech, I do not see any Charlie out on the streets to defend Voltaire’s tenets. (Though, of course, as much as I enjoy reading Voltaire, I support the law that penalizes hate speech against anyone – Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, atheist, anyone)

So here we have grey areas that the mainstream Western discourse is reluctant to acknowledge.

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