Cartoonists React to Charlie Hebdo

Edited and compiled by: TIM Features Editor Yasmine Hassan

In the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo in France, a narrative has unfolded about what constitutes freedom of expression and what constitutes a group’s rights to deem a piece of art offensive. Known for its no holds bar approach to every topic under the sun, cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo created satirical pieces that provoked and pushed limits. The Kouachi brothers’ attack caused the death of twelve people when they decided that the cartoons featuring the Prophet were offensive and blasphemous.

Now the response is at a stalemate. Who draws the lines to what should be considered offensive and distasteful? Should there be a line? American Muslim cartoonists weigh in on how they feel about the situation.

Legal but Socially Unacceptable (Katie Miranda)isc_190x190.2400081849_7ylc

1) Paris. Charlie Hebdo. You’re a cartoonist. What’s going on?

I’ve gone over some of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published and what they’ve done with their cartoons is kind of the equivalent, in American culture, of if a white person draws a cartoon of Obama as a monkey or if a white person walks through a predominantly black neighbourhood and starts yelling the N word. Both of those actions are legal but they have social consequences. I don’t think if should ever be against the law but it was unwise just like it would be unwise for me to draw a cartoon of Obama as a monkey.

I don’t think that this is just an issue of Islam and cartoons. I think it’s really an issue of artists in position of power and influence and how they use that power. It’s an issue of how they can use their power and skills, are they going to use their skills to make the world a better or worst place?

Muslims who commit politically motivated murder exist because Western governments regularly murder, torture and kidnap Muslims with impunity. We can’t go around acting so shocked when there’s some kind of retribution attack like this. People don’t want to think that all of their actions have rippling consequences, they just want to think of their own personal freedom of expression because that’s how the culture is here in the West.

2) Was Charlie wrong?

It’s a complicated question, was it legal? Yes it was perfectly legal under French law. Was it socially unacceptable? Yes. I think if it’s not socially unacceptable to do that in French society I think it should be just like it’s socially unacceptable for me as a white person to use the N word.

3) Should cartoons push limits?

I think it’s up to individual artists themselves to decide whether the art that they do is going to contribute to the betterment of society or whether it will degrade society. I didn’t really think about these things until I was in my 30s, in my 20s I just wanted to make art that disturbed people, I still do but I want to disturb people into actions that make the world better. I don’t want to create art that instills hate. I really think that my job as a cartoonist is to challenge power and dominant narratives not to attack marginalized people. I draw cartoons about Obama, Netenyahu, arab dictators, Israeli settlers, these are the types of people that are in power, they’re literally calling the shots. They’re killing people and making their lives miserable. I think these people are legitimate targets for political satire. I’ve done cartoons about Saudi king Abdullah. It’s not that I think Muslims are off limits, it would be ridiculous for me to say something like that and that’s what a lot of people in the right wing media are saying. “Muslims think that they should be off limits”, they’re not. Muslims like Saudi king Abdullah or arab dictators they’re the perfect target for political satire.

Political cartoons are a way for people with no power to challenge people who have power.

4) Who draws the line between freedom of expression and offensive speech?

Well I think as I said before people should always have the right to draw whatever they want but they shouldn’t be surprised when there are consequences. People so often are when they go and draw something that a marginalized group of people find very offensive. I think the culture that people live in decides whether something is offensive enough to end up being career suicide as it was for one of the former cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo he was fired for drawing an anti sematic cartoon and I hope someday people will be fired for drawing islamophobic cartoons.

I don’t think they should be banned, because we can’t make art illegal if we want to live in a free society and I want to live in a free society, but as a society we can make bigotry unacceptable just like anti sematic cartoons are unacceptable.

5) Have you ever been criticized for your cartoons?

Yes but that comes with the territory. It’s almost every time I publish something that criticizes the Israeli government I get some hate mail. It goes with the territory, if you say things that provoke people they’re going to get angry and say angry things.

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“Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” (Khalil Bendib)photo_Khalil-Bendib

(Quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.)

1)  Paris. Charles Hebdo. You’re a cartoonist. What’s going on?

I feel a double whammy because of the double standard displayed by the European magazines. When it comes to the Holocaust, they don’t allow any discussion of it, and yes they should be sensitive about it. But if you doubt it they’ll throw you in jail. However, when it comes to Muslims, suddenly it’s all about freedom of expression.

Essentially, I felt that these guys were unfair and hypocritical. When it comes to a powerful community the like Jewish community, they invoke hate speech. When it comes to us, a community that isn’t as strong in Europe, they decide it’s freedom of speech.

Now that these horrible things have happened, nothing can justify them in any way, it doesn’t matter how vile the Islamophobe may be, nothing can justify the madness and stupidity that happened. Right now though, it’s not so much about Charlie Hebdo being perfect of whether the cartoonists were correct, that’s almost besides the point. What we have to do is look ourselves in the mirror and ask whether this is representing anybody and how we keep allowing these atrocities to take place.

Islam has never said that we can hurt innocent people. Innocents are beyond the pail; they were unarmed people and you’re not in a war situation you can’t do these things period. So that’s how I feel about it.

I feel very sad that these people were killed, the cartoonists weren’t islamophobes themselves. They are very talented people, they make people laugh, I grew up reading one of these guys and I loved his work. I was shocked and devastated that he was one of the people killed, he was one of the people that inspired me to become a cartoonist.

2)    Was Charlie wrong?

I grew up knowing exactly what kind of magazine Charlie Hebdo was, and as tolerant as I am and as an artist I tend to see it from the perspective of a cartoonist. As enamored of this sort of thing as I was, humor even irreverent crazy humor, I was repulsed by this newspaper and it’s predecessor Hara-Kiri. It was never a serious magazine, it was always just provoking for the sake of provocation and breaking taboos.

So I have very little esteem for Charlie Hebdo as an institution but at the same time I have a lot of respect for the cartoonists that were killed. They were more sincere, maybe they were a bit naïve you know, freedom of expression, I’m not going to let anyone tell me what to do I’m going to keep going. I didn’t sense a real hatred or islamophobia on their part, they were just doing they’re funny thing.

3)    Should cartoons push limits?

That’s a loaded question, freedom on the one hand I am for it because I suffer from censorship for doing my work I have been censored time and again, but at the same time I don’t believe in the silly concept of complete freedom you always have to balance it with responsibility otherwise it’s useless. Each cartoon I draw I’m always asking myself before even my editor sees it “am I doing anything gratuitously provocative or am I actually saying something serious that contributes to the political dialogue. And my style, especially if you consider yourself political or editorial cartoonist, you’re not in the business of making silly drawings you’re in the business of commenting on the news on politics and behind the humour you’re very serious.

If you call yourself just a cartoonist, not political or editorial, then you just go with the flow. I’m not against that but at least if you do that don’t focus on one group of people just because you think they have no power I think that’s racist and reprehensible. You should consider the consequences of your actions because you have a lot of power with those drawings. You either have some positive effect because you’re opening minds and eyes showing people something they didn’t know and educating people or you have a terrible effect and pile on stereotypes and make things even worst. So it does matter what you put in those drawings.

4)    Who draws the line between freedom of expression and offensive speech?

“where does the swing of your fist stop? It stops at your nose!” There’s no such thing as 100% freedom, you have to always consider whether there’s someone’s nose where I’m swinging your fist. In other words, it’s a case by case thing there’s no simple formula, each drawing that you do you have to consider it very carefully. That’s how I’ve practiced and I think most people do because they are aware of the power of what they’re doing. There are irresponsible people, this idealistic notion that there’s no limits to freedom of expression is ridiculous because we live in the real world. You can’t just say I decided I don’t live in this world I’m in a parallel universe and I can do anything I want. That’s what you get for doing that you just exacerbate problems that already exist instead of making them better. Again I’m not blaming the cartoonists for their drawings but it would have helped for Charlie’s institution to be more responsible, it’s the role of the editors to be adult and say look I like the cartoon but it’s a little unfair. Make the cartoonist realize what they’re doing if they are not able to do that themselves.

5)    Have you ever been criticized for your cartoons?

Of course, criticism comes with the territory otherwise you’re not doing your work because when you get criticized you get people to think in a way that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And of course being who I am and coming from that part of the world I see things differently so I’m challenged constantly and censored constantly and being black listed but I’ve managed to do my thing anyway. I’ve received a lot of push back but it’s never hampered me. I’d be surprised if you spoke to any cartoonist that says that he’s been lucky enough to never get any threats.

What bothers me is the sort of censorship you run into when you say something unpopular.

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Nothing but a bunch of basic stereotypes. (Sara AlFageeh)Sara-Alfageeh_avatar_1416807773-120x120

1) Paris. Charles Hebdo. You’re a cartoonist. What’s going on?

So right now it’s kind of hard to wrap our heads around it. I’ve seen the cover and basically for people to say oh it was a caricature of Prophet Muhammad on the cover, I have some trouble wrapping my head around that. because the first thing you want to do as a cartoonist is to be able to represent certain ideas and the first thing that I see when I see that cover is just the most basic stereotype ever. There’s nothing clever to it. It’s a turban, it’s a beard, it’s the white thobe and they are basically just throwing every basic stereotype out there in a cartoon and calling it Muhammad. That’s what I find to be the most offensive part.

What I’ve notice from the Charlie Hebdo covers is that it’s all shock value. That’s all they want to go for, there’s nothing intellectual about it really, it’s just a “we’re going to do this because we can” sort of thing. I think that’s the more offensive part is the fact that they are calling this free speech. It gets to me because there’s so much that they could do with that kind of platform, instead they chose to use the most offensive route to go about it.

2) Was Charlie wrong?

Again, they are allowed to do whatever they want in that country in that sense. The way that they try to justify this is that they say that they are drawing caricatures of everybody and it will seems to be an issue whenever they do it of supposedly Muhammad. The thing that I see wrong with that is that I can draw characters, you can satirize people, but once it reaches a point where you’re directly trying to offend and at the very least make a large group of people uncomfortable simply because you can, I feel like there’s a lot wrong with that. And to use free speech to kind of hide behind that is really problematic.

With the new cover, I’m a bit confused with what they are trying to accomplish with that. It’s like pouring oil over a burning fire. I’m struggling to see what they gain out of that besides more shock value. I say it’s no accident that the printing of this magazine jumped from 60 thousand to 3 million and on top of that Google backed up the digital copy, that’s really not a mistake. They are very aware of what’s happening and how people are looking at their magazine.

3) Should cartoons push limits?

For me personally, what I try to do with my cartoons, if I see an issue that I feel like I can poke fun at it, I feel that there are so many clever ways to go about that without being offensive. It doesn’t mean that we can’t offend anyone but at the same time there are some boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. I know Charlie Hebdo’s whole thing is that they are trying to get away with a whole lot at the same time but it reaches a point where it’s just crass. And I just feel like there should be higher expectations.

4) Who draws the line between freedom of expression and offensive speech?

Honestly the line goes to the audience. I feel as though Charlie Hebdo should have stayed away from it, they have a history of doing this and this is not the first time they’ve done it. For me, whenever I draw I like to keep my audience in mind. When I draw for Coming of Faith, I know exactly who my audience is, who’s looking at this and what benefit whoever I’m publishing this for is going to get out of it. And while we can still poke fun and make genuine criticism of stuff, to hide behind all that freedom of speech and try to avoid criticism that way, you’re not helping anyone.

5) Have you ever been criticized for something you’ve drawn?

Oh yeah! Of course it comes with the job. I draw specifically with a large Muslim audience in mind so obviously my audience is different that theirs but usually I get a lot of really shallow stuff like “that girl you drew, she’s wearing skinny jeans!” I’m thinking “what? You totally missed the whole point of the comic.” It’s just petty things and you can look over petty things. But when 1.6 billion people out there who practice Islam say don’t do that it’s a bad thing and you go and do it anyway it speaks a lot about the magazine.

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