racism, cartoons, and the uneven distribution of rights in the visual field

I had started to think about how to write a post on the cartoons carried by Charlie Hebdo, but then I found this piece by Mustafa Dikeç on the Environment and Planning D: Society and Space blog.  I hope Mustafa won’t mind if I simply quote a paragraph from his eloquent and incisive essay which, among other things, makes it clear that, in a context where there is no agreement on what it is proper to render visible, that context is not simply the right to be able to picture whatever you like.  The appropriate context to think through should also include deeply embedded racism, which inflects the visual field such that some groups’ rights not to see certain kinds of images can be ignored with impunity.  Here is Mustafa:

It is one thing to criticise powerful and dominant groups in a society, another to constantly take the piss out of its most stigmatised by mocking their dearly held religious beliefs. The misdemeanours of Islamists and the abuses of Islam to mobilise hatred and violence are already widely criticised in the Muslim world. Even without the help of French May 1968 inheritors, many courageous people in Muslim countries are themselves capable of criticising, through mockery, such aberrations made in the name of Islam, without recourse to what one journalist called, with reference to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobic cartoons, ‘repeated pornographic humiliation’ of this religion, its prophet and followers. Charlie Hebdo was right to practice and insist on freedom of speech, but it was far from even-handed in its attack on organised religions…Especially after 9/11, as a former Charlie Hebdo journalist wrote in 2013, an ‘Islamophobic neurosis gradually took hold’ in the journal. If the whole point of satire, vulgar or not, is to criticise uses and abuses of power, just what a cartoon depicting a naked Muslim prophet asking ‘Do you like my butt?’ achieves remains obscure…

An excellent reminder, if one were needed, that the politics of visuality lie not only in how things are represented but also whether they are represented.

4 thoughts on “racism, cartoons, and the uneven distribution of rights in the visual field

  1. I’ve been looking for the words to express my own feelings about the matter for a while now, since it all ‘began’, and in these I’ve found them. Thanks so much for sharing. Freedom of speech, and freedom as a whole is a strange concept. Who is free to do what, and who decides that?

  2. I find this approach to religion, religious feelings and their exemption to free speech a little hypocritical. Yes, I do agree that dragging someone’s belief through dirt by nasty drawings is unpleasant, but in a modern, free and secular society members of a faith have to ignore that and live with it. Their religion is their own private matter. It’s far more important that vivid and outspoken criticism of religion is possible under free speech than to rule that religious feelings trump freedom of speech. After all, religion is a private matter. Religion doesn’t belong in public with influence on public life.

    The real hypocrisy and problem lies with differentiating where religious pride is hurt and why. While Mustafa chose to criticize images of the naked prophet and his ass, most will agree this is unpleasant. However, the current cover of Charlie Hebdo’s image of the prophet is decent and actually embracing, showing a crying prophet who sides with Charlie Hebdo with the subtext “All is forgiven”. How is that an insult to either any living person on the planet, the dead prophet or his religion in general? Still, thousands of Muslims flock to the streets, spreading violence, claiming insult to their religion by this publication as they interpret Islam to mandate there shall not be any image of the prophet. Practitioners of Islam all over the world have to understand that religion does not rule law in western societies and that Islamic rules and belief systems do not apply to non-Muslims, least of all the media. If Islam practitioners cannot cope with this, then their religion is incompatible with how western societies with principal freedoms such as freedom of speech and a free media function and they should rethink their belief systems if they want to get out of their defensive position over the link of violence to their religion. After all, Christianity managed to do this. There are just as many nasty publications targeting Christianity, Christ, the Pope and any entity you’d like to name. But you don’t see Christian terrorists murder over those, neither do you see angry Christian mobs on streets burning down places.

    • Hi Tobias and thanks for taking the time to reply. The first point I want to make in response is that the issue is precisely that religion – and views about religions – are not private, but public. Very public. Religion does rule the law in a lot of Western countries, with laws forbidding gay marriage, for example, or abortion, or with public holidays only for Christian festivals. And secondly, since the public is now a sphere where very different kinds of religions are present, it behoves those who advocate free speech to consider questions of power, and how those whose voices are more powerful in public respect – or disrespect – those who are not. This is far from straightforward. But I can’t agree that asserting that the West and Christianity has got it right and Islam has failed. To me, that’s just way too simple a description of a very complex contemporary situation.

      • Reality is that Europe and by extension the United States, Canada, Australia and to the largest extend all of South America and even India indirectly through British colonization went through a period of enlightenment or were influenced by it. Separation of church and state, the rule of law, universal human rights and a general decline in absolute dominance of church and religion over aspects of public life were the consequence. This defines western societies, not their roots in their traditionally established religions like Christianity. Yes, some western countries have annotations in their constitutions and laws that relate to aspects of religion or even monarchy, but in all western countries the constitution and law rule over religion, not the other way around.

        For example – and sticking to your examples – when US courts rule over gay marriage being legal in some of their member states, courts do so based on constitution and law, not religion or faith. The judges will consider the constitution in their ruling, not the bible. At the same time, there may be a lot of Christian conservatives in the US that want to ban gay marriage based on their own belief system, but since their faith and belief is their private choice and matter, they have to bow to rule of constitution and law.

        There is no western country where religion rules law over any of the issues you mentioned. No western country outlaws either gay marriage or abortion based on rules originating from the bible or any other religious source. Rules in western countries are based on processes and limits defined by the constitution, in almost all cases western countries are representational democracies and laws reflect majority votes based on the initiatives of a ruling party. In many cases, laws which originated in religious sentiment like the ban on homosexuality, abortion or gay marriage has been banned in the past but as society changed and ruling parties changed, laws got changed. There is hardly a western country left where abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage are completely outlawed anymore.

        Taking a look at France, where Charlie Hebdo hails from, you got the perfect example of a western country that practices complete separation of state and church. France is probably the most secular country in the world and by no accident. It’s the origin of overthrowing monarchy “by grace of god” through revolution and the origin of the first civil code on which most civil law is based
        in European countries. In France, your religious belief and faith is your private matter and not to be forced on your fellow citizens. Freedom of speech covers the right to criticize religion, religious beliefs and religious entities in writing and visual forms of communication.

        In all countries that experienced enlightenment and those greatly affected by it, established religions have gone through a process of modernization and lost their original dominance. Practitioners of religion may not like their religion being the target of press and free speech, but they accept it as they accept religion being a private matter. This is true for Christianity in all western countries.

        Islam on the other hand never was subjected to a period of enlightenment and almost all countries where Islam is the majority belief are constituted around faith, not rule of law. In almost every such country, the constitution derives from Islamic faith. Even Turkey, the only modern country with an Islamic majority is now going back in history so to speak, becoming an Islamic country per choice of the voting majority and the ruling Islamic party. In Islamic countries, freedom of religion does practically not exist. In Islamic countries, constitutions and rule of law is based are based on the Islamic faith. Islamic rules are sanctioned by religious police and courts. There is no separation of faith, state and its affect on public life. There is no individual freedom in any of the countries where Islam is official.

        So based on all of the above, I beg to disagree with you on everything you stated. Of course the west has it right. And I am not saying Christianity has it right – because that’s the point. Christianity doesn’t matter anymore in the west. It’s just another religion and people are free to follow it or not, but it doesn’t mandate everyday life in the west. Rule of law does.

        Societies that define themselves, their constitution and law through Islam are the reason we’re in this mess. The only way to break the deadlock that violence has on current day Islam is to make Islam a secular religion like Christianity is effectively. This is in essence the rightful expectation of the majority of people living in western states when it comes to practitioners of Islam in these western countries. This is where the conflict in Europe stems from. Muslims in western countries need to be at the forefront of creating a secular version of Islam if they want to fit into western societies and be part of them. There is no alternative to this. In this context, Charlie Hebdo is not only to be tolerated, but should be an example to every Muslim willing to accept the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way Islam, the faith and its commandments are embedded into Arabic, Persian and other Islamic societies. What kind religion cannot cope with criticism and self-reflect on this? Even if it’s hurtful criticism?

        The west will continue to flourish based on the principles of secularism and individual freedoms. It will advance faster and further from where it is now, leaving the medieval, Islamic societies behind in its wake. It’s the choice of Muslims really if they want positive change. The problem is theirs. The solution is theirs as well. Or they can go on like they do, kill, get killed, remain in the dark ages forever. Their choice.

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