Wednesday 22 May 2019

Taking liberties with those who declare war on fun and humour

Satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo columnist Patrick Pelloux (C), cartoonist Luz (L) and Liberation editor in chief Laurent Joffrin (R). Reuters
Satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo columnist Patrick Pelloux (C), cartoonist Luz (L) and Liberation editor in chief Laurent Joffrin (R). Reuters

Alison Pearson

They could have lashed out in rage. Heaven knows, the provocation was great enough. Yet, the remaining staff of 'Charlie Hebdo', who saw eight of their colleagues gunned down just a week ago, chose to bring out a magazine with a poignant and thoughtful cover.

The illustration shows the prophet Mohammed shedding a tear and holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign. The headline reads: All Is Forgiven. The stunned survivors - never has the phrase skeleton staff been more apposite - chose to react more in sorrow than in anger. Still absorbing the murder of their friends, a bunch of satirical atheists decided to do the truly radical thing, and turn the other cheek.

Who or what is being forgiven by the cartoon? Is it the Kouachi brothers, the Islamist fanatics who went about their work, slaughtering wry, bespectacled funnymen in a business-like fashion and shouted, "We have avenged the prophet Mohammad", when they were done?

Is it Allah himself, lamenting those poor, deluded souls who do evil in his name? Either way, if men and women who have witnessed such carnage and suffering in their own office can write "All is Forgiven", then there is still hope that human beings can live together in harmony.

Well, some human beings anyway. Rational and modern human beings who don't persist in taking offence when none is intended. Take the man in Slough, one of many similar Muslims over the past week, who told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the publication of the commemorative 'Charlie Hebdo' edition would cause pain and retaliation.

The cartoonists had it coming, he implied, because of what they had done. No Muslim would mourn their deaths. It turned out that this sage hadn't even seen the new 'Charlie Hebdo' that he found so gratuitously offensive. When this was gently pointed out to him, you could hear him making a split-second mental adjustment - might the new cartoon not be so very bad after all? - but then the Tolerance door slammed shut. No. Muslims were hurt and offended, and that was the end of it.

This is what the excellent Sara Khan, director of 'Inspire', a counter-extremist Islamic forum, calls the Muslim "grievance narrative". Despite living in European nations that afford them remarkable freedoms and benefits, Khan says many Muslims insist on seeing themselves as forever oppressed by the West. Permanently on the defensive, they lash out like angry children instead of wondering whether their attitudes could be part of the problem.

Hence the repugnant but predictable (and childish) accusation that it was Jews who were behind the Paris massacres. So Mossad murdered four of their own in a kosher shop did they? Cunning fellows, these Jews.

Responding in a letter to 'Charlie Hebdo's latest depiction of the prophet Mohammad, dozens of British Muslim leaders said yesterday that "most Muslims would be hurt and offended", while quite rightly suggesting that patience and tolerance were the best response.

To non-Muslim friends, however, Muslims were entitled to "express our justified displeasure".

Absolutely. Go right ahead; be our guest. But we are fed up with every news bulletin for the past few years being dominated by the cycle of this story, of feelings no sooner placated than hurt again. The depiction of gods and saints is ever a tricky business. I love the story of the indignant woman in Delhi who questioned the late, great Dickie Attenborough at a Gandhi press conference on how he planned to show the Mahatma on screen. Patiently and with great courtesy, Attenborough explained that the acclaimed actor, Ben Kingsley, had done meticulous research into Gandhi's voice and gait.

The woman insisted this was sacrilege, that Gandhi was a deity in India and not a mere mortal to be caricatured from newsreels. Attenborough said he was very sorry she felt like that. How would the woman have him portray the Mahatma? "Not at all," she replied, "but if you must… as a moving light."

"Madam," said Dickie, "I'm not making a film about bloody Tinkerbell."

(© Daily Telegraph London)

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