Charlie Hebdo Cartoonist Says He’s Giving Up Lampooning Mohammed
On the tortured debate over visual representations of Prophet Mohammed.
“I won’t draw the character Mohammed again. He doesn’t interest me anymore.”
With those words the cartoonist Rénald Luzier — better known by his pen name, Luz — announced in an interview that he would abandon what has become his most infamous subject. A contributor to French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, Luz drew the cover of its so-called survivor’s issue in the aftermath of the attack on its offices in January. That cover depicted the Prophet Mohammed holding a sign with the words “Je Suis Charlie” under the text, “All Is Forgiven.”
Who can really blame him for abandoning this fraught motif? In the same interview, Luz insists that the terrorists didn’t “win,” and it seems inevitable that his decision to no longer draw Mohammed will be yet another datapoint in the tortuous debate over whether the “terrorists” are or not winning their war on Western values of freedom of expression.
Indeed, Luz’s announcement comes against the backdrop of a deeply tiresome family fight within the English-language literary community. After the PEN American Center decided to award Charlie Hebdo with its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award, a group of more than 30 writers have joined a protest against honoring the magazine and giving it a prize at the group’s annual gala. The writers to withdraw from participating in the gala include Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi, all of whom complain that Charlie Hebdo unfairly picked on minorities.
While the slaughter at the magazine’s headquarters, which left 12 dead, was met with universal condemnation, its aftermath was also met with painful handwringing about whether Charlie Hebdo had gone too far in satirizing Muslims. The magazine had made Islam, particularly those claiming to fight in its name, a frequent target of satire, and its critics argued that it had unfairly gone after a persecuted minority in doing so. Muslims in France face widespread discrimination and exclusion, and lampooning the religion was seen by some as an attack by the powerful on the weak.
On the other side of this debate is what might be called the “free speech absolutists,” who have defended the magazine’s right to publish cartoons on the topic of their choosing without the threat of being slaughtered at their place of work. While those preaching toleration in cartooning would of course agree with that sentiment, the debate over the appropriateness of honoring Charlie Hebdo has broken down in all too predictable ways.
“The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders — white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists — is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East,” the writer Francine Prose declared in the pages of the Guardian. “And the idea that one is either ‘for us or against us’ in such matters not only precludes rational and careful thinking, but also has a chilling effect on the exercise of our right to free expression and free speech that all of us — and all the people at PEN — are working so tirelessly to guarantee.”
One can only imagine what Luz thinks as he reads commentary such as this. Imagine reading debates on the Internet about the position of your dead friends in a narrative tied to a totally pointless fight about a literary award. Nevermind the fact that the description of this narrative is demonstrably wrong since the Charlie Hebdo attacks also included non-white victims: Mustapha Ourrad, the magazine’s Algerian-born copyeditor, and the policeman Ahmed Merabet.
As PEN’s critics themselves acknowledge, it is the confused nature of the debate about the magazine that has them worried about participating in a ceremony devoted to praising the publication. “What is at issue are the various — confused, vague, and sometimes contradictory — symbolic meanings with which the magazine has been freighted in recent months, and exactly which of those symbolic meanings PEN is intending to applaud,” as writer Deborah Eisenberg put it in a letter to PEN President Suzanne Nossel.
In this way, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the debate it spawned about the meaning of depicting Mohammed has taken all the humour out of satirizing the prophet. Jokes about Mohammed are no longer read as jokes but as political positions regarding the absoluteness of freedom of speech — as Luz’s cover of the survivor’s issue poignantly showed. It’s hard to fault him for no longer wanting to participate.
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