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Europe-India: Why do cartoons offend us more than mass assaults against women?

Long Live Charlie Hebdo! : A letter to the left leaning in wake of Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015

Sunday 11 February 2018, by siawi3


Why do cartoons offend us more than mass assaults against women?

by Harsh Kapoor,

3 September 2017

[written on 28 January 2016]

Our progressives (and I share their opposition to class inequality and injustice) apparently have no sense of humour when it comes to visceral satire or derision. Their revolution is dead serious, it isn’t funny. Some of our radical left media - pamphlets, posters etc have no problem reproducing horrific photos of dead bodies, body parts or of the wounds of victims of riots or repression. This is meant as evidence and is often intended also to shock. Is it politically vital to do that? May we say that this is an insensitive practice, intended to cultivate a clichéd culture of martyrdom? May we also say that such images create a certain representation of the broken lives of poor people writhing in pain and with a definitive look of despair and deprivation?

Many of us don’t seem to have a problem with this. Criticisms of such practices have been repulsed with remarks about the middle-class ethical sensibilities of those who are offended. Here there seems to be no problem with how victims and the underdog are represented. Yet they find it necessary to scold others for mocking the plight of the poor and oppressed.

These are major taboos in the lexicon of political rectitude. The victims, the ‘masses’ are good and un-adulterated, they can’t go wrong. You may only lionize and venerate the oppressed. (Fortunately the great Chinese writer Lu Xun did not adhere to this principle, or else world literature would have been deprived of his biting satire The True Story of Ah Q – one of the sharpest attacks on class society ever written). No wonder there are so few ‘progressive’ magazines, songs, slogans and plays that are funny or mocking in style. It is all civil, puritanical and deadpan. We hope we may deliver the revolution some day without hurting sentiments of the masses. And we will definitely not be seen laughing.

Many of these circles have launched a tirade against the French journal Charlie Hebdo ever since the brutal killings of its cartoonists and editors in January 2015. There has been barely veiled commentary saying they had it coming, they mocked the minorities and poor, and that they were ‘anti-Muslim.’ Nothing is sacred for them.

We need to say this now - yes, unlike us they come from a tradition not surrendering to accusations of blasphemy. Yes they poke fun at all that is sacred and do what is unthinkable, even what would be illegal in south Asia. In the past year ever since the Je suis Charlie mobilisation in France, leftists have decided to play I am not Charlie politics.

Since September 2015 Europe has faced its largest migrant crisis since World War Two, and this is fuelling a wave of ultra-right political mobilisation in Europe. Against this scenario, some leftist leaders have been playing to the gallery of the I am not Charlie camp as if to signal their target audiences. Instead of directing their ire against assassination of twelve cartoonists in their office, they have focused on the Charlie Hebdo’s choice of cartoons.

Yes, the work of certain cartoonists is in the tradition of bitterly ironical and sardonic imagery, reusing images or words concerning certain social events by détournement [1] or hyper-inflating their meaning. This may not seem humorous for many of us – but often it is not intended to make you laugh but to mock and shock. A few months ago a literary figure wrote about her distaste for Charlie’s cartoon on Aylan. Of late there have been further denunciations of a specific cartoon.

This cartoon was made in wake of hordes of sexist men engaging in a mass sexually assaults on hundreds of women in the streets of north European cities on New Years eve, 2015.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon was in direct response to the language and actions of European ultra-nationalists and racists. The cartoon mocks them by ironically exaggerating their claims “and yes had Aylan not died he too would have grown up to become a groper”. To take this literally is yet another instance of politically correct morose politics. We may have different standards of judgement, but public denunciations branding Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as racist is uncalled for. We could try and understand French cartooning before commenting on it. It is sad to see this shoot-from-the-hip attitude even from those who have challenged the ‘hurt sentiment’ industry in the past.

It is even more distressing to note that the outrage directed at Charlie Hebdo took place at the same time as the violent attacks on women across Europe. Feminist and progressive voices – by and large – overlooked this outbreak of violent misogyny. Those who are speaking out happen to be white supremacist & ultra-right formations who are openly racist. The progressives are silent for fear of being called racist.

Charlie Hebdo is fiercely hostile towards discrimination against migrants and minorities. Over the past year it has lambasted Europe’s political leaders’ callous response to the refugee crisis. One cartoon, ridiculing Europe’s pretensions to be a Christian continent, showed a Jesus-like figure walking on the water ignoring a drowning child. ‘Christians walk on water’, the text read, ‘Muslim children sink’. The cartoon is captioned ’Proof that Europe is Christian’.

This cartoon was in direct response to the Polish ultra-right. Another cartoon attacks European consumerism by playing on the photo of the drowned Syrian child on a Turkish beach. The cartoon showed a toddler face-down on the shoreline beside a MacDonald’s advertising billboard offering two children’s meal menus for the price of one. ‘So close to making it…’ read the caption. An editorial denounced Europe’s ‘hypocritical response’ to the migrant crisis and compared today’s indifference to the plight of migrants to its attitudes toward Jews fleeing Nazis in the 1930’s.

In 1971, four years before its promulgation of the law permitting abortion, 343 women proclaimed openly that they had broken the law by aborting. The manifesto attacked: “fascists of all stripes... they call themselves Catholics, fundamentalists, demographers, experts doctors, lawyers, responsible me... Debré, Lejeune, Pompidou, Pope.” In its own way, Charlie Hebdo contributed to the success of this manifesto, in a special issue to support the manifesto. They named it ‘Special-esalopes’ [‘Bad-women’ special]. Their cover page mocked the politicians – by showing Michel Debre the defence minister, known for his conservative views, replying sheepishly, “It was for France!”

I am appalled at the repeated attack by leftists on Charlie Hebdo. The latest one is about an April 1971 cover page of Charlie Hebdo with this question in the cartoon “Who empregnated these ‘dirty-women’ or ‘bad-women’ of the manifesto on abortion?” Above the text was a sketch resembling the face minister Michel Debre. The cartoon was attacking the politicians of the time who were opposed to abortion. This cover become so famous that across society and even today the manifesto is mostly known as the Manifest des 343 Salopes [Manifesto of 343 bad women]

Now to the question of the mass sexual assaults on New Years eve 2015 about which those charged up with the Chalie Hebdo cartoon have remained silent. In most reports from German and north European cities (Helsinki, Malmo, Stockholm, and Salzburg), there were clear reports of large groups of young immigrant men (reportedly from Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morroco etc.,), based on victims accounts, complaints and preliminary police reports etc. It is difficult to direct specify ethnicity or nationality because many police forces (as for example in Sweden) are disallowed from revealing national or ethnic origins). But the assailants were very clearly migrant men in large groups.

Now working class men come together all over Europe around football matches, but rarely does that turn into mass sexual assaults. Gangs of young men encircling and violently groping women at large public gatherings is something new in Europe.

What happened on December 31 [2015] seemed to reproduce something from outside Europe. In the Arab world, it has a name: taharrushgamea. Sometimes the girls are teased and have their veils torn off by gangs of young men; sometimes it escalates into rape or sexual assault.

Five years ago, this form of attack was the subject of an award-winning Egyptian film, 678. Instances of young men surrounding and attacking girls were reported throughout the Arab Spring protests in Cairo in 2011 and 2012. Lara Logan, a CNN journalist and Caroline Sinz from a French TV network, were raped in Tahrir Square in the middle of the famously celebrated Arab Spring while they were covering the fall of Hosni Mubarak [2].

Taharrushgamea has arrived in Europe. Leftists and feminists everywhere should denounce it for what it is with no fear or favour to any.



Entretien Marieme Hélie Lucas “la gauche a sacrifié les droits des femmes” Par Angélique Kourounis (20/01/2016) ]


[1] a term used by Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI) movement of the 1960’s, Detournement is usually translated into English as ‘diversion’ and was the method of artistic creation used by the situationists. It was, in effect, plagiarism where both the source and the meaning of the original work was subverted to create a new work.

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Long Live Charlie Hebdo! : A letter to the left leaning in wake of Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015

by Harsh Kapoor,

24 January 2015

(A slightly edited version of the below article is appeared in Mainstream Weekly, 31 January 2015)

The January 2015 terror attack on the Paris satirical weekly and its gross misinterpretation by people of Left liberal sensibilities in India and much of the world.

We recently witnessed a devastating terror assault by fanatics who gunned down close to 200 children in a school in Peshawar. Was this a desperate cry of the dispossessed in Pakistan? I am glad that the various tiny fractions of the left in Pakistan stood up and condemned it openly, some in India also stood up for the first time. It provoked widespread shock and disdain.

But the terrorist assassination of 12 cartoonists, journalists and workers at Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January 2015 has provoked very different reactions. Geographical location of the murder seems to drive this.

I am utterly astounded and shocked at the manner in which many in the left leaning and liberal circles in India have reacted to the devastating terror attack in Paris. Has a section of left gone mad? Why do they have to deflect a straight forward issue and start providing rationalisation for terror attacks from the Muslim fundamentalists. We are being given an endless spiel on French colonisation, the war for decolonization in Algeria, the exclusion of the so-called Muslim ‘community’ in France, the blowback for France’s foolish involvement in the recent wars in Libya and Syria and so on. The role of poor and dispossessed is being invoked.

Commentators from the anglo saxon world and even our desi left intelligenstsia who are waxing eloquent on the Charlie Hebdo massacre are making the most absurd amalgam between the French establishment and a truly radical far left wing magazine which shared absolutely nothing in common.

Charlie Hebdo is presented as the center of all evil that existed ever and that it had it coming, that their cartoons were racist and hurt sentiments. All this reminds me of 1989 and the Rushdie affair when this hurt sentiment industry made it big and has since become globalised. India’s Picasso, M.F. Hussain, was forced to leave his country by the wrath of the Hindu Far Right, all in the name of hurt sentiments. Many of the same radicals who stood by M.F. Hussain are now shamelessly standing up with free rationalisation for the Charlie Hebdo killers. Why such different treatment for different religio-fundamentalist strands? Were the poor and dispossessed involved in going after M.F. Hussain or in the assassination of M.K. Gandhi? What about the assassination of Salman Tasseer? Poor and oppressed, any takers?

Charlie Hebdo was born in rebellious times of May1968 in France. It had been preceded by other radical magazines like Hara Kiri and Enragé and many others. But they are in many ways part of a lineage of a very long historical tradition dating back to the French revolution and Jacobins of radical caricature making and mocking the powers that be — religious or other — in every sphere of life. The French revolution was the time of incredibly powerful irreverence and it gave birth to a very incisive form of satire and lampooning. Many magazines with satirical drawing accompanying text emerged during this time and have continued since. Later a much softer version of this developed in Britain and elsewhere.

The 1968 generation Charlie Hebdo has had an even more militant libertarian non conformist view of the world, groomed by a radical antipathy to the political power of religious authority, and a deep identification with ideas of the broad left. Pungent depictions the magazine runs are devastatingly funny that poke fun at everything, just every thing that makes for daily life. This vitriolic humour has come to be vital part of French intellectual and popular culture and there is a social acceptance for it. Millions read satirical comics, satirical newspapers, and magazines. Its anti religious politics takes apart the clergy, most of all the nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis, all who represent the high and mighty and, more recently the Dalai Lama, the new cults, and also in the recent times imams, mullahs as gate keepers of religion.

Charile Hebdo has a bawdy, burlesque style of black humour. Not for the weak hearted. In 1970 Charlie Hebdo made fun of Charles de Gaulle, president and leader of the Resistance, on the day of his death, provoking demands from the Right for its ban. The publication ceased in 1981 and was revived in 1991. Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists have faced hundreds of court cases since its creation. But it has continued to strike against powerful capitalists, bureaucratic and religious elites. The many targets of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and journalism have been the far right extremists, police repression, war mongering, the big corporate media, anti immigrant policies, capitalist and employer wrongdoing, the big banks and the stock markets, cuts in public spending and the military industrial complex, the nuclear industry, homophobia, conservative social values, denial of climate change, the food industry, the big pharma etc etc

In the English speaking world, there is practically no tradition of satirical magazines like Charlie Hebdo or say a newspaper like Le Canard Enchainé (A Duck in chains — Canard/Duck is French slang for newspaper) that deploy sardonic cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion pieces as standard fare. The kind of fiercely brutal cartoons that appear in Charlie Hebdo and the like in France have no chance of appearing in Britain, in the United States, Canada, Australia and most of the world. This would pass as obscene bad taste, it is matter of culture as to what is obscene or distasteful. In a country like India, the Charlie style cartoons would be unacceptable to both the left and right and the non ideological and unthinking.

Thanks to the French revolution, there are no blasphemy laws in France (except for Alsace and Moselle regions which joined France after the revolution). But however, France has strict laws on hate speech, on anti Semitism and on holocaust denial, so hateful activity is under the scanner.

Blasphemy or “religious insult” and racism are two different things. But with the rise of identity politics all over the world, there has been a successful push by many to collapse these into a single block that turn’s religious identity into ethnic or racial faultlines. In keeping with this, all of French of North African descent get sweepingly described in the media as Muslims (less than 5% go to mosques, 20% are atheists) or Arabs (vast majority are from Berber origins) and all of the ‘white’ French get labeled as Christian, a huge mistake this — a misnomer for the French. But in this age of easy clichéd (black and white) representation who cares for complexity — just an SMS does the fixing.

The politics of Charlie Hebdo has been progressive as it gets and informed by the new left around the world. They have been anti fascist, pro-abortion, pro-contraception in solidarity with the feminists, they stood up with the anti nuclear movement unlike their own friends on the left. The main anti-racist platform in France, SOS Racisme, teamed up with Charlie for campaigns against anti immigrant policies [1]. They denounced the Right Wing opposition to legalise gay live-in relations. During the 1990’s war in Algeria when there were violent attacks from the fundamentalists on the local media and the artists, writers and cartoonists, many were forced into exile. Charlie Hebdo opened its doors to numerous Algerian journalists and cartoonists in exile. All this goes back in fact because people like Bob Siné (the anarchist celebrity cartoonist from the 1950s and 1960s, Siné one of the oldest cartoonists who worked for Charlie Hebdo magazine till 2008.) faced umpteen law suits for supporting Algeria’s independence movement in the 1950’s.

images here

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo, has been condemned in France by the trade unions and left political parties [2], by the anti nuclear movement [3], by women’s groups [4], of anti homophobia groups [5], by organisations of homeless, by immigrants organisations, all have offered help and expressed solidarity. Thousands of people attended the solidarity demonstrations in Paris and other cities across france to express their outrage. Tens of thousands of Franco-Algerian, Franco-Moroccan and Franco-Tunisians were present in the demonstrations, carrying flags from the countries of the Maghreb. There have also been expressions of solidarity by organisations of Muslim religious believers from the famous Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris with a high working class population. [6] Journalists in Algeria and the Tunisian Trade Union of workers in Graphic Arts (Syndicat des métiers des arts plastiques tunisien) have issued statements in support of Charlie Hebdo, saying they have faced and still face similar threats and attacks from fundamentalists. [7]

Posterreleased by CGT after 7 January 2015 Charlie Hebdo Shootings

In fact five of the cartoonists who died were people whose work appeared also in many weeklies, dailies and monthlies of left persuasion all over France. The French trade unions, the women’s groups, the antinuclear movement carried their cartoons. They were household names.

Photos here

Georges Wolinski who was very famous in France. He was one of the longest standing members of Charlie Hebdo, was very close to the communist Party of France and the president of the France-Cuba friendship association. Close to 80 books of cartoon were penned by him, they are prized possessions of millions in France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere [8].

Jean Cabut (pen name Cabu), was a class apart and extremely popular for his past with hilarious Le Canard enchainé — the french precursor of WikiLeaks. His cartoon character Mon Beauf, a caricature of the racism, and sexism of an ordinary Frenchman, became so popular that the word ’beauf’ (short for “beau-frère”, i.e., brother-in-law) has entered French slang dictionaries. His work appeared in numerous newspapers, but many volumes of cartoons were sold on their own as best selling books. One of which was the ‘Big blond with a black shirt’ a lancet’s knife lampooning of Jean Marie Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right National Front.

Tignous, had his cartoons appear every week in Charlie but also on the pages of the daily l’Humanité (news paper of the French Communist Party) and in the CGT trade union paper La Vie Ouvrière, in Telerama and L’Echo des Savanes. Tignous was a member of Cartoonists for Peace. Bella Ciao the famous Italian song of the left was sung at the funeral for Tignous.

Stéphane Charbonier (known as Charb) the murdered editor of Charlie, was a member of the French Communist Party and a supporter of the Front de Gauche (the Left Front — a joint for of left groups), had opposed the 2005 proposed neoliberal European constitution. The 2009 book ‘Marx: Mode d’emploi’ (Marx: A User’s Guide) by the late far left intellectual Daniel Bensaid was attractively illustrated with funny drawings by Charb. Charb was also well known for his four volume ‘chien et chat anticapitalistes’ (anti capitalist Dogs and Cats cartoon books). At his funeral they played the Internationale to bid farewell to him.

Bernard Maris (or Uncle Bernard to Charlie Hebdo readers) a 1968 radical was one of main shareholders of Charlie Hebdo, was part of the editorial group. He was a reputed left economist, on the advisory board of ATTAC (, the social movement body opposed to corporate globalization. His work appeared in a wide range of magazine and was popular on French Radio. He appeared in a 2010 Jean Luc Godard film ’Film Socialisme’

Philippe Honoré had joined Charlie Hebdo in 1992. His work appeared in numerous magazines and papers including the the Trade Unions Magazine, La Vie Ouvier apart from Charlie Hebdo. He was a self taught cartoonist, who was widely known for his book covers. He had a very funny book on Nicolas Sarkozy’s Presdency called ’Je Hais les petites phrases’. His subtle humour stood out from his colleagues at Charlie Hebdo. They played the French song La Bute Rouge and the Bob Dylan Song Farewell Angelina sung by Joan Baez at his funeral at the Pére La Chaise cemetary.

Charlie Hebdo magazine has been a well known and fervent opponent of Zionism and Israel’s regular assaults on Gaza. It defended Roma / gypsy people against police crackdowns and deportation. Charlie Hebdo has been part of the cultural intellectual infrastructure (where with all) of the left in France. Killing them has been like a body blow to the left sensibilities and to the cultural sphere in France.

The murder of these left cartoonists and its obscene celebration by the progressives elsewhere is akin to the following hypothetical nightmare. That our international celebrity Marxist Tariq Ali, the radical broadcaster Amy Goodman, and our big time prof from Columbia all get assassinated by some Islamist nuts for being British or American and the progressive chatterati grotesquely take off talking about horrors of British and American imperialism and that this is blowback. Sad to imagine such a scenario.

The Islamist echo effect on Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris is still on; there are now big violent street demo’s in North Africa (A report in El Watan of 17th jan 2015 says ‘the slogan heard in the demonstration in Algeria after the Charlie Hebdo massacre was “Ahlyha nahya, ahlyha namout, wa alayha nalqa Allah” (pour - l’Etat islamique - nous vivons, pour lui nous allons mourir et rencontrer Dieu) [English Translation: For an Islamic State - we are living, for which we will die and encounter God]’) and the Middle East, also near home in Pakistan. I am now with sadness waiting for the ones that may happen in Delhi, in Bombay, in Calcutta and for the real prospect of our lefties joining them in solidarity with the hurt religious sentiment walas.

The left today is very shy of confronting Muslim Fundamentalism, lest it be seen as anti-Islam. It has become a taboo they better get rid of. The other malady afflicting the left leaning is xenophobic nationalism anti west-ism, becoming a reactionary instinct deployed to explain everything from road accidents to bad weather. Please wake up comrades: internationalism is the need of the day against rising tide of fascist movements that may spell the end of all democratic space.

The killers of Charlie Hebdo grew up in areas where once there was a red belt of communist-run towns around Paris. Today the left, has pretty much ceded ground in these working class suburban towns. These are recruiting grounds for multiple forms of fascist and reactionary groups, armed with propaganda, satellite TV, hate-filled gospel and dress codes and moral conduct all blessed by ‘authentic’ religion and culture. Christian evangelical cults, Islamist preachers and the Far right xenophobes all promoting identity politics. Now it is time to mass mobilise against fascist formations in France as in India.

In India we have hate speech, violently communal speech, anti religious speech all co exist with virtually no real hand of the state successfully stopping it. We have unity and diversity of Fatwas and Farmans from Khaps, self appointed religious or ‘community’ leaders increasingly defining the landscape for speech, writing, film, dress and accepted behaviour. Blasphemy and hurt sentiment industry is flourishing. A slow poison is spreading.

It is time we promoted Freedom of Speech as a left wing issue, and differentiate it from hate speech; the space to speak is shrinking everywhere and most of all for people who represent subversive ideas of equality and secular democracy.


[1] see homage by anti racists organisations to Charile Hebdo: ,

[2] French Communist Trade Union CGT’s Press Release regarding the attack at Charlie Hebdo ; ,





[7] see article explaining how the Charlie Hebdo massacre has revived memories among Algerian media workers of fundamentalist attacks in the 1990s.

[8] Wolinski: « Le désir, c’est encore mieux que le plaisir ! » Entretien réalisé par 
Marion d’Allard, L’Humanité, 28 Janvier, 2011