My Say: Drawing the line between the tolerable and deplorable

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FROM presidents and corporate heads to portly priests and hotshot celebrities, each has copped flak from MAD Magazine’s irreverence.  More than 55 years now since its first publication as a comic book in lower Manhattan, MAD’s parody on socio-political issues still gets me a chuckle.  Not all satirical magazines though are in the MAD league, which influenced the irreverent wit and anti-establishment humour in the 1960s.

Its editor-in-chief John Ficarra, commenting in CBS News (Jan 11, 2015) on the mass shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, said that MAD had “offended many powerful people, including many in the religious community”.  He added, “MAD never makes fun of people's beliefs, but we were merciless on the Catholic Church for covering up the child abuse scandal.”

Most decent-minded people would deplore the sexist, anti-anything sacred and racist jokes of satirists and comedians.  The bloody attacks show the deadly risks of lampooning a whole religious community based on stereotyped and racist assumptions — more so today when the detractors anywhere anytime can easily google the originators’ profile, mug shot and location.

Most would also condemn in the strongest terms the murder of Charlie Hebdo staff.  The killing of cartoonists — and journalists — for doing what they do shows the difficulty in drawing the line between tolerable contents and deplorable insinuations.  In the eyes of the two Kouiachi brothers who killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices, the satirical newspaper had crossed the red line.

With Western leaders, media and Hollywood stars coming out to honour the victims, condemning in unison the terrorist attack and supporting free expression regardless, #jesuischarlie and #iamcharlie became overnight top global Twitter hashtags.  Many jumped on the bandwagon and embraced the slogan.  Where was the global outcry when civilians and journalists were killed in the non-West?

For a sense of perspective, I remember the massacre of 145 people, 132 of them children, by the Pakistani Taliban in Peshawar on Dec 16.  In the early hours on the same day in Martin Place, Sydney, an Iranian cleric and self-declared jihadist, after a 16-hour siege of a café, was killed by Australian Federal Police.  Two hostages died in the rescue.  Television news and local papers headlined the Sydney siege for days. The Peshawar massacre was buried in the inside pages.

I recall in November 2009 the massacre of 54 civilians who were on their way to Ampatuan in the province of Maguindanao in Mindanao for the gubernatorial election.  At least 34 of the victims were journalists.  The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the Maguindanao massacre was the single deadliest atrocity against journalists in history.

My journalist colleagues in the Philippines knew some of the victims.  The Philippines is the second most dangerous country for journalists, after Iraq.  To date, none of the killers have been prosecuted.  Investigation by the Philippine media, however, reported that more than 120 suspects were detained for questioning.

Media coverage and reaction by the West to the Charlie Hebdo killings in less than 24 hours far outweighed the global scrutiny of the Maguindanao massacre in five years or the Peshawar slaughter in 30 days.

Sure, I am for free expression in the creative industries.  Freedom of expression is also enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). But we know these freedoms are not absolute.  If they were there would be many failed friendships, broken marriages, dysfunctional families — and at its worst, anarchic states.

Sure, the pen is mightier than the sword. But only if the offended and victims of the satire have the skills and intellect to wield the pen, which is why every responsible government restricts this normative freedom to some degree by legislating against hate speech and criminalising incitement to racial, religious and sectarian violence.

France even enacted in 1990 the Gaysott Act that prohibits denial of the Holocaust. French comedian, Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, convicted of “anti-Semitism, historical revisionism and racism”, was banned from performing in France and entering the UK.  Many European countries have also banned the public display of elements associated with Nazism.

In today’s post-modernist mindset, with much of the urban humour unapologetically framed to devalue — and belittle — the moral and ethical codes common to all major religions, being irreligious, individualistic and atheistic have come to symbolise one’s belonging to the free thinking critical literati class.  Really?

The hard question is knowing when to hold back to “minimise (psychological and physical) harm” for those who have no means, skills or intellectual confidence to rebut.  Whatever disrespects or dishonours another person’s faith, should you express it just because you can?

I don’t find the racist cartoons of slanty-eyed buck-toothed Asians in conical hats posted at bus stops funny at all when I migrated to Perth in 1987.  I was disgusted by cartoons of the Yellow Peril and Asian Invasion that I read in the Australian newspapers from early settler days, and archived Bulletin Magazine, which carried the masthead “Australia for the White Men” until the 1960s.

What did I do?  I countered the racist sentiment by writing positive stories on Asian migrants for a weekly tabloid in Perth where I was a feature writer.

With the proliferation of satire magazines where all are fair game, to those faith communities who don’t have the skills to write, draw or debate in the public domain, what can they do?  They mobilise and protest on the streets — or kill the messengers.  To those who can, they retaliate with equally offensive caricatures of what the Western world hold dear.

For instance, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, which sponsored a Holocaust  cartoon contest in February 2006 in retaliation to the Danish newspaper, Jylland Posten’s cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (2005).  BBC News reported the Hamshahri editorial as posturing, “Does the West's freedom of expression extend to an event such as the Holocaust or is this freedom of expression only for the desecration of the sanctities of divine religions?"

The attack on Charlie Hebdo blurs the line between character and caricature in visual communication, between freedom of expression and respect for religious sensitivities. Where the most noticeable characters of Islam and Muslims as portrayed in the post-9/11 media are suicide bombers and balaclava-clad beheaders, is it any surprise that cartoonists would exaggerate those features?

With the consistent demonising of Islam and Muslims by media in the West, is it any surprise that Islamist fanatics retaliate — each time more brutally and bloodier?  And with each savage terrorist attack, is it any surprise that the Western world are even more resolute to fight the scourge of Islamic extremism? The tit-for-tat reinforces the “clash of civilisations” mindset that never can the West and non-West meet on a common platform.

The caricatures about Prophet Muhammad by publications in the West, where secularism and free expression are revered, obviously reflect the self-indulgence of cartoonists, who probably belong to no particular faith, in depicting the Muslim identity based on stereotyped racist assumptions.  Je suis Charlie?  I doubt it.

Surely, religion should be cited and used only as a source for common good.  Failing which it can be exploited, in the name of free expression, as a powerful singular identity to marginalise and destroy communities.  

Journalists — and those who peddle their art in satire and parody — if they are to be mindful of  “minimising harm” when exercising their freedom to communicate must know how easy they can mindlessly abuse their profession when they over-simplify and reduce the complex political and cultural identities of Islam and Muslims down to “funny” cartoons, even with no malice intended.

Eric Loo teaches journalism at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia. He worked as a journalist and taught journalism in Malaysia from the late 1970s to 1986.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 26 - February 1, 2015.