This has nothing to do with travelling Africa Clockwise, but as the promotion of satire is the Sampson family business, both in comedy and carnival, I take the duty very seriously, and must speak up.
The day after Ruby flew back to SA to start high school, Jan 7th, 12 people were shot dead at the Charlie Hebdo offices.
I don’t think there was a single news report in the first three days here that didn’t use the adjective ‘barbaric’; it was bandied around irresponsibly, by leaders from France to the UK to Canada, who waved it about like a loaded machine gun. The word primarily means ‘savagely cruel’ but also ‘primitive, unsophisticated, heathen’ and comes from the Greek word barbarikos, from barbaros meaning ‘foreign’.
The news reporters could have chosen to use the words ‘brutal’ ‘vicious’ ‘ruthless’ ‘pitiless’ or even ‘inhuman’ instead of ‘barbaric’, but their knee jerk reaction was to choose the word that emphasised the foreign-ness, the other-ness of the gunmen.
‘Barbarian’ is how the ancient Greeks described non-Greek peoples they regarded as culturally inferior – in the same way the English came to employ the word ‘boorish’, from boer the Afrikaans word for farmer, as ‘crude’.
On Jan 9th I woke up and listened to live radio coverage of the OJ Simpson-style chase with helicopters and trailing press and found myself praying for those Kouachi brothers. They didn’t have a hope of getting a hearing, let alone a trial, although I longed to have them explain their twisted motivation. I knew they’d be dead by the time I got back from buying a new uniform for Zola.
Well, it was what they wanted.
At 8am on Jan 10th I heard the first balanced coverage on Radio 4 since the attack. There was an interview with an imam, Mehdi Bouzid, from Aubervilliers, a suburb with an unemployment rate twice the national average, where the Kouachis grew up. He described the younger brother Chérif as basically “a good guy”, recalled playing football with him and said he had recognised him in the video footage of the attack by the way he walked. He described sadly how he had “lost” Chérif to radicalisation a couple of years ago, although he had tried to persuade him against leaving for Iraq: “I told him it’s not a solution, you don’t know for whom you are fighting.”
When asked to speculate on why the brothers had taken this course of action he said, in halting English, “First of all, vengeance for Islamic countries. When you look at the pictures on the internet, the TV screen, always some Palestinian people die, some Iraqis, some Syrian people, the rape of Muslim women, and they think the West is responsible about this.”
The imam sighed and continued “I don’t justify any attacks, OK, but when you look at their past, they’re orphans; when you don’t have any identity, when you don’t belong… we can make some act very, very ugly.”
When asked if Charlie Hebdo went too far by mocking the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the imam replied, “When you notice that something will hurt me, you have to respect me, but Charlie Hebdo don’t respect us… When you have some Muslim or Arabic name, it’s very difficult to find some job, to make your prayer, to wear your veil. I went to Paris yesterday, I feel the eyes on me, it’s eyes with fear and angry and hate on me, I feel that.”
The imam does not condone the brothers’ actions, but he understands the emotions of alienated young men who grew up being made to feel like foreigners in their own country. “I don’t have any power here. I was born here, I have my family here, I dream in French, I am French… but if we continue like this, in a few weeks or months there will be some bad things in France.”
While planning the details of their dreadful deed, did the Kouachi brothers not dream in French?
Did you know that Muslims make up 12% of the French population, but 70% of the prison population?
The morning before, I had to turn off a radio magazine interview with a 35 year old Japanese man who was defending manga and its depiction of underage girls in sexual situations. These are not forbidden under Japanese law, unlike pornographic photos of minors, which were banned last year. Most Europeans would not see any distinction between pornographic photos of children and hand drawn cartoons, finding both deeply offensive to our morals. But manga is entrenched in Japanese culture as high art and considered in different way – one I obviously can’t understand or stomach.
Is some Freedom of Expression more expressible than others?
Are some freer than others to express?
If you haven’t already, please check out some Charlie Hebdo cartoons here.
In the UK and Europe, blasphemy isn’t the offence it once was, capable of having you excommunicated by the Pope for example, a fate worse than death in the 14-16th centuries. The revered tradition of laïcité in France cannot be strictly translated as ‘secularism’, because La Republique goes beyond the mere separation of church and state. One might go so far as to say that the laïcité expressed in the passing of a law banning the wearing of the niqab in 2010 is a more ‘militant’, ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ interpretation of secularism.
It is a doctrine I subscribed to before coming to live in South Africa, a country that aspires to “belong to all who live in it”, never mind what accident of slavery or immigration brought your ancestors here.
Yesterday Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek declared “How fragile the belief of an Islamist must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper”. I agree that the brothers Kouachi felt fragile and threatened and powerless in a society that was never going to allow them to succeed at anything but martyrdom. But I also wonder how fragile the liberté, egalité and fraternité of a society must be if it feels threatened by a woman in a scarf.
Like Voltaire, I may not agree with everything you say, Charlie Hebdo, but I would defend to the death your right to say it. Should it not follow, that although I may not feel that wearing niqab is in the best interests of all women, I should defend to the death a woman’s right to wear it?
 our white-skinned daughter, who flew back to South Africa, the country of her birth
 our black-skinned son, for his new English school in the village of his father’s birth
who are both lucky enough to feel they belong…