In the wake of the atrocious attack on the Charlie Hebdo team in the heart of Paris, many commentators in Western media revived the old debate once triggered after Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued his infamous Fatwa in 1989 calling upon the death of Salman Rushdie, the British writer whose satirical The Satanic Verses allegedly offered an unpleasant image of Prophet Muhammad.
Many years before Charlie Hebdo, the debate was always about whether there had been or will ever be a civil platform in Islamic cultures for respecting the rights of artists, writers and journalists to ridicule religion and religious figures.
Many current commentators in Western media outlets have recently moralised that only modern, secular and free European cities could afford to host the form of satirical press which Charlie Hebdo represents. In Europe, mainly in Paris and London, as the story goes, this long cherished tradition of associating liberty with laughter harks back to the age of the European Enlightenment.
"The Arab and Muslim Charlie Hebdo critics of the time who...ridiculed all forms of strictures in society"
As the British historian Simon Schama has recently written: “(t)he golden age of no-holds-barred graphic satire… (was) the 18th century”, an enlightening age in which laughter and liberty went hand in hand. But can we conclude that this tradition of twinning liberty with laughter has always been exclusively European?
DONALD CAMPBELL, a British East Indian Company army captain, travelled in Aleppo in 1783. He recounted his observations of Muslim character, politics, and culture in an account titled A Journey Overland To India Partly by A Route Never Gone Before by any European, a book which was first published in 1795.
Accompanied by a French merchant based in Aleppo, Campbell visited a number of coffee houses in the city where he found “hearty mirth and laughter...sufficient to put one in spirits”. With his French friend, Campbell went to watch a shadow show, a popular form of satire in Ottoman times. The inhabitants of Syria knew the heroes of these shadow shows by the name of Karagoz and Hacivat, the Arab and Muslim Charlie Hebdo critics of the time who, by using a melange of different voices to address their listeners, ridiculed all forms of strictures in society.
The story of the show which Campbell and his French friend listened to dealt with the hypocrisy of the corrupt Muslim judges and also made fun of religious traditions. After divorcing his wife, one Muslim man wanted to marry her back, the story goes. But in Islamic traditions he cannot simply remarry her. After the first divorce, she should marry another man before obtaining a second divorce to go back to her first ex-husband. The story made fun of this tradition by showing how the second husband refused to divorce the wife to go back to her ex-husband, simply because he loved her and also she loved him. The first husband attempted to bring a divorce by bribing the judges to rule in favour of him. The satirist Karagoz, as Campbell says:
"takes the defendant side, and in a dialogue, which my friend assured me was pointed, witty, and bitterly satirical, develops to him the whole system of magistratical injustice, advises him to bribe the Bashaw (the ruler), and, declaring his zeal for all young people fond of amorous enjoyment…offers him the aid of his purse."
The second husband follows Karagoz’s advice: “the bribe is accepted; the Cadi’s decree is reversed, and himself disgraced, and the mob at once hustle him and bear the Hullah (the second husband) home to his bride with clamours of joys”. The scene is now one of mirth, roar and laughter.
Familiar with the language, manners, and traditions of the people in Aleppo, the Frenchman informed Campbell about the political and social role of this form of entertainment. Karagoz is “the champion of Freedom” in Islamic society, the Frenchman declared. “KARA-GHUSE had from time to time created a great deal of uneasiness, not only to private offending individuals, but also to the magistracy itself –,” the Frenchman added, “that no offender, however entrenched behind power, or enshrined in rank, could escape him –that Bashaws, Cadi’s, nay the Janissaries themselves, were often made the sport of his fury”.
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Not only had the appointed religious figures (Cadis and magistrates) feared his lashing critique. Even the ordinary people in Aleppo respected him “(as we venerate the liberty of the press) as a bolder teller of truth, who with little mischief does a great deal of good, and often rouses the lethargic public mind to a sense of public dangers and injuries”.
For Campbell’s European friend in Aleppo, the world of the Islamic shadow play offered lessons which Europeans perhaps needed to learn from. “(I)f Master Kara-ghuse was to take such liberties in France, Spain, Portugal, or Germany,” the Frenchman suggested, “all his wit and honesty would not save him from punishment”.
Amazed, Campbell mused on how:
"the malversion in office, public delinquency, and all those crimes of the great, which with us are cognizable by no tribunal but that of the public press, are not altogether so exempt from lash and exposure of the satirist in Turkey (Ottoman Empire)…the magistrates are held to ridicule in public exhibition, satirised with all the extravagant vulgarities of coarse humour and unpolished wit, and exposed with all the bitter exaggerations or envenomed genius"
In his travel account, Campbell wanted the Europeans who he considered prejudiced to Muslims to stop thinking that only Europeans, in their public press, were the champions of the right to ridicule.
But also Campbell’s complex views about Islamic cultures and society push us, modern audiences, to move beyond adopting lazy polarities to account for what recently happened in Paris: that is, Muslims are inherently incapable of practising satire. Learning from Campbell’s experience in the Islamic world, one may want to rethink the essentialsing rhetoric which pits one religion (culture and society) against another.
MOVING BEYOND POLARITIES allows us to start asking serious questions. Why, how and when extremism as a grim, unfunny phenomenon, a deadly cult, among some self-proclaimed jihadists became an urgent issue in our global communities. And what help does this ideology get to spread its venomous effects widely in our communities?
"The death cult of violent extremism succeeded in finishing a bunch of satirists in Paris as well as thousands of innocent civilians across the Muslim world"
Islamic extremism for Western governments and also their friends in the Arabian Gulf became an important political tool utilised to defeat the Soviet ideology in the 1990s. Even before this time, in the 1950s and 1960s it was used in the fight against the rise of nationalism in many parts of the Muslim world after the departure of the European imperialists and the formation of the nation state system. Between 2001 and 2004, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq helped this ideology to gain ground in the region.
How about the present? The continued European efforts to arm Saudis and other Arab Gulf states to the teeth, given that they are ‘friends’ of the West, helps this ideology prosper. Allowing the Saudis to fund mosques and many religious schools of extremist bent in Europe helps this ideology prosper. The deafening of ears when it comes to the crimes of Israel against the Palestinians also helps this ideology prosper. Western demonisation of Islam as a religion, rather than engaging with the problem of extremism as a political and social phenomenon, helps this ideology prosper.
The death cult of violent extremism succeeded in finishing a bunch of satirists in Paris as well as thousands of innocent civilians across the Muslim world, but there is no reason here to shy away from hoping that we, the people, Muslims and non-Muslims, need to consider those who created, practised, adopted, and also funded this violent ideology as clowns in a tragedy in which there are no heroes. Every one of these anti-heroes should be seen as a villain.