Can Europe Make It?

Charlie Hebdo numero 1178: all is forgiven?

Mutual recognition between people and cultures moves in mysterious ways, the cartoon its Rorschach test. 

28 January 2015

Third blot in the Rorschach ink blot test.

Third blot in the Rorschach ink blot test. Wikicommons. Public domain.

“Tout est pardonné” -------- What are we to do with this message on perhaps the most awaited cover in the history of global journalism? And what are we to do with the fact that these powerful words, written last week in tears – literally – by a once joyous band of journalists, were almost ignored in the tsunami of reactions to the image itself of a Mohamed with a Je suis Charlie banner shedding a tear?

We knew that the survivors’ issue would be “ni pleurnichard ni revanchard” (neither tearful nor revengeful). “Tout est pardonné” in a way echoes “l’amour pas la haine” after the 2011 Charlie bombing, well, minus the provocative kiss-on-the-lips. Defiant, they refuse self-censorship: but this is the most pacifist of all Mohameds. So why did the world only comment on the defiant image? What shall we do with the forgiving part?

There is of course, at the root of it all, the power of drawing, irreverence as the ultimate universal. But as all power – and power was Charlie’s main target – it must be used wisely. Tignous, one of the cartoonists killed, explained that satire must fulfil three conditions, make us laugh, hopefully make us think, and if it is a perfect success, create a feeling of shame to be laughing about that. As Xavier de la Porte muses on his Rue 89 website, that is a complex message!

And what a risk, taken by each cartoonist time and time again, not to be as subtle as his ambition. Can our public space live up to such power and subtlety? Do we have enough trust in ourselves and in one another? Mutual recognition between people and cultures moves in mysterious ways, the cartoon its Rorschach test.


Perhaps it is all too confusing? Who is doing the forgiving? Wolinski and company from up on high, or Mohamed-Charlie with his tear – forgiving those who kill in his name? Or the families and survivors yes – but who are they, now that we are all Charlie? Now that, for a minute or so, the global extended family includes the dodgy heads of states walking with Francois Hollande at the head of the 3 million march in Paris on that Sunday?

And who is to be forgiven? The killers – who don’t give a damn? Or all those who, over the years, had said: Supporting Charlie? Yes.... but? Or the many French Muslim kids who refused to respect the minute of silence the day after – in the name of this “but”? Different worlds. So we ask: what have they learned?

Surely it would be wrong to hold to account those belonging to what we call in France “la communauté francaise d’origine Musulmane” (not a “minority” as in the English speaking word). As Olivier Roy and others have long argued they are, simply, French and European citizens. Charb, who was killed too, exclaimed after the 2011 Charlie bombing: “People worry that ‘moderate Muslims’ are not reacting. There are no moderate Muslims in France, there are no Muslims at all, but people who are of Muslim culture, who respect Ramadan in the same way as I do Christmas and goggle up turkey at my parents’.” But of course “French Muslims” did react, whether or not under the label. So we ask: do they forgive such a high-jacking of Islam?

FORGIVE! There are all those who think: how can they be so naïve! What a wonderful world that can never be! There is no redemption on the fronts of Mali or Clichy sous bois, in the suburbs inside and outside our borders. Security is the only mantra. So we ask: will our colonial DNA, colonial within, colonial without, have the last word – all is security? Can those who still live under the post-colonial shadow forgive us this unending presence of the past? Are we meant to forgive the stubbornness of their memory?

Perhaps it is hard to wrap our heads around All is forgiven, because the real message of the survivors’ issue (read the inside pages!) is too politically incorrect: “They” can never retaliate against our forgiveness. Thou is forgiven is the creed that will always belong to us, the laics, the atheists – not to these religions of all hues that sought to appropriate it. What is at stake is not just freedom of expression, as most of the world seems to hear, but the kind of society we will fight for, till the end, and which the French in particular still hold on to: laicité.

So as Luz and company shout on the page in Charlie Hebdo 1178, Cabu, Wolinski and their mates will live on, not just because there is sex in paradise (hey, we can still smile malgré tout) but because of this creed, our secularism, the only space where “all can be forgiven.” The survivors persist in refusing to discriminate against Islam in their secular irony even though they continue, as always, to reserve their most provocative stuff for Christians (the most provocative cartoon in the post-attack issue exhibits divorced women who will now be able to take their communion their big tongues sticking out…we won’t even translate the bishop’s thought bubble). They are deadly serious in this manifesto: laicité is the only way to deal with the challenges of our age, from social integration to the politics and geopolitics of radical Islam. Against, “religious totalitarism” we must reclaim the universalism of liberty, equality and sisterhood (I quote).  Some readers may think this simplistically last century. But who is Manichean here, the survivors ask? Equating us (Charlie) with them (Islamic fundamentalists) as secular “fundamentalists” is the source of all this evil! True secularism which seeks to enlarge our domains of co-existence is incompatible with Islamophobia. We prove it thus: all is forgiven.


But is it right to forgive all? In the Doctrine of Virtue, Kant explains that forgiveness is a duty of virtue as part of self-respect. It is not a revision of our feelings toward an offender but about our actions. And it should not be about the relationship between victim and offender but about pursuing either our own moral perfection or the happiness of the whole community, country, humanity.

But that forgiveness should be consistent with self-respect also means that we sometimes have a duty to withhold it if we think it will encourage our offender to wrong us again. That is what is likely to happen if an offender cannot acknowledge the injustice committed before being forgiven. So we are left with the question, since the killers are dead, of who is supposed to provide Charlie et al with such an acknowledgement. And is such an acknowledgement of injustice bound up with “forgiving” the cartoons themselves? If no one authority speaks for Islam – according to which we are told mercy cannot be expected from Allah unless one is oneself a forgiver – a fortiori, no authority speaks for radical Islam. What has forgiveness done for us all?

To be sure, we can all do with the self-respect bit. In the lead up to the killings, my fellow French compatriots seemed to have forgotten how to appreciate their country. But as Obama writes Vive la France in the D.C. condolences book, let us bask in the reflected glow of Charlie Hebdo’s magnanimous stance. All is forgiven: can the USA say the same?

The problem is that we, the rest of us, have not earned the right to forgive. Who would dare what they dared. Charb had repeated the age-old cry – mieux vaut vivre debout que mourir a genoux – knowingly. The survivors quip that these stupid offenders were not worthy of him and his friends – hey, they did not know Charlie Hebdo’s address and wore gagoules to hide their identity only to drop an ID card. How infuriating to get whacked by such pathetic guys! (“C’est rageant de se faire buter par des minables” ). Dead pan.

We are left with our collective ambivalence. To be or not to be Charlie, the Charlie that forgives, the Charlie that persists. We may or may not want to be the Charlie d’avant January 7 but surely, let us be inspired by the Charlie d’apres to imagine a world where the petit and grand grievances that plague us all, can be, by the strike of a magic pen, just like that, forgiven.

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