PA: Charlie Hebdo — Racist Satire

÷The depictions of Muhammad were racist and therefore
condemnation of the attackers should be tempered÷

Past editions of Charlie Hebdo have included depictions of Muhammad, in a racialised manner and therefore condemnation of the killers✝ should be tempered by or accompanied with some recognition of the racist provocation of the newspaper. The foregoing is a popular viewpoint and is generally bolstered by comparisons to 20th century examples of racist cartooning and so deserves some scrutiny.

The French cartoonists’ depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were certainly caricatures, but did they rely on the exaggeration of ethnic features? Many commentators have pointed out the “hook nose” on Muhammad, but a cursory perusal of any Western political cartoonist’s work will reveal hook noses to be a motif encompassing everyone from Bob Hawke to Yes Minister’s Paul Eddington, whose own aquiline snout is nevertheless rendered as hawk-like as Bob’s, or as hook-like as Mo’s. Public figures generally accept this tendency towards the accipital, possibly because there are limited facial features to be exaggerated and limited ways in which to exaggerate. Our advice for drawing noses? Try a triangle or try an arabesque and hope it isn’t.

Certainly there is a warranted fear that something in the vein of the crude and anti-semitic cartoons drawn by Nazis, Romans and Muslims may be reproduced. But not all caricatures are deemed racist. The cover of the Charlie Hebdo edition in the week of the attacks depicted Michel Houellebecq in a repellant, bulbous-nosed, leer; it was fairly commensurate with the author’s actual leer, but few if any commentators have labelled it a crude gallic stereotype.*

Enough nasal-gazing. There is also the point that the French cartoonists may have actually produced an accurate depiction of what Muhammad really looked like, which we dub an “accurature”. Therefore, like the cartoons of Houellebecq, Hawke and Hacker, it could be an irreverent poke at the Prophet’s✝ dominant facial characteristics. Alas, we’ll never know what he looked like, because all attempts at depicting him have not survived, for reasons that must be obvious even to readers of this column. (The dearth of depictions and supplementary death of depictors✝ was plotted in an earlier article.)

There may also be problems for cartoonists using anthropomorphism. First Dog on the Moon generally depicts most humans as dogs, which seems either universally offensive or universally lighthearted, depending on taste. In fact it may depend on the target and the species: the hypothetical cartoonist First Pig on the Moon could do everyone as pigs until he got to police officers, in which case those pigs would have a cow. First Rat on the Moon could do everyone except Jews. Continuing the pattern, each satirical target seems to have one prohibited species and it seems Muhammad’s, unfortunately, is Homo sapiens; under this model it would be fine to experiment using other animals as guinea-pigs: cat-Muhammad, scotoplane-Muhammad or pubic lice-Muhammad, but First Human on the Moon would be hamstrung.

Perhaps progressives are trying to hold up an age old tradition whereby prophets can only be drawn as races they aren’t. Jesus is almost never drawn as a Middle-Eastern jew. A jolly fat Buddha is commonly east Asian. And Moses looks more like God Himself than the man himself. Ultimately, we find that it is difficult to depict Muhammad in a way that makes everyone happy. The Prophet’s proboscis is proscribed as profane by progressives and regressives alike. This leaves the rest of the population, whose lives aren’t overturned by an inked squiggle, wondering if it is the cartoonists or the extremists that are on the nose.