Je suis Charlie, (insert your expletive here) Al Qaeda!

Patricio N. Abinales
Je suis Charlie, (insert your expletive here) Al Qaeda!
'However bloodied some of us may be, what makes us far superior beings to these supposed apostles of God are our pen, our witticism, and our democratic love for mischief'

Democracy, secularism, free-thinking, a market of ideas, open debate, and fierce defense of the right of others to express their analyses even if you disagree with them are the values and practices that help men and women progress. 

Religion turned into orthodoxy (or revised from above by men), irrationality becoming explanation, the use of coercion to silence doubters and defend these irrationalities when confronted by debate or caricature are the beliefs and practices that reverse human advancement.

The massacre perpetrated by Al Qaeda operatives killing 12 people, mostly the editorial staff of the satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo illustrates the second. It shows how many people, who have taken their belief of Islam to the extremes, are threatened not just by reasoned argument but humor. The journalists, our comrades-of-the-pen, were making fun of gods, religions, and their fanatics because this was one of their sacred rights as members of the Fourth Estate. However, they were also citizens of a Republic and as such they had all the right as any other member of a progressive order to say their piece, and to laugh especially at the laughable.

Al Qaeda did not like this and so they were mercilessly gunned down.

In killing these honorable people, there is no question that these zealots want to reverse progress and strike fear in the hearts of secularists. But they also realize that if they play the rationalist’s game  – putting their interpretation of Islam on the chopping block and defending it in the market of ideas – they will lose. Deep down, they know that the intellectual position of their rationalist “enemies” is puissant, especially when confronting unreason. They are quite aware that they will lose on the debating floor.

This makes cartoonists and comedians the easier targets for several reasons. They prefer portraits with fewer words and when they do use words, the emphasis is on curt wisecrack. Unlike debates, there is no elaboration here; cartoon and comedy leave it to observers to figure out both the message and the reasons for the sketch and the zinger.

But it is their simplicity that makes them far more profound threats than the university professor or the policy analyst arguing secularism’s superiority over superstition. It is precisely because they give the reader or the listener the chance to elaborate what a caricature or a gag is on their own, that enables the cartoonist and the comic to put their messages more effectively across.

Cartoon and comedy also cut a wide audience, especially in terms of economic class: the rich, poor, middle-class, all laugh at the jokes and the sketches. It is much more dicey to get majorities and minorities and rival religious to sit down and laugh, but going by the strongly positive reception to the documentary, “The Muslims are Coming” and the hilarious Holy Humor (a group of Muslim and Jewish comics committed to what Rabbi Bob Alper calls their funny attempts “to break stereotypes,” even the holier-than-thou can laugh.

Hence the subject in the classic opening line: “A man walks into a bar…,” is easily replaceable by “a woman,” “a Muslim,” “a Marxist,” and on and on and one, and everyone, from the atheist to the Christian, to the Jew, the Muslim and the Buddhist, in that bar, will double up in laughter. The same can be said at a cartoon editorial, where everyone – from the salary man about to go to work, the mother heading to the post office, and even the vagrant – all stop to smile at the irreverent sketch of the day.

Academics on a debating team or policy wonks explaining the pre-eminence of their ratiocinations tend to be vapid and wearisome. They can turn people off. But comedians and cartoonists are exactly the opposite. The hilarity and simplicity of their messages and techniques beget not only complex thought, but also variegated reflections among those who read or listen to them, respectively. They also make their audience laugh. This is what zealots fear the most; the thought and the inevitable possibility that thousands, nay millions of people, will laugh at the dopiness of their dogmatism.

For zealots do not have humor. They have guns and knives, torture chambers and kangaroo courts. These are instruments that they deeply rely on to defend their demented minds and often they are very good at it (just consider, for example, the eerie similarity of torture techniques used by the monks of the Inquisition, KGB interrogators, the political officers of the CPP, and our very own Jovito Palparan). And so they take out our lives or threaten us to stop us from talking, arguing, laughing, and loving.

However bloodied some of us may be, what makes us far superior beings to these supposed apostles of God are our pen, our witticism, and our democratic love for mischief. Fused together in the service of secularism and rationality, these instruments will enable us to prevail in the end.

And this was why the editorial staff and sketch artists of Charlie Hebdo had to die. –


Patricio Abinales likes laughter as part of political and social life.


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