"Jesting destroys dignity, removes honour [yudhhibu bi-mā' al-wajh], breeds hatred, spoils the sweetness of belief and love [yudhhibu bi-halāwat al-īmān wa-l-wudd], tarnishes the learning of a religious expert [faqīh], emboldens the ignorant, deadens the heart, alienates from God, and spawns silliness and humiliation." --Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ibshīhī (d. 850/1446-47).
"[Ibn Sa'dān] once said: come let us make this night of ours one of mujūn [libertinism, obscenity] and indulge in much jest [na'khudhu min al-hazli binasibin wāfir] for seriousness has tired us, beaten our energies with sadness. Give us what you have." --Al-Tawhīdī (c. 318-414/930-1023)
In response to the recent attempt by some members of PEN to betray persecuted editorialists throughout the world by refusing to honor the survivors of a right-wing death squad's attack on a group of caricature artists in Paris a few months ago, Harper's has taken my April essay out from behind its paywall. Many have been writing on the Internet about their exasperation with all the 'think pieces' on this topic. When will we have finally had enough? they wonder. My answer is that there will be no more need for 'think pieces' when there will be sufficiently serious thinking about this question. What the PEN protesters have given us is a refusal-to-think piece: Twitter-worthy, infantile, presentist American identitarianism that both denies commonalities of experience and history when they are present (as between Europe and the Arab world), and presumes such commonalities when they are in fact absent (as between Anglo-American and French traditions of humor and satire), all on the basis of the ungrounded extension of the currently preferred American analytic lens of 'whiteness' and 'non-whiteness'. This lens certainly reveals quite a bit about American history and its enduring legacies, but very little about the broader history of the Mediterranean and its peoples, against the background of which the recent Charlie Hebdo incident is best understood.
I have been defending Charlie Hebdo, not only on the basis of a commitment to freedom of expression, but also out of an appreciation for what is expressed. Obviously I can't command others to agree with me here, to have a taste for something they simply don't like. I also can't command you to like Lolita, for example. But if all of a sudden I find myself surrounded by people saying that they refuse to approve of, or even to take a look at, a book that condones child rape, I'll be right to judge that this isn't really a question of aesthetic taste or critical judgment in literature; it's a question of political forces, at work perhaps beyond the awareness of the individual reader, that are determining what is to legitimately count as a work of literature.
Honestly, people who have signed the PEN letter are openly admitting that they have never even looked at Charlie Hebdo, and even that they would not be in a position to understand the French if they were to look it. I can accept that your overall judgment of it might, after thorough consideration, be negative (just like you might not like Lolita, Gargantua, Monty Python...), but that is just patently not what is happening here. As I've written elsewhere, it seems to me that Charlie Hebdo has been Justine Sacco'd in the Anglosphere: summarily judged, and then subject to a campaign of ruthless denunciation. Except that Charlie Hebdo is not a Tweet, but a decades-long collaborative endeavor, and those of us in the part of the world that is still capable of interpreting texts and images in a nuanced way are left scratching our heads when we see the unreflective, summary judgment passed on such a complicated body of work --often misfiring, but often unquestionably courageous and unquestionably funny-- as if it were some dumb Tweet or other source of ephemeral online outrage.
I have also maintained elsewhere that the judgment of taste that we so often hear, invoking Charlie Hebdo's vulgarity or childishness, is a sure indication of what is really going on: it is classic Anglo-American arrogant prudishness, mistaking itself for solidarity with the oppressed.The idée fixe among Anglophone would-be progressives has been that Charlie Hebdo is 'crude', 'childish', 'vulgar', or, as Eliot Weinberger curiously put it in the LRB, that it specializes in 'frat-boy humor'. As if France had 'frat boys', and as if jokes about the body and its orifices and noises, and about the delirious variety of human grotesquerie, weren't also the humor of Cervantes and Rabelais. I did not want to get dragged back into the mêlée this time around, but I'm reading Don Quixote right now in Edith Grossman's lovely new translation, and I'm struck by just how much this particular sensibility matters to me, and how much it's worth fighting for in a world that doesn't get it and is afraid of it.
In the Harper's piece what I was trying to do was to insist on a revision of the facile view that what Charlie Hebdo represented was something distinctly and exclusively 'Western', 'Enlightenment-based', etc. Hence my attempt, space permitting, at a sort of genealogy of the joke and of the sources of bawdy literature --of which I see Charlie Hebdo as a descendant-- in pan-Mediterranean oral folklore. I detect here a possibility for going back around all the apparent dichotomies that both French laïcité defenders such as Alain Finkielkraut as well as the American left thinkers who have taken such a firm stance on Charlie Hebdo have helped to perpetuate, and finding a shared history and a common reality.
To put this a bit differently, Rabelais is closer to an anonymous medieval Arab raconteur than he is to, say, Peter Carey. You can classify Charlie Hebdo as a product of the wit-shrouded racism and imperialism of the Enlightenment, assimilating it to Voltaire and so on, but there is an alternative genealogy, which I have been trying to draw out, which connects the modern European satirical tradition to something much larger than Europe, and to something much older than modernity. It is my opponents, and not me, who are perpetuating the ideology of European exceptionalism by acting as though satire has no roots, and can have no purchase, outside of Europe.*
The reason for bringing up Kant and Descartes was not to cow opponents by argument ad auctoritatem, but rather to show that it is not in some supposed superiority of European rationality, as expressed in the European philosophical tradition, that we're going to find an answer to why Europeans supposedly 'get the joke' and why non-Europeans supposedly do not. European philosophy is embarrassed by humor, distances itself from it, and when Kant tries clumsily to engage with it, he shows how unprepared the philosophical tradition is to do so in a rigorous way. So my point was to say that the invocation of 'I think therefore I am' at the Paris rallies after the attacks was misplaced; and that if we want to make sense of Charlie Hebdo's humor, we have to look to a very different domain of culture than philosophy, the one that, again, reaches back genealogically to Rabelais et al. and from there across the Mediterranean to a part of the world Europeans wrongly imagine as the total opposite and negation of their historical experience. But I had to talk about philosophy in order to show why it wasn't delivering the tools to get us out of this apparent impasse.
I am not a big fan of most laïcité rhetoric, and I am sensitive to how it is used for purposes of exclusion. (I am also not listening to what Salman Rushdie is saying on this topic.) This is why I've tried to be consistent about coupling my position on Charlie Hebdo with an equally insistent position on, e.g., the rights and dignity of regular and non-regular ('illegal') migrants to France. I see my position as the one that, more than that of those with whom I disagree, is most insistent that Islam must not be perceived as a monolith, that in fact there is no such thing as the Muslim community, but rather numerous disagreeing factions, by no means all of which agree with the attackers that there is something unacceptably offensive about the content of Charlie Hebdo. Anyhow I do find that the more I defend my own view, the more I detect a certain sclerosis in it, and I'm scared of that too, which is why I've been trying to move on to other things, to come back to this later and see if my view has changed. For now, it hasn't.
*If you would like an introduction to some Arabic texts that make Charlie Hebdo's 'frat boy' humor look like pious scriptural commentary, I recommend starting with Zoltan Szombathy's Mujun: Libertinism in Medieval Muslim Society and Literature (2013).
For more on the transmission of literary styles and genres, including 'vulgar' ones, see J. A. Abu Haidar, Hispano-Arabic Literature and the Early Provençal Lyric (2001).
Finally, I've learned a great deal from all the articles in The Rude, The Bad, And The Bawdy: Essays in Honour of Geert Jan Van Gelder. Edited By Adam Talib, Marlé Hammond, and Arie Schippers. Cambridge: Gibb Memorial Trust (2014). Of particular note in this rich volume is Denis McAuley's "Two Fart Jokes in Ibn 'Arabī's Muhādarat Al-Abrār" (198-207).