Charlie Hebdo: On irony, truth and forgiveness..

‘Irony is just honesty with the volume cranked up’ George Saunders

In contrast with its normal circulation of around 80,000, Charlie Hebdo had a print run this week of over five million copies. And they’re flying off the shelves into the hands of people who normally would never associate with, let alone actually read the magazine. That’s ironic.

Indeed the whole Hebdo story piles irony upon irony. The Muslim policeman shot by his ‘own kind’. The less than liberal world leaders showing their ‘solidarity’. The French politicians proclaiming the virtues of a magazine they privately despise. The anonymous West African in the supermarket becoming a popular ‘hero’ by virtue of his quick thinking and selflessness. And of course the simple fact that very few French Muslims will have bought the magazine anyway.

But nowhere is irony more evident than on the front cover of the magazine itself. This is irony writ large. And not just because it’s a satirical cartoon.

The word ‘irony’ comes from the Greek eironeia meaning ‘dissimulation’ — a form of deception in which the truth or parts of the truth are deliberately concealed. In common usage it involves communicating a situation that is different, often opposite, to the literal one, or a state of affairs or event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result. This explains the appeal of irony to the satirist whether they’re a stand-up comedian, writer, or political cartoonist.

But irony is a sophisticated form of humour, a subtle art. It takes a certain level of intelligence (in contrast with the literal/simple-minded reading of ‘sacred texts’ perhaps?) both to produce and interpret. The late US comedian Bill Hicks for example bemoaned the ‘dumb’ audiences in his home country who consistently took him literally, missing both the joke and the point.

Of course irony has been used down the ages as a cunning tool with which to engage the popular mind. But many commentators argue that it has become so prevalent in contemporary western culture that we are ‘saturated’ by it. Google ‘postmodern irony’ and you’ll see why.

Leaving aside the complex reasons for this which in any case would take us on a detour into some pretty ‘arcane’ French postmodern/poststructuralist theory, there are some ironic, indeed paradoxical, truths about irony which we need to establish before we take a close look at the Charlie Hebdo cover.

First, as noted, irony attempts to expose the truth by concealing it. Second, as any postmodern handbook will tell you, ‘truth’ in itself is a very ‘dodgy’ concept—we have Nietzsche to thank for nailing the issue: ‘All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.’ Third, assuming (despite Nietzsche) we take the concept of ‘universal truth’ on board, it seems there are often ‘deeper’ truths embedded in cultural forms that the producers themselves did not consciously intend. It’s this particular notion of ‘ironic truth’ that I want to pursue with the Charlie Hebdo cover. But first it will be helpful to note what it actually depicts—perform a basic ‘textual analysis’ in other words. [See also my other Medium piece: ‘Je Suis Charlie et Je Suis Musulman’: …]

We see a stereotypical middle-aged Muslim man (dark skin, black beard, large hooked nose) which we can assume from the context of recent events to be the prophet Muhammad. Interestingly though he is dressed in white and appears to be wearing glasses, suggesting a Muslim cleric at the same time (neatly pre-empting the ‘Islamaphobic’ backlash perhaps?). But he definitely looks sad—an observation backed up by the large tear falling from his face. He is looking straight at us and holding a simple message: ‘Je Suis Charlie’. Above him is the title: ‘All Is Forgiven.’ Finally the background is a wash of light green. Assuming this was intentionally symbolic rather than just eye-catching use of colour, we can read a subtle reinforcement of the ‘forgiveness’ message into this—pastures new etc. And this chimes with the pure white of the clothing—the binary opposite of black garbed/hearted terrorism.

So.. ‘All Is Forgiven’.. Of course it is. ‘Peace and Love’ has broken out across the world with liberal Westerners and radical Islamists hugging and kissing like true brothers and sisters, as John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ wafts its ‘post-religious’ blessing over them (some well meaning soul played it to the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ crowd in Paris: If only that were true..

Nope, there’s a long march to global unity ahead on a very rocky road, of that much we can be sure. I have no doubt that to many western eyes, the Muhammad depicted here (note the further irony of continued depiction) is less ‘sad’ than contrite—deeply sorry for causing all the suffering and ready to make amends. No Christian values, no message of reconciliation, just a clear understanding of who is at fault in this tragic drama on the world stage and a fixed expectation of what they need to do to make things right. There is then, only one meaning behind the double entendre of ‘Tout Est Pardonné’..

And yet perhaps this cultural contradiction forces a deeper truth to the surface. Academic analysts of terrorism rightly engage with the complexities of ‘real politik’ and ideology; the messy stuff that makes the moral maze theologians, humanitarians and liberals inhabit truly murky. But despite acknowledging elsewhere that the causes of terrorism are complex (colonialism, poverty, racism, hypocrisy, the list goes on) and that the West needs to look to itself as much as the Islamic world if it is to resolve the problem, I’m going to be bold enough here to suggest that the way out of this maze lies in contemplating the power of real (as opposed to ‘ironic’) forgiveness and an approach that combines ‘spirituality’ with politics.

It seems to me that the contemporary ‘terrorised’ world is in desperate need of courageous leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King who combined a gritty and grounded political approach with a high-minded vision of a better world based on tolerance, mutual understanding and reconciliation. That is what I mean by ‘spirituality’. Of course both paid the ultimate price for their idealism. But their legacy was undeniably powerful—changing hearts as well as minds and paving the way for real and widespread social, political and economic change. It’s easy, as with Nelson Mandela and South Africa, to be cynical about their achievements — ‘How much really changed?’—and to pick over their human shortcomings, but to my mind they ‘walked the walk’ as well as ‘talked the talk’, the real test of spiritual and political commitment.

Fortunately we need look no further than a young woman, born and raised a Sunni Muslim in Pakistan, for a shining example—Malala Yousafzai. Of course she carries the heavy burden of challenging the dogma of Islam and the ‘hope of humanity’ for a better world on very young shoulders. But there’s nothing ironic about her. She says what she means and means what she says.

And this from someone who nearly lost her life at the hands of Muslim terrorists.. For me she embodies the kind of dogged yet enlightened spirit that cuts through the crap of politics, religious fundamentalism and patriarchy (arguably the fundamental problem here). And she embodies the true meaning of forgiveness that lies behind the Charlie Hebdo cover— articulated beautifully by the poet Alexander Pope: ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine.’ More power to her.

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