“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” says Malvolio, Shakespeare’s much-despised steward, as the curtain draws near in Twelfth Night. Rejected by Olivia, object of her manservant’s desires, Malvolio is declared insane and publicly ridiculed; all the while Shakespeare draws the audience in. The play is dedicated to merriment and the Feast of Epiphany on 7th January, 12 days after Christmas. We laugh at several plots, the most of obvious of which humiliates Malvolio and attacks his Puritan faith.
Puritanism was the cause of much strife for Shakespeare’s England. Puritan zeal also meant the closure of theatres. Malvolio’s kin were not Shakespeare’s friends – far from it; but treading the boards was the second step for the playwright, not the first. Before he could entice his audience on the 2nd February 1602, he needed to satisfy The Master of the Revels, the official censor*. This was the true test. Both men understood the power of speech.
What an epiphany 2015 proved to be. As soon as the Feast concluded on the 8th of January, the World learnt of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris and its suburbs to include the Jewish supermarket of Porte de Vincennes. Days on we are still asking ourselves whether we truly understand the power of speech. Today (8 February 2015) the (British) Muslim Action Forum organised a mass demonstration to protest outside Downing Street. Placards read, “Stand up for the Prophet” and “Be careful with Muhammad”.
The initial debate focused on the unbridled right to lampoon with the publication of stereotypes and caricatures protected under French Law and, it was argued, a universal law adopted by the UN General Assembly: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’
At the other pole were members of the Muslim community, within France and beyond, who voiced their anger at cartoons deemed to be offensive if not blasphemous. Rage was not limited to jihadis and mad mullahs who had sanctioned the murders. Conversely, some of the most vocal individuals who were ordinarily quick to shout takfir, (“infidel”) and quell dissent – the likes of Hassan Nasrallah or Iran’s Ahmad Khatami, for example – sought political capital and condemned the violence.
Comment also turned to the nature of French society with its proclamation of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” and its recent history of integration in poor deprived banlieus and social housing projects.
A commemorative edition of the magazine was published on January 14th. It featured an image of the Prophet Muhammad weeping with a sign, “Je suis Charlie”. Thereafter a different debate was heard: the prohibition, perceived or otherwise, against human representation within Islam. Though this was cited as a discrete matter, it clearly was not. The magazine had published images of the Prophet before.
Along the way we were reminded of the Rushdie Affair, the fatwa of 1989 and the Danish Cartoons controversy of 2005. Few commentators reviewed the Jewish reaction to Gerald Scarfe’s 2013 Sunday Times cartoon. It depicted Netanyahu building the segregation barrier out of blood and Palestinian corpses. The caption read, “Cementing the Peace Process”. The timing was more than unfortunate. The cartoon appeared on Holocaust Remembrance Day and also coincided with comments by David Ward, MP for Bradford East. Those remarks led to party censure and petition by the Holocaust Education Trust. On this occasion, Cicero’s adage, “indignation is different from malice” held sway, at least for Scarfe. He apologized for the offence caused by the timeliness of his cartoons and offered critical explanation. The focus of his art was satirical: it was directed at Netanyahu and Israeli policy vis a vis the Occupation. It did not apply to Jews throughout the world.
This was not the case in France. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons did not depict Zarqawi or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or any of the media-friendly opponents of Western culture. The final “tweet” by Hebdo of al-Baghdadi, which the Iranian publication Al Allam conveniently maintained was the motive for an IS-inspired killing, was distributed well after the Kouachi brothers conceived their murderous plans. Quite simply, the cartoons depicted the most revered figure in Islam. The magazine sought to offend those who dignified Muhammad.
Many years ago the late Edward Said pledged that the pen demands conceit. The very act of authoring, we were told, was associated with authorizing and authority. Though his conclusion were focused on the empowered and elite, it was no less applicable to the avant garde cartoonists who sought to subvert the establishment (or faithful) and champion their own cause. The reverberations are still to be felt. Tragically, for those left-wing satirists at Charlie Hebdo, their legacy may now reside with significant gains for the Far Right as France moves from solidarity towards polarization and rekindles hatred.
The written word distorts recent memory. Wikipedia, that most accessible of media with a policy of editorship for all, a theme developed in Nathaniel Tkacz’s new book, “Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness”, makes no comment on the French supermarket tragedy at Porte de Vincennes except for a link (2015 Île-de-France attacks § Attacks) to a separate web page (as at 9 February 2015). In so doing, the 25 page article, “Charlie Hebdo Shooting”, decontextualizes the anti-Semitic murders. It breaks a chain of causality which sees Jews as the targets of haters. The censor, in its insidious guise, still holds sway.
Malvolio vowed vengeance. Only Olivia, Shakespeare’ protagonist, dared to utter the strong words, “he hath been most notoriously abused”. Shakespeare understood his enemies. He knew the evil of censorship and he also knew when to stop laughing. The question is, do others?
* See: The Clerkenwell Priory (paragraph 2) in A brief history of the Order of St. John at http://www.museumstjohn.org.uk/history/index.html
About the author: Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. He writes on cultural heritage and its demise and maintains a blog at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/adam-blitz/ He is a member of PEN International. On Twitter @blitz_adam email@example.com
The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone. Any errors or omissions are similarly those of the author. Adam.firstname.lastname@example.org @blitz_adam on Twitter