Scholars of various disciplines came together Thursday night for “Charlie Hebdo & January 7: A Mini-Symposium & Conversation” at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, to discuss how a terrorist attack in Paris has drawn satire and violence together.
Terrorists stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7 in an act of jihadism, allegedly triggered by the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. During the attack, two gunmen killed 12 people, including five cartoonists, but have left behind countless questions.
The Ohio State event aimed to identify some of those questions and discover new ones, as well as explore the contextual and historical factors relating to satire, free speech and concepts of identity in France.
The symposium, sponsored by the library and museum and OSU Popular Culture Studies program, was composed of three parts: a lecture by Mark McKinney, professor of French at Miami University, a discussion panel and a Q-and-A session with the audience.
Jared Gardner, director of the Popular Culture Studies program and a professor in the Department of English, coordinated and moderated the event.
“The first question, as comic scholars, that we were interested in thinking about was, ‘What is it about comic images — cartoon images, in particular — that spark such violence?’” he said.
Gardner said the opportunity to have slower-paced, complex conversations about these issues was ideal for a university setting and that he hoped conversations can continue after the evening’s discussion.
“Part of our interest as educators is not to have all the answers, but to think through the different questions and the different history and context that all of us might need to work through our own thoughts about these issues.”
In his opening lecture, “Race, Religion and Charlie Hebdo,” McKinney related the issues of race and religion with the satire of Charlie Hebdo while exploring the history of the newsweekly and of France.
McKinney said that from 1992 to 2011, a relatively large amount of caricatures of right-wing politicians in France were lampooned compared with religious figures, and of those, the majority were Catholic priests and depictions of Jesus.
“The main focus of Charlie Hebdo, over the years, has generally not been religious issues, but instead a vast array of other political and social topics,” he said. “It really is a news magazine.”
He said he thinks the cartoonists believed “they are not responsible for violent reactions to their exercise of their democratic right to freedom of speech.”
The newsweekly also satirized far-right politicians and the National Front, a conservative nationalist party in France, McKinney said, citing examples of Charlie Hebdo mocking figures who were perceived to hold racist and anti-immigration views.
McKinney ended his lecture with a quote from Jean Cabut, a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist killed on Jan. 7, whose final collection of cartoons was entitled: “Peut-on encore rire de tout?” (Can one still laugh about everything?)
The panel discussion included Danielle Marx-Scouras, a professor in the Department of French and Italian, Erik Nisbet, an associate professor in the School of Communication, Youssef Yacoubi, an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and Caitlin McGurk, associate curator of the cartoon library.
Gardner offered several of the magazine’s covers as examples of Charlie Hebdo’s conceptualization of the magazine’s relationship with offended Muslims and satire’s potential to incite violence.
One cover, from Sept. 26, 2012, depicts a caveman about to add oil to fire, with the headline “L’invention de humour” (The invention of humor). Gardner pointed out that this gag would hold the potential to make others laugh, but likely leave the creator himself out of the joke.
“Certainly, we’re aware of their own work as having the potential to blow things up, including themselves,” he said.
Another magazine cover showed a cartoonist and a Muslim man kissing in an embrace, with the headline “L’amour plus fort que la haine” (Love is stronger than hate). It was published Nov. 9, 2011, one week after the magazine’s offices were fire-bombed.
“This cartoon makes me wonder if the cartoonists themselves were aware of more of a mutual relationship, a love-hate relationship,” Gardner said.
During the Q-and-A session, Yezen Abusharkh, a Muslim-American artist and fine art graduate from Columbus College of Art and Design, asked, “Intellectually, does Charlie Hebdo need to be defended, here, in the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum?”
McKinney leaned forward in his seat and softly replied, “Yes.” He said he agreed with Gardner, who said fellow scholars had been quick to criticize Charlie Hebdo after the attacks.
After the symposium, Abusharkh said he didn’t agree with McKinney, adding that he felt free speech in the West was not legitimately threatened by self-censorship.
“We don’t really need to tell each other not to censor, particularly in response to violent acts of militant extremism,” he said. “What we do need is to have a sense of humility and be introspective, particularly as a superpower. I think we are capable of causing more damage within the world than we are likely to receive.”
Eric Tharnish, an Iraq war veteran and fourth-year in English, said he understood how some Muslims could feel slighted by Charlie Hebdo, adding that if art has the potential to cause violence, then conversations about the issues and context of art are warranted.
He said that after listening to the discussion, he feels the impact of art should be as big a concern as the motives behind creating it.
“I feel this dialogue shows us a way to start thinking about things like identity, representation, equality,” Tharnish said. “This is all stuff that I’ve been thinking about, but I came here because I had to listen. I really needed to get out of my own mind.”