Charlie Hebdo and the Return of the Postcolonial

The Charlie Hebdo affair has proved productive in terms of reintroducing the world to ideas and analyses derived from the field of postcolonial studies, itself based on an interdisciplinary methodology combining sociology, history and literary and cultural studies, which had its heyday in academia in the 1980s and 90s, led by a vanguard of intellectuals in the US such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, whose own work and thinking were deeply influenced by French postmodernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. I wonder what Derrida and Foucault would have to say if they were alive today; would they be waving “Je suis Charlie” flags?

Postcolonialism, as a theoretical enterprise, has always worked on the margins of hegemonic or dominant discourse, injecting ideology critique into academic disciplines like literature, for eg, which till the arrival of postcolonial studies on the scene, had insisted that the scholarly study of texts had nothing to do with ideology of any sort—critics were meant to engage in close textual readings looking for symbols and metaphors and similes in a closed, self-referential system of language. The problems and conflicts of the “real” world were to be “resolved” in a textual game of figuring out metonyms and metaphors, which, when understood, would unite polarities and oppositions, and would lead readers to appreciate that “beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all you know, and all that you need to know” as John Keats famously proclaimed in his poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair, we are thrust into the world of postcolonial claims that belie the Keatsian dictum—or at least, complicate it. Thus, at the very least—we are forced to ask, whose truth is beautiful? Whose definition of the beautiful (viz. satire in this context)—gets to represent “the truth”? Surely, value judgements are being made—and this value system which is always specific and local to its political and cultural context though it masquerades as universal and absolute (freedom of speech!), is what ideology critique exposes, as it unmasks the contradictions that systems of power seek to conceal through what another French marxist thinker, Louis Althusser called Ideological State Apparatuses. Newspapers, magazines, books and other media, places of worship, educational institutions etc are all part of the ISAs through which state power consolidates itself to produce a docile citizenry, or what the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci called, consent of the governed: where state repression ends, ideological hegemony begins.

However, as we all know, the work of ideology is never finished—it must constantly reproduce itself to ensure compliance; and ofcourse, compliance is never guaranteed—because power can be questioned, subjects of power can be radicalized and speak their truth to power; as Foucault reminded us, power is never unidirectional, victims can have agency . Thus, while those waving Je Suis Charlie banners and placards could be read in this interpretive scheme as those who allowed themselves to be interpellated by the French (read western/liberal/secular) hegemonic discourse, the killers were counter-interpellating the ideological state apparatus represented by Charlie Hebdo (an ironic turnaround for a magazine that started out occupying a counter-hegemonic space in France).

Many have written about the economic marginality of the Koauchi brothers as representative of the majority of the Muslim citizens of France of Algerian descent, and as such, a major contributing factor to their radicalization in the face of their continued precarity of life. Such disenfranchisement under neoliberal regimes of power, coupled with western wars on Muslim lands in the present and the not so distant past (especially as far as France’s occupation of Algeria is concerned) have been cited as obvious causes leading to events such as the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists. (See Tariq Ali’s interview by Pranay Sharma, published in Tikkun).

I would like to add a third component to this narrative: that of the psychic alienation which uprootedness from one’s cultural background produces (though leading to different results and possibilities, as I will argue a bit later). Religion is only one facet of this cultural baggage we all carry. Indeed, as the Sudanese writer Tayyib Salih’s eerily prescient novel Season of Migration to the North lays out for us as early as 1966 when it was first published in Arabic, in the aftermath of British colonialism’s cultural imperialism in the Sudan, even gifted and brilliant young men who have no affinity to their Muslimness, like the secular protagonist Mustafa Saeed, can become murderers of their oppressors; even when those oppressors become supposed benefactors, welcoming the likes of Mustafa into their countries, their educational institutions, their homes and lives. Why? That’s a difficult question to answer, especially to my students, who can only deal with Mustafa if they see him as pathologically disturbed, a crazy man, rather than as an avenger of British colonial rule inflicted on his country by “conquering” British women through elaborate sexual games he plays with them, turning them mad and suicidal over time. The only woman who sees through and resists his counter-orientalist , counter-interpellative but deeply misogynistic moves, Jean Morris, he marries; and when he still can’t “conquer” her—he kills her. At his trial, he is exonerated thanks to his defense lawyer, a former professor of his at Oxford—who argues that M Saeed was undone by his own brilliance, which these English women he bedded simply couldn’t comprehend, given their embeddedness in colonialist ideology. According to his British lawyer, M Saeed has become Othello, the Moor, who can never be accepted by the West, and this, then, causes a mental and psychic breakdown which leads to the awful denouement of the murder of Jean Morris, a modern day Desdemona. At the last scene of this farcical trial, at the end of which M Saeed is released and returns to Sudan, he wants to yell out to the courtroom that he is no Othello, that Othello is a Lie, a figment of the West’s imagination. It is this Lie, that has haunted his entire existence upto this point, that M Saeed has wished to kill; with his exoneration, which he pleads against, the Lie unfortunately lives on.

What is this Lie, and how does it bring this 20th century novel and its protagonist into conversation with the Charlie Hebdo affair of the 21st century moment we are living in today? Could it be the Lie of Western Civilization, about which when asked, Gandhi once famously quipped, “it would be a good idea”? Could it be the Lie the West needs to tell itself of how its actions are solely responsible for the jealous and murderous behavior of a transplanted subject of Empire like Othello? On the one hand, it might be argued that this novel simply fuels anti-Muslim prejudices, extending the sphere of Muslim killers to all Muslims, even those who are not jihadists, and maybe not even real believers, like M. Saeed. By extension, anyone—whether a liberal westerner or a sympathetic fellow-Muslim—who brings colonial legacies as an explicating factor into the discussion at hand, becomes suspect, an “apologist” for the vilest extremism, Islamist or otherwise. The Lie, then, that Mustafa himself wants to see killed, and thus be liberated from, could be the lie of Blaming the West, the Lie that blames colonialism for all of the ills that Muslim nations (and Muslim immigrants to Europe today) face. But if Othello is a creation of the West, and M Saeed is the West’s object of pity because he has been “misjudged” and “victimized” like Othello by his colonial masters (and mistresses)—then the Lie is also one that the West has created, that of the “poor oppressed Muslim subject” who must be “saved” through exposure to the superior (and forgiving) civilization of the West.

Saeed, the Koauchi brothers and the rest of us sorry heroes and villains in this continuing saga of colonial history redux—are caught, therefore, in a trap. It’s a trap in which the only heuristic model is that of the West and the Rest (re: Rest =Muslims). And the Rest can be either saved or not, understood or not, accommodated or not, only by the West (or North), which continues to be the point of reference for everything, good, bad or ugly, in our world.

In such a view of the world, the subaltern truly cannot speak, because the discursive parameters within which subjectivities are shaped and understood are always already in place. It matters not whether the subaltern is poor, ill-educated, living in precarious conditions in the banlieue of Paris, like the Koauchi brothers, or an elite-educated Professor of Economics at Oxford University in England, like the protagonist of Salih’s novel. The faulty vision of these subaltern s who have themselves bought into their own “otherness” as defined by the dominant discourse—the fact that they can see only with one eye/ see only in terms of black and white, us and them, West and Islam, male/female, victim/oppressor—is matched by the equally exaggerated binaristic visions and discourse of those on the western/northern side—be they the liberal left variety (who can only see these “others” as poor, victimized Muslims to be “saved”) or the right wingers like Marine le Pen (for whom the Muslim “others” in their midst are nothing more than savages to be obliterated).

As the nameless narrator of the novel (himself dealing with psychic alienation as an England-returned Sudanese with a Phd in English Lit, and mocked for this by M Saeed who has become a leader in his own native village)—soliloquizes at one point, “where lies the middle?” In the end, M Saeed does come to realize the futility of his actions that are a result of his own capitulation to extremist modes of thinking and behavior. But it is the wishy-washy narrator, who has become obsessed with M. Saeed’s symbolic acts of vengeance against the big bad West, and who casts him as a man of action, seeing himself by contrast as weak because he is unable to pick sides —who actually comes of age in the novel, and as such, points to a different resolution of psychic alienation. Finding himself drowning in a river that connects south to north, he decides to swim with, rather than fight against the current, and to swim to the shore, wherever that might land him, whether South or North. By doing so, he makes a choice to fight for life, rather than death. By choosing life, he takes responsibility at long last for his own actions—rather than basking in the destructive glory of the phantasm that Saeed symbolizes. He rejects a one-eyed view of the world that can only result in binaristic simplifications and embraces instead a jouissance that moves away from a singular as well as a dualistic vision into a world of multiple visions, allowing for the possibility of several points to land safely, to connect with others, to breathe, to live. Perhaps this is a welcoming vision only a borderless world, where South and North can no longer be distinguished, can promise.

Thus, I agree with Gary Younge when he writes in The Guardian, that the Kouachi brothers and their accomplice “are personally responsible for what they did.” I also agree with him that in the West (North), “we, as a society, are collectively responsible for the conditions that produced them. And if we want others to turn out differently – less hateful, more hopeful – we will have to keep more than one idea in our heads at the same time.” I would, however, add that everyone, regardless of his or her positionality, needs to keep more than one idea in their heads, so that no one ends up like M Saeed and his contemporary ilk—quite literally lost–because hate was met with hate, injustice with yet more violence. On the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, surely there are “other” lessons we’ve all learned as humans. Let us embrace the art of collective survival, and all the different types of border crossings that it demands of us, just as the narrator of Season of Migration to the North finally does. Will the North show itself capable of absorbing the narrator, and of following his lead to swim with the currents of history, rather than against the tide? Surely, another world is possible!

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a University Distinguished Scholar, Professor of English and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Montclair State University, NJ. She writes frequently for Counterpunch, and has published several books on Postcolonial Studies, Pakistani Theatre and Muslim Women. She is Founding Chair of the South Asian Feminist Caucus of the National Women’s Studies Association, Contributing Editor at The Drama Review (TDR), and a member of the Editorial Board of Arab Stages.









Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at: